When roadside attraction enthusiast Erika Nelson is asked about her favorite “world’s largest” landmark, her immediate impulse is to look ahead to the soon-to-be-seen and yet-to-be-explored. The next one is always her anticipatory favorite, she says.
A moment later, though, she sifts through her countless encounters with the larger-than-life and plucks from her memory bank what she sees as “one of the sweetest stories” associated with wayside wonder—a tale that goes hand in hand with a 17,000-pound penny made of concrete and community spirit.
In the heart of winter, Nelson began, it wasn’t always easy—or even possible—to drive to the site of a childbirth or medical emergency within the remote nooks and crannies of Wisconsin’s Northwoods region. Yet one physician became known for reaching these patients despite frigid temperatures and blinding blizzards.
Although Kate Pelham Newcomb took a break from her vocation to care for her husband and later lost faith in the medical profession following her son’s death, she found her way back to medicine, serving patients throughout northern Wisconsin during the early to mid-1900s and delivering thousands of babies along the way.
At times, she wound her way to house calls using a contraption that looked like it fell straight out of a sci-fi novel: a Model T Ford outfitted with skis in front and mechanical tracks in the rear. If routes were too much for a motorized vehicle, she’d don a pair of snowshoes and trek onward.
When “Dr. Kate” voiced a need for a hospital, she inspired a group of local school kids—including many she had welcomed into the world—to gather one million pennies. As they set their sights on this ambitious aim, the “absurdity of it all … captured the imagination of the American people and the world,” according to a museum devoted to the doctor in Woodruff, Wisconsin.
In 1954, following a successful fundraising drive, the new hospital opened its doors. That same year, the most immense penny on Earth was dedicated as a tribute to the “Angel on Snowshoes,” as the doctor is fondly remembered, and to the collaborative efforts that brought her vision to life.
“It’s not a super-refined monument,” Nelson says of the penny, which measures 10 feet in diameter and 18 inches thick. “It’s made by normal people using normal things to the best of their abilities.” Yet she says it’s beautiful because of the person it represents and the history it tells. “Stories like that are just so amazing, and that’s what keeps drawing me back to these things.”
Welcome to the world of Erika Nelson
Nelson’s choice of anecdote offers a glimpse into the mind and motivation behind the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, her long-running exploration of roadside vernacular architecture.
The wordy name of the quirky Lucas, Kansas, outpost “ends up being a very apt descriptor, in that it is little, tiny versions of monuments billed as ‘world’s largest things,’” Nelson says. “It’s an exposition devoted to roadside attractions across the U.S. that are some sort of superlative.”
For years, this independent artist and educator has crisscrossed the country, visiting roadside behemoths, gathering the stories behind them and creating miniature handmade versions of baseball bats, balls of twine—and just about anything in between.
Her most recent road trip took her to the Otter Tail Lakes region of Minnesota. “I got to stop by and say hi to the world’s largest pelican and the world’s largest otter,” she says of Pelican Pete and Otto the Otter.
“My goal isn’t for people to [only] come see this,” she says of her collection. Her ambition, instead, is to nudge people who have seen her work to go visit the “hidden gems that are super sweet or super poignant or super important to the small communities that build them.”
A path less traveled
Over two decades ago, Nelson was busy with “all the stuff you’re supposed to do at the end of an MFA program,” she explains, like setting up installations at galleries and sending out résumés. With shows lined up, a tenure-track teaching offer from Clarion University in western Pennsylvania in hand and her future seemingly decided, life took a dramatic turn.
“I remember calling off my own classes that day,” she recalls, speaking of 9/11, “and watching as systems shut down, as anything non-necessary was immediately halted and as all of these systems that we so deeply believe in—and are taught to believe in—just shudder to a halt.”
Nelson adds, “It was a questioning of what, exactly, was important, and I didn’t have an answer to that.”
Idling at an existential crossroads, she mulled over her options and decided to venture down a path less traveled. Later that week, she turned down the job offer. From there, she transformed a mini-bus into a living space and hit the open road.
During this stretch, a map of the world’s largest things and other roadside attractions helped guide the way. But when she arrived at these destinations, the experience often lacked a tangible takeaway.
“Whenever I started traveling to these things, I realized they didn’t always have souvenirs that really spoke to the nature of the thing that I was seeing,” she says. There may have been hats or fudge, but there wasn’t always, say, a patch with an image of the most enormous booming prairie chicken. So, she started making her own.
The materials she uses tend to vary depending on the item that she is replicating. She mimics most of the fiberglass or concrete world’s largest things using two-part polymer clay or sculpting medium and paint.
Occasionally, a commercial item works well, along with some strategic tweaks. Her version of the world’s largest baseball bat is a shaved ornament leaning up against a railroad model building that she altered to resemble the Louisville Slugger Museum.
While Nelson was still living on the road, her ever-growing collection of mini versions of roadside attractions became an attraction in and of itself. Her bus morphed into a traveling display that made stops at art events, cultural centers, colleges and more. She also turned her on-the-road mobile museum into customized sideshow extravaganzas that she presented at festivals.
No place like the Kansas home of grassroots art
Eventually she began to mull over where to put down roots, and the town of Lucas, Kansas, checked a couple of crucial boxes on her wish list. One big draw was the centrality of its location. “Eleven miles north is the Geodetic Center of North America,” she says, “which means that whenever I was road-tripping, it is about the same distance to go to Pennsylvania as it is to go to California.”
Despite its size (with a population under 400), another significant upside was its existing integrated arts component. The town’s Grassroots Art Center curates exhibits made by self-taught, outsider artists—many in their 60s or beyond when they begin to create—who often weave recycled materials into their work. (Think chewing gum, pop-can pull tabs, computer motherboards or shards of glass, to name a few.)
Lucas is also home to notable folk art environments, like the smattering of rock and shell buildings and hills found at Miller’s Park. Or the tangled web of biblical and political concrete sculptures at S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. (At this site, which some preservationists view as “one of the top art environments in the world,” visitors can even glimpse the artist’s mummified corpse.)
Left to their own devices, these outdoor artist-built environments tend to deteriorate over time, especially after their creators’ deaths. The meticulous restorative work involved in maintaining them is one of the ways in which Nelson makes a living.
Because these restoration jobs can take her out of the area for extended stretches, the Roadside Sideshow Expo, a brick-and-mortar building that contains her collection, is currently operated as a self-touring site open daily from April through October.
The exterior boasts an eye-catching mural of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Inside, the exhibition space is one large room, about 20 feet wide by 80 feet long, with display walls, miniature storefronts and alcoves set out along a meandering path.
Items are arranged in groupings by theme or by state, with small versions shown alongside images of the world’s largest and, in some cases, next to souvenirs and relics gathered while visiting these sites.
The space is “small-ish,” Nelson acknowledges, “but with miniature exhibits, it’s dense.”
Come November, the Expo shuts down for roughly half the year while Nelson works on new displays, which she calls “semi-permanent but ever-changing.” Some of last year’s shelves will be replaced by circus wagons this year, for instance.
Capturing the magic
According to John Hachmeister, a practicing artist and associate professor emeritus of sculpture at the University of Kansas, S.P. Dinsmoor, the mastermind behind Lucas’ Garden of Eden, believed the way to get people to absorb or embrace an idea is to entertain them, and then slip the idea in while they’re laughing and enjoying the ride.
“In some ways, that’s what Erika does,” he says of his former student. She has taken a good look at American vernacular art, the American way of life and the notion that the biggest buffalo or most enormous corncob can be built to garner the attention of a large audience. “By miniaturizing it, she’s kind of making fun of it.”
At the same time, he adds, her work serves as a commentary on the notion that the entire reason for these attractions in the first place was to gather attention and amuse.
“I do think the embiggining and smallening of that embiggining is a sort of satire, on the part of both the original builders and my response to those builds, but in a sincere way,” Nelson says. “I create my small versions as a way to capture some of the magic and wonder that I feel at the embracing of whimsy on such a grand scale.”
Nelson estimates she has seen several hundred of the world’s largest attractions in person. And while the total number of miniatures is in a constant state of flux, she believes that figure currently hovers around 125.
Very few of the roadside attractions that draw her in are brought into existence with a sense of sarcasm, she explains, and the hope is that her retelling of those stories in a different way still embodies both the look and spirit of the original.
“I don’t use a microscope,” she notes. But her versions are as miniature as she can make them while still allowing them to be recognizable, typically less than two inches in the largest dimension.
A world’s largest fill-in-the-blank is supposed to be “the pinnacle of America’s obsession with all things large,” says Eric Peterson, travel writer and author of Roadside Americana. Nelson seems to illustrate this obsession by turning the whole thing on its head.
Her mini versions take “the oomph out of the world’s largest,” he points out, and then display it for what it really is, perhaps “poking fun at it a bit” along the way.
Within her collection, you’ll find a mini version of the huge easel that supports an oversized rendering of Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers in a Vase in Goodland, Kansas. Dig through that same collection, and you’ll discover Nelson’s take on our planet’s most tremendous cow hairball at the Finney County Historical Museum in Garden City, Kansas. (Her medium of choice: cat hair.)
Nelson’s items are intended to be one-of-a-kind, and these works of art are not for sale. “But they do sometimes get recreated if the first one dies,” she says.
While she was living on the road, some of her creations succumbed to UV damage. “I would go through rubber-band balls pretty quickly,” she notes of her versions made of orthodontic bands, and her clay models tended to “suffer” through temperature changes. Then there are the ones that must bid the world adieu due to “overeager tourists” or the dismantling of a world’s largest thing.
When her creations meet their demise, the result doesn’t necessarily wind up in a wastebasket. Inside the Roadside Sideshow Expo rests a small display case devoted to pieces that, according to Nelson, “have exploded in a particularly interesting manner.”
Regardless of what her work may reveal about American culture or the individual items depicted, it is clear that Nelson’s work makes it possible to share her passion for all things roadside with others—and, in some instances, to share in the process of critiquing them.
One of her latest Expo displays takes a closer look at some of the more problematic attractions that “are out of date, and do need to either be updated or figure out a way to retire.”
Last year, Nelson explored the intersection of roadside attractions and cultural appropriation along with fellow artists Mona Cliff and Armando Minjarez. Their “roadside inappropriation” presentation, held during National Travel and Tourism Week in May, discussed TeePee Junction, La Salsa Man and Hillbilly Halfwit in particular.
Looking ahead, Nelson has plans to pursue an expanded look at this theme at the Roadside Sideshow Expo. “I have a big, giant hillbilly head from the Ozarks,” she says. “It’s one that you can crawl through kind of like a funhouse.” The piece will help introduce a section that, despite a playful side, is meant to nudge others to consider some weighty questions.
Who built these world’s largest things, for example, and who were they made for? It is also an opportunity to wonder whether new builders are needed for this type of prominent, iconic expression moving forward.
Also in the works for the year ahead: a 14-foot dinosaur, currently in pieces, that Nelson hopes to install in the Expo as well as a road trip to Georgia, where she hopes to “take some meta photos” of the mini and the massive together.
Depending on her route, she’ll potentially pass by sites like the big chicken in Marietta and the Jimmy Carter Smiling Peanut in Plains, where the former president was born and—at 99—continues to reside.
While it may be easy to assume that the American urge to construct the larger-than-life harkens back to earlier eras, Nelson emphasizes that gigantic attractions continue to pop up and wait to be discovered by curious passersby.
Look no further than the giant leg lamp in Chickasha, Oklahoma—a nod to the classic holiday comedy A Christmas Story and the hometown artist who, according to legend, inspired the famous movie prop—which was unveiled in 2022.
“I think there’s a whole new generation of people who are excited about being seriously silly,” she says. “I love that we can still laugh and enjoy these parts of ourselves and brag a little bit in a very fun, engaging kind of way.”
Nelson says the leg lamp is a good example of why towns build these sorts of items: the storytelling, the monument reflecting community and the sincere work on something that may seem like a one-liner but, upon further exploration, goes much deeper.
At the core of this work is a joy for the monument makers, who are often dismissed as ridiculous or weird. Nelson, a self-described “monument marveler and mini-marvel maker,” believes the folks behind these large pieces are treasures themselves.
“They’re boldly embracing whimsy and wonder as an important part of their community identity,” she says. “And that is so, so lovely.”