The World’s Largest Barber Pole, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin — a small town on the way to Door County — is a red, white, and blue striped silo with a working barber shop on the bottom floor. It resembles a 4th-of-July-colored rocket ready to launch from a farmyard, or a Bullet Popsicle cast in concrete.
David Gumieny, the pole’s owner and creator, was cutting hair in the silo’s milkhouse to supplement his income as a prison guard and thought a barber pole outside the house would draw more business. He didn’t know where to put it, though. Then. one morning, “I looked up at the silo, and I just saw a barber pole light up, like the Lord had given it to me.”
That was in 1976, so there was a Bicentennial angle, too. It took three men and a cherry picker to paint the silo. The barber pole became the Eiffel Tower of Elkhart Lake.
“It’s been on television so many times,” Gumieny said. “Every one of the local stations had it on. The History Channel had it on. They showed Pepsi’s big sign, they showed Microsoft’s, and then here comes the barber pole.”
Nearly three hundred miles from Elkhart Lake, in Wisconsin’s North Country, is the World’s Largest Corkscrew. It’s on U.S. Highway 2, in front of the Corkscrew Liquor Store. Owner Robert Vittone welded it himself out of stainless steel tubing.
“We’ve had customers come in here with their books, and they want an autograph,” said Gary Vittone, the owner’s son. “It put Hurley on the map, like the big Indian over in Michigan.”
That would be the World’s Largest Fiberglass Indian, in Ironwood, a 52-foot-tall statue of Hiawatha.
Americans like things big: big trucks, big houses, big guns, big butts (and I cannot lie). Only here in the Middle West, though, is there a competition to enlarge practical objects to an impractical scale. Casey, Illinois, whose motto is “Big Things Small Town,” has constructed the World’s Largest Golf Tee, the World’s Largest Wooden Shoes, the World’s Largest Mailbox, and the World’s Largest Swizzle Spoon, whatever that is.
As a fan of Midwestern folklore, I would like to think this quest to build things biggest is in the tradition of Paul Bunyan, whose blue ox, Babe, was so big that a man needed a telescope to see from his head to his hindquarters. I suspect the real motivations are less romantic: a combination of regional insecurity and a desperation to attract tourists. Such are the sources of Midwestern kitsch.
California has redwoods, Colorado the Rockies. Philadelphia has Independence Hall, Georgia Civil War battlefields, Florida has sunshine and beaches. South Dakota transformed a mountain into a symbol of the state by carving the heads of four presidents on the side. The Midwest lacks natural wonders and historic sites, but its flat expanses are traversed by highways built to convey travelers to places much more scenic. The small towns at the exits have got to get people to pull over to the side of the road. Otherwise, the Midwest would just be the nation’s drive-thru. Casey is right off Interstate 70, a highway running from Baltimore, Maryland (crabs, The Wire) to Cove Fort, Utah (surreal rock formations).
Imagine this conversation between two computer salesmen from Raleigh, both just returned from vacations.
“Boy, I had a great time in Montana: fly fishing, hiking in the mountains, rodeos. Where’d you go?”
“Oh. That must have been interesting.”
“I saw the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle.”
The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle is in Collinsville. It’s a 170-foot-tall water tower, painted red, with the label of Brooks Old Original Catsup.
“We don’t really have oceans or mountains, so we need something to differentiate us from everyone else,” Jessica O’Riley, tourism communications manager for Travel Iowa, once said. “I think that’s why maybe they’re (world’s largest items) in the Midwest, because we’re trying to draw attention to us and what may generally be an overlooked area in flyover country, as they call it, and gives people a reason to stop.”
In Iowa can be found the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball (Sac City), the World’s Largest Concrete Garden Gnome (Ames), and the World’s Largest Cheeto (Algona).
Even Chicago once had an entry on the World’s Largest list. For 24 years, this was home to the World’s Largest Building, the 1,450-foot tall Sears Tower. In 1998, the Sears Tower was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa now holds the record. Fine. Let those places look desperate for attention. Illinois still has the World’s Largest Horseshoe.