By Chuck Woodbury
A half century ago, before Interstates, businesses along the two-lane highways typically relied on a visual gimmick to attract customers. A sign with a logo wouldn’t do because most of the businesses were mom-and-pop types whose owners had likely never heard the word “logo.”
And so, a steakhouse would put a large steer on its roof or out front. Drive-in eateries would erect a giant root beer mug. A lot of gas stations sported a permanently crashed surplus World War II fighter plane on their roofs.
I came across the old postcard above of the Big Tree Inn last week. It got me thinking about the roadsides of my youth and how much more interesting they were than today’s, where a half-dozen well-known gas stations, motels and fast food logos are displayed on a sign a mile before an exit. How boring.
The Big Tree Inn was in Des Moines, Wash., just south of Seattle along U.S. 99, which was the major north-south highway before I-5. It was made out of a 2,500-year-old Coastal Redwood, cut into two pieces. It was originally created as the Humboldt County exhibit at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. What a shame so many old-growth redwoods were toppled for their novelty value. After the fair, it was purchased by a realtor and hauled to Des Moines, where it became famous for both its unique structure as well as its chicken dinners. It survived a fire in the 1940s, but the business eventually closed. Nobody knows where the tree went after that.
IF YOU DRIVE U.S. 101 through the redwoods of northern California you can hardly miss seeing the World Famous Tree House, housed in a still-living coastal redwood tree. Until recently, it was a walk-in tourist shop. It’s closed now. And nearby, just north of Garberville, is the One Log House — a section of a giant redwood hollowed out to become a home. It’s on wheels, so I guess technically it’s a travel trailer. I toured it once and did a video, which you see if you click here. I think it costs a dollar or two to tour. I personally believe it is worth it if you are into exploring carved out trees.
You will still find some of the old roadside attractions on the now-bypassed national highways. But they are few and far between. I, for one, miss them. A good place to learn about the surviving roadside attractions is at RoadsideAmerica.com.
When my daughter and I crossed the country a few years ago we spotted a fake, king-sized steer. I can’t remember what it was advertising, but I suspect its origin was associated with a burger joint or steakhouse. I made Emily pose by the fake creature (see above). She objected at first, but finally gave in because she knows it’s a dad’s job to at times embarrass his children, just as it’s a kid’s job to occasionally embarrass their moms and dads.