|The following is reprinted from The Best of The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. Some people call them roadside attractions; we call them tourist traps. Either way, it's an amazing phenomenon: There's nothing much to see there, nothing much to do there. Yet tourists go by the millions ...
WALL DRUG, Wall, South Dakota
Build It ... One summer day in 1936, Dorothy and Ted Hustead had a brilliant idea: they put signs up along U.S. 16 advertising their struggling mom-and-pop drugstore. As an afterthought, they included an offer for free ice water. Wall Drug was situated 10 miles from the entrance to the South Dakota badlands, and on sweltering summer days before air conditioning, the suggestion of free ice water made rickety old Wall Drug seem like an oasis. When Ted got back from putting up the first sign, half a dozen cars were already parked in front of his store. They'll Come: The Husteads knew they were on to something. Ted built an empire of billboards all over the United States, planting signs farther and farther away from his drugstore. There's now a sign in Amsterdam's train station (only 5,397 miles to Wall Drug); there's one at the Taj Mahal (10,728 miles to Wall Drug); and there's even one in Antarctica (only 10,645 miles to Wall Drug). Today, Wall Drug is an enormous 50,000-square-foot tourist mecca with a 520-seat restaurant and countless specialty and souvenir shops; if it's hokey, odds are that Wall Drug sells it. They also have a collection of robots, including a singing gorilla and a mechanical Cowboy Orchestra. Wall Drug spends over $300,000 on billboards, but every cent of it pays off. The store lures in 20,000 visitors a day in the summer and grosses more than $11 million each year. And they still gave away free ice water - 5,000 glasses a day.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER, Dillon, South Carolina
Photo: Trenchfoot [Flickr] Build It ... Driving south on I-95 near the South Carolina border, one object stands out from the landscape: a 200-foot-tall tower with a giant sombrero on top. The colossal hat is Sombrero Tower, centerpiece of the huge South of the Border tourist complex. SOB, as the locals call it, began as a beer stand operated by a man named Alan Schafer. When Schafer noticed that his building supplies were being delivered to "Schafer Project: South of the [North Carolina] Border," a lightbulb lit over his head and he decided his stand needed a Mexican theme. They'll Come: Today, SOB sprawls over 135 acres and imports - and sells - $1.5 million worth of Mexican merchandise a year. It has a 300-room motel and five restaurants, including the Sombrero Room and Pedro's Casateria (a fast-food joint shaped like an antebellum mansion with a chicken on the roof). There's also Pedro's Rocket City (a fireworks shop), Golf of Mexico (miniature golf), and Pedro's Pleasure Dome spa. Incredibly, eight million people stop into SOB every year for a little slice of ... Mexi-kitsch.
TREES OF MYSTERY, Klamath, California
Photo: geeksplosion [Flickr] Build It ... When Carl Bruno first toured the towering redwood forests around the DeMartin ranch in 1931, he was awestruck by a handful of oddly deformed trees. Dollar signs in his eyes, Bruno snapped up the property and began luring in travelers to see trees shaped like pretzels and double helixes. He called his attraction Wonderland Park, and for the first 15 years of its existence, it did modest business - but something was missing ... They'll Come: He decided the park needed a 49-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan. In 1946 Bruno had the massive mythical logger installed near the highway and changed the park's name to Trees of Mystery. Business began to pick up. He added a companion piece, 35-feet-tall Babe the Blue Ox, in 1949. (When Babe was first introduced, he blew smoke out of his nostrils, which made small children run away screaming. The smoke was discontinued.) Trees of Mystery prospered and is still open today. It recently added an aerial gondola ride, but the park is primarily a bunch of oddly shaped trees and a tunnel through a giant redwood. The gift shop, which sells cheesy souvenirs and wood carvings, has been hailed as "a model for other tourist attractions." The park was honored by American Heritage magazine as the best roadside attraction in 2001.