In their travels across the United States, the authors of The New Roadside America (1992) have come across some pretty wacky attractions: beer-drinking goats, a 17,400-pound ball of twine and the grave sites of circus elephants. "In the midst of all this," says Doug Kirby, "we kept finding these huge fiberglass men." So he and his colleagues, Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins, posted some pictures on their Website in 1996 and dubbed them "Muffler Men" because several grasped giant mufflers. (Smith stands underneath the Indian, above, with Kirby.)
In a matter of days, sightings of large fiberglass men poured in from across the country; true Muffler Men are easily identified because they share common features. They are 18- to 25-feet tall and stand with arms bent forward, right palm up, left palm down. Each has a steely jaw, and well-muscled arms popping out of a short-sleeve work shirt. At last count, Roadside America's Web map shows 165 confirmed sightings, spread across all but Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Kentucky and Wyoming, in the continental United States.
"Curiously," says Kirby, "the owners didn't know where they came from." Finally, in the spring of 1999, the Webmasters solved the mystery when they received an e-mail from entrepreneur Steve Dashew, who had seen their Website. His California company, International Fiberglass, had created thousands of commercial statues in the 1960s and '70s to help sell mufflers and tires. Dashew has long since gone on to other endeavors, but his creations have lived on; they've been resold, painted, moved and resold again, mutating into curious fiberglass fantasies of the quintessential American man: loggers, football players, cowboys and Indians, soldiers and spacemen. They've been won in a divorce settlement, pictured in the film Easy Rider and zoned as a flagpole in Cheshire, Connecticut.
"What's great about them," says Kirby, "is that they keep moving locations and changing appearances." So if you see a Muffler Man by the side of the road, you might want to tell the folks at www.roadsideamerica.com about it. But beware of imposters. Remember, right palm up, left palm down.