They've labored 'round-the-clock for the past five decades, never taking a day off and never complaining. They've worked as cowboys, ranch hands, construction workers, athletes, spacemen, lumberjacks, waiters, and mechanics. With their distinctive chiseled jaws, steely eyes, and outstretched arms, they're known as the Muffler Men-18- to 25-foot fiberglass statues found along main streets and highways throughout Texas and the rest of the United States.
The first Muffler Man was a hulking, broad-shouldered 20-foot-tall Paul Bunyan, created by Bob Prewitt in 1962 for the PB Café on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Wearing a wool cap and sporting a heavy black beard, the figure had massive hands, one turned up and the other turned down, positioned to hold an ax. The positioning of the hands is one of the key signs to identifying a genuine Muffler Man, says Doug Kirby, cofounder and publisher of roadsideamerica.com, a website dedicated to offbeat roadside attractions.
In 1963, Prewitt sold his company to California businessman Steve Dashew, who owned International Fiberglass, which made small outboard-powered boats. Soon after, Dashew sold a Paul Bunyan figure to an American Oil gas station in Las Vegas, whose business doubled overnight as a result. A trade publication picked up the success story, and Dashew's new business took off from there.
"I never considered for a moment that we were creating something that would become iconic," he says. "We were just building a business and having fun in the process."
Dashew churned out about 500 of these figures for a variety of businesses, including gas stations, auto repair shops, and many muffler shops, which used the hands to hold oversized mufflers-hence the moniker Muffler Men, a nickname coined by Kirby and business partners Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins when they were researching their book, Roadside America (Fireside Books, 1986).
Most of the statues were derivatives of the original Paul Bunyan, with different features-such as a new torso for a bare-chested American Indian or alteration of facial hair-that fit the customer's marketing needs. In addition to the Paul Bunyan figures, Dashew produced a classic model that customers fashioned into gas station attendants, golfers, soda-jerk boys, or cowboys. He also made Alfred E. Neuman statues, whose gap-toothed faces were based on the cover character of Mad magazine, and the only female giants in the bunch, called Miss Uniroyal. Here are stories of a handful of Muffler Men in the Lone Star State.
Country Barn Steak House, 8200 W. Interstate 40, Amarillo
He's a gentlemanly cowboy who, with a tip of his large white Stetson, invites folks to come inside the steakhouse where he's been standing on a pedestal for the past nine years. Anna Stroinski, the restaurant's general manager, says their Big Cowboy has recently become quite popular with young folks who are into a new form of entertainment called planking. The game requires that a person lie down in an unusual location, such as at the base of the Amarillo Muffler Man, and assume a rigor mortis-like position with hands touching the sides of the body. A photograph of the participant planking is then posted on the Internet.
"A lot of kids in town are planking in front of the Big Cowboy," Stroinski says. "We've even had a few celebrities comment online that they were planking beneath our guy."
Ken's Muffler & Brake, 4212 N. Central Expressway, Dallas
He's a giant country bumpkin with a goofy grin, a big straw hat, and a whole lot of charm. Folks at Ken's Muffler & Brake shop, where this 18-foot-tall Happy Half Wit model has been residing for 37 years, call their statue Herkermer.
"Not sure where we came up with that name because he has the face of Alfred E. Neuman from Mad magazine, but that's what we've been calling him since we got him," says Kenneth Kirkpatrick, president of Ken's Muffler & Brake. Kirkpatrick purchased Herkermer from International Fiberglass for about $1,000.
Kirkpatrick has another Half Wit giant, but it has lain in a field in Cleburne for several years since the closure of one of his other muffler shops.
"When our building sold, we had to put him somewhere," Kirkpatrick says. "Although, we did stand him up against a pole last year for the 80th birthday of our founder, my uncle Ken Johnson."
Goode Fiberglass, 1651 FM 371, Gainesville
A quartet of the colossal figures-a cowboy Muffler Man, a Miss Uniroyal, and two Big Johns-guards Glenn Goode's sandblasting business. Goode started his collection in 1971 when he bought a Muffler Man for $5 from a go-cart track in Garland. The big guy didn't have a head or hands, so Goode convinced other Muffler Men owners to let him make molds to replace the missing parts-the head and cowboy hat came from a Muffler Man in Canton and the hands were from the Half Wit Muffler Man at Ken's Muffler & Brake in Dallas. Goode and his sons unbolted the body parts from each statue and fashioned fiberglass molds for his cowboy.
In the early '80s, Goode purchased his 17-foot-tall Miss Uniroyal for $500 from a car dealership in Wichita Falls. She originally wore only a red bikini, but he covered her up in a more conservative shirt and knee-length skirt ensemble. "Although you can still see her red bikini bottom if you look up her skirt," Goode says. The two Big Johns belonged to a chain of Big John grocery stores in Tennessee, but Goode discovered them lying on the ground behind a bowling alley. He purchased each for $300.
San Antonio Chief
Red McCombs Superior Hyundai, 4800 NW Loop 410, San Antonio
The Big Chief, who hails proudly from a perch overlooking Red McCombs Superior Hyundai, has taken a lot of shots-arrows, BB gun pellets, and other projectiles-over the years, but the American Indian has never faltered in his commitment to serve the marketing needs of his owners. With his braided jet-black hair peeking from beneath his feathered headdress, the Big Chief has been an enduring San Antonio landmark since the late '60s, when he originally stood downtown. Every basketball season, McCombs outfits the Big Chief in a gargantuan Spurs basketball jersey to support the local NBA team.
Jennings Anderson Ford, 31480 Interstate Highway 10 West, Boerne
He may just be the slickest car salesman working at Jennings Anderson Ford in Boerne. Buck is the Stetson-wearing Muffler Man who greets car buyers, as well as looky-loos who often meander up to the behemoth figure to have a photo taken with him.
This classic-style Muffler Man once wore a bright red shirt, but in 2010, he got a makeover and was moved across town to the dealership's new location.
At the new lot, the steely cowboy sports a crisp, white shirt with the company's logo emblazoned on the pocket and freshly painted "denim" pants.