Roadside attractions mostly appeared in the U.S. with the rise of the automobile. Think of the massive Paul Bunyans in the Midwest, or all the oversize foodstuffs along highways throughout the country — most of which are designed to get people to pull their cars over for a closer look.
But the oldest surviving roadside attraction dates all the way back to the era of the horse and buggy. Her name is Lucy the Elephant.
At six stories tall, Lucy is hard to miss. The gray pachyderm towers over the main drag in Margate City, N.J., a sleepy beach town south of Atlantic City. Lucy has welcomed generations of visitors since she was dreamed up by a real estate speculator in 1881 to get people to stop by his otherwise empty section of beachfront property.
Richard Helfant grew up in Margate in the 1960s, when his favorite restaurant stood in the shadows of the decaying elephant.
“There was this hot dog stand called Lenny’s, and it was right here on the corner and that was open 24 hours a day,” Helfant says. “They had the best, the best hot dogs on the planet.”
Helfant and his friends would ride their bikes to the hot dog place at 2 or 3 a.m., buy hot dogs, break inside the elephant’s stomach and eat them.
In those days, Lucy was in such bad shape that she had been condemned to demolition, before being narrowly saved by a local citizens committee. Today, a reformed Helfant has his own key. He’s the executive director of the team that maintains the elephant, which has been restored and reopened with help from residents.
Lucy predates a lot of the roadside giants that went up as growing numbers of cars hit the road in the 1920s and ’30s, according to Brian Butko of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
“Early on, probably the most common were cafes that were trying to let people know exactly what they offered, and they were built in the shape of a coffeepot or a teapot,” Butko says.
More went up after World War II, with the most impressive collection to be found in California. Butko says that’s because of California’s combination of sunny weather, Hollywood fantasies and the state’s car culture.
But Lucy has outlasted many of her descendants.
In the ’50s and ’60s, interstate highways literally bypassed many of the roadside attractions on the older roadways. A great number have fallen to development. Indeed, even Lucy was affected: She was moved two blocks away from her original spot to make way for condominiums.
Paradoxically, Butko thinks that the disappearance of many roadside attractions has rekindled interest in those that remain. Websites and apps nowadays, like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura, allow people to learn about and plan visits to roadside oddities.
Lucy the Elephant gets about 130,000 visitors a year. In addition to the price of admission, Richard Helfant raises money with the gift shop, which sells stuffed elephants, elephant jewelry and more. At one point, they even sold Lucy themed underwear — called Lucy’s Trunks.
The funds are important, because a tin elephant near the ocean requires constant, expensive maintenance. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance, the water flooded her toes.
But Lucy’s outlook is good. This landmark at least has supporters now who will fight for her survival.