The landscape blurs as you drive Interstate 80 straight through Nebraska. Then suddenly you do a double take. Right in front of you is an old-timey Western trading post, sitting in the shadow of a 30-foot-tall cutout of Buffalo Bill.
It just wouldn’t be a great American road trip without kitschy roadside attractions like the Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte. Some of the earliest got their start in the 1920s, when the birth of the U.S. highway system set off a building boom. Drivers had to stop to refuel or rest, after all, and enterprising businessmen were eager to dream up attractions that would meet their needs and liven up life on the road.
Sometimes the winning concept started small. Wall Drug, now a world-famous attraction in rural South Dakota, was on the verge of closing in 1936 when founder Ted Hustead’s wife suggested advertising free ice water. At the time, every drugstore gave away ice water, but adding a sign was enough to attract droves of customers. Wall Drug eventually added thousands more signs and a giant animatronic T. rex, expanding from a pharmacy into a mall and theme park.
“A big part of roadside attractions is making the biggest whatever. People take this really seriously,” says Mark Sedenquist, who founded RoadTrip America with his wife, Megan Edwards. After they lost their home in a 1993 wildfire, they embarked on an epic drive that lasted more than six years and inspired their chronicles of roadside attractions.
These days, it’s never been easier to locate kitschy roadside attractions, thanks to GPS devices and dedicated websites. Even if you know what’s coming, it can’t ruin the cheap thrill and nostalgic appeal of braking at a corn palace.
And there’s always a souvenir to take home. Doug Kirby remembers being so fascinated by the petrified wood he got at Wall Drug as a boy that he lugged it around for his entire vacation. As an adult, he founded the website Roadside America, which covers more than 9,000 oddball attractions.
“Some people visit these places to make fun of them,” admits Kirby, “but you know you like them deep down.” —Jessica Su