The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.13.10

Keith Eggener

Size Matters: Small Towns with Big Things

The world's largest pecan. Brunswick, MO. [Photograph: Keith Eggener]

What was he trying to prove, who was he trying to impress
Why did he build it, how did he do, it was anybody’s guess.. . .
— Weird Al Yankovic, The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, 1989

When Dubai’s 2,716-foot-tall Burj Khalifa opened on 4 January 2010, the world gained a new tallest building. In Dubai that day gala celebrations marked the event. Inside, workers labored away on the still-uncompleted building while tens of thousands outside watched a lavish fireworks display. News agencies from around the world featured the story. The $26 billion debt cloud looming over the city may have dampened some spirits, but official images of the event show only proud, bright, jubilant faces.

A few days after the opening, driving through the quiet northwestern corner of Missouri, past fields and orchards, collapsing barns, and small-town VFWs and IGAs, I was thinking of the Burj Khalifa, rising vainly from the Arabian sands. In Sumner, MO (pop. 142), I parked the car and trudged through the frozen mud of an otherwise empty municipal park to see the world’s largest goose. A little later that day in Brunswick (pop. 925) I stood looking at the world’s largest pecan, resting forlornly beside a vacant farmhouse and a long-abandoned puppet theater. [1] There were no fireworks, media or tourists — virtually no one unless you went looking for them inside one of the area’s few feed stores or diners. Dubai seemed far removed that day, and yet somehow just around the corner. Distant though the ties may be, skyscraper, goose, and pecan are all members of the same clan: all bear the mark of superlative.

Maxie, the world's largest goose. Sumner, MO. [Photograph: Keith Eggener]

America is littered with really large things — colossal chairs and chainsaws, gargantuan gas pumps and guitars, super-sized shoes and six packs, tremendous teapots and totem poles, all variety of enormous animals, insects, fruits and vegetables. [2] Like claimants to the title of world’s tallest building, enormous roadside attractions beg the question “why?” Why should anyone bother to make such a thing, and why should anyone else care? Customary, practical functions are not primary in any of the examples I’ve just named. The goose doesn’t honk or fly. The nut can’t be cracked and eaten. Dubai, for that matter, doesn’t need — and can’t afford — the floor space the Burj Khalifa provides. (The top 30-odd stories of the tapered 168-story structure are so small as to be virtually useless: the observation deck is located on the 123rd floor, while the floors above serve mainly for tightly limited and exorbitantly expensive storage. [3]) So what are any of these things supposed to be doing exactly? 

Whether one is speaking of the world’s tallest building or the world’s largest ball of twine (more on that in a moment), it is size that matters above all. These things are large for the sake of being large. They are not just large, they are the largest of their kind. They were made to be looked at (and from, in the case of tallest buildings); attracting attention is what they were designed to do. They were made to be marveled at, made to be measured. Largest things defy nature and transcend limits. They show what is possible and what it might take to push possibility beyond its existing boundaries. As the grandest exemplars of their kind, they are targets for competitive spirits, subjects of debate, records waiting to be broken.

Determining such records is not without complications, however. For example, the world’s tallest structure — the pride of Blanchard, ND — until recently was KVLY-TV’s 2,062-foot television tower; an even taller radio mast once stood near Warsaw, Poland (2,120 feet), but it collapsed in 1991. Yet both of these are (or were) guyed masts, not self-supporting, habitable buildings. Almost as tall is the 2,001-foot-tall Petronius Platform in the Gulf of Mexico, but as most of it stands invisible under water it might as well be underground. The CN Tower in Toronto was, at 1,815 feet, the world’s tallest freestanding, above-ground structure for many years, but it is not technically a building, at least not according to the definition provided by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which recognizes a building only “if at least 50% of its height is occupied by usable floor area." [4] 

The world's largest pecan. Brunswick, MO. [Photograph: Keith Eggener]

Even with this definition in place, however, the record for world’s tallest building remained subject to debate before 2009. When measuring building height do we stop at the roofline? If so, then the Shanghai World Financial Center (1,614 feet) was until recently the tallest. Do we include uninhabitable but architecturally incorporated spires as part of the building’s height? In that case Taiwan’s Taipei 101 was tallest at 1,670 feet. What about roof-mounted antennae? The former Sears/now-Willis Tower in Chicago used to take that prize at 1,730 feet. The Burj Khalifa surpassed all of these, and the consolidated record seems safe for now. But a new challenger could come along at any time. Detailed if unlikely plans have been drawn for even-taller buildings in Kuwait, Bahrain, Buenos Aires and Tokyo, including one that would rise to 800 stories and 2.5 miles in height. [5] Meanwhile, the current world’s tallest building is far from the largest, if largeness is a matter of spatial volume, footprint, total floor area, or overall weight. Determining the ever-changing leaders in each of these categories keeps a certain kind of person awake at nights. 
Similarly fraught is the realm of rival roadside attractions. Across the United States stand multiple contenders to the throne in several categories: catfish, cherry pies, clothespins, crosses, cuckoo clocks, and so on. In some cases it’s a matter of different subsets rather than pure rivalries: the world's largest Adirondack, Duncan Phyfe, or Mission style chairs are surely not vying for the same crown. The case of the world’s largest ball of twine is less clear-cut. There are no fewer than four claimants to that title. The Darwin, MN, ball, sheltered behind plexiglas walls in its own purpose-built pavilion on city-owned land, purports to be the largest such ball created by one man — one obsessive, lonely, little man. The Lake Nebagamon, WI, ball, another one-man project, is still underway in its maker’s front yard; it is said to be the heaviest, though not the largest in diameter or the longest in twine length. The Branson, MO, ball, moved from Valley View, TX, and now sitting at the local Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, was a group effort, or rather, it was constructed by paid laborers at the behest of their record-grubbing employer; its origins, mode of construction, tourist-trap placement, and use of plastic string make it an object of scorn to real twine-ball enthusiasts, who favor lone visionary-fanatics, roadside settings and natural fibers. 

The world's largest ball of twine. Cawker City, KS. [Photograph: Keith Eggener]

Most widely admired is the ball in Cawker City, KS, started in 1953 by another lone twine-man and continued by his neighbors after his death in 1974. A sign beside it claims, in commendably precise terms, that it is “the world’s largest ball of sisal twine.” Standing in an open-air, roadside pavilion, accessible to all 24/7, it is still growing. Every August Cawker City hosts the Twine-A-Thon, when locals and visitors are invited to add to the ball’s girth. According to caretaker Linda Clover, some 300 people per week visit the ball during the rest of the year [6]; while in town they may purchase T-shirts, hats, postcards and other souvenirs, and admire paintings by a local artist featuring the Mona Lisa, the American Gothic couple, Edvard Munch’s screamer, and other luminaries from the western art canon, all bearing honorific balls of twine. The big ball has been featured in such popular movies as National Lampoon’s Vacation and Michael, starring John Travolta. According to travel writer Brian Hodges, Cawker City’s twine ball — along with Mount Rushmore, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon — is one of five landmarks that every “good American traveler must visit … nothing captures the essence of ‘America’ in one spot more succinctly than these locations.” [7] 
If the twine-ball rivalry teaches us anything, it is that not all largest things are created equal. They operate differently according to materials, context and presumptive function. Among American roadside attractions the twine balls are unusual in that they really are balls of twine, however vastly inflated. They look, feel, and smell like twine balls because they are twine balls. They can —hypothetically or actually — be wound and unwound just like any other twine balls. Most other largest things are artificial versions of the items they represent, inorganic and/or inoperable, made of materials (wood, metal, concrete, plastic, fiberglass) not found in smaller versions of the same things. Though it might chip, fade or shatter, the giant fiberglass strawberry in Strawberry Point, IA, will never rot. To the visitor it offers an exclusively visual experience.

Chatty Belle, world's largest talking cow. Neillsville, WI. [Photograph: Doug Wallick via Flickr]

If size and apparent uselessness can make otherwise ordinary things seem extraordinary, so too does location. America’s largest things are typically found along roadsides within or near small, rural towns. [8] To be sure, there are largest things in large towns — a baseball bat in Louisville, a clothespin in Philadelphia, shuttlecocks in Kansas City. In cities, these are mostly corporate symbols, “ducks” (derby-shaped restaurants, donut-shaped donut shops), or artworks (most of them by Claes Oldenburg). There they become “topographical mascots,” as the critic and poet Susan Stewart once called them, familiar and easy enough to overlook amidst the urban clutter and commotion. [9] In a small town with few attractions and little evident activity, it is much harder to ignore or take for granted a mammoth bagel (Mattoon, IL) or a vast fishing bobber (Pequot Lakes, MN). There such things retain their strangeness; they are highly visible and meant to be reckoned with. According to Stewart, urban giants (including buildings, sculptures and advertising icons) are most often commercial, instrumentalist, aimed at materialist pursuits, while those giants standing out alone in the landscape approach the realm of the magical. Isolation gives vastly over-scaled things not just majesty but mystery. The Empire State Building is an undeniably impressive feature on the Manhattan skyline; located out in field in western Nebraska it would approach the gravity and inscrutability of Giza, Easter Island or Stonehenge. For anyone traveling without a guidebook or advance warning, much the same is true when coming for the first time upon the world’s largest chimney sweep (McPherson, KS) or the world’s largest talking cow (“Chatty Belle,” standing outside of Neillsville, WI, beside a replica of the world’s largest cheese). What were the makers of these things thinking? What could these things possibly mean?

[Rendering: Kyle Larkin, thanks to David Shankbone and Nicholas T via Flickr]

We expect buildings to be large, larger than ourselves anyway, so that they may accommodate our bodies and our activities. A giant building, then, doesn’t surprise us the way a huge corkscrew (Hurley, WI) or an enormous loaf of bread (Urban, OH) does. Combined with her isolation, Chatty Belle’s unexpected vastness and lack of familiar bovine purpose give her a peculiarly arbitrary quality, a fantastic strangeness. As Stewart puts it, we measure things against the scale of our own bodies, and so giant versions of things that are normally much smaller make us into miniatures. [10] This can be exciting, disorienting or disconcerting. As in a Surrealist painting, we are confronted in such cases with unsettling juxtapositions, the combining of things from worlds that don’t typically overlap, things adjusted to violently oppositional systems of scale. This collision undermines the presumptive local order and apparent truth of things; it proposes previously unnoticed connections, meanings and possibilities. Poised on America’s rural roadsides, gigantic things thus vibrate between kitsch and the sublime. They might have been put there originally to shill product or tout points of pride, but like the detritus of a vanished race of leviathan Walmart shoppers, they now survive as the last traces of an otherwise unknown civilization.

So far I’ve been speaking as if these things have no function other than being looked at, and that is not strictly true. Even if the Burj Khalifa’s record-setting height is its primary reason for being, it does in fact contain useable, saleable space. America’s largest things don’t, for the most part, accommodate or do anything practical. [11] They have little market value. Yet like a spectacularly and unnecessarily tall building, gigantic, functionally oblique things do serve real purposes beyond mere attention grabbing. As superlative structures, giant buildings and giant roadside attractions both operate on a symbolic level, and that, in the end, is the real point of their attention-seeking size: they exist to convey messages.

Burj Khalifa. [Photograph: Leandro Neumann Cuiffo via Flickr]

The message delivered by a super-tall building is quite different, however, from that conveyed by a colossal baked potato (Blackfoot, ID). Giant urban towers are triumphalist and boastful. Comparing the Burj Khalifa to early 20th-century New York behemoths like the Woolworth, Chrysler and Empire State Buildings (all one-time world’s tallest towers), Paul Goldberger recently concluded that world’s tallest buildings “are usually erected in cities that have reached a critical juncture in their maturity, and which want to assert their position for the first time on the world stage.” [12] The Burj Khalifa’s own website declares just this with laudable if now-dubious optimism. The tower, the site informs us, is “a symbolic beacon of progress, an emblem of the new, dynamic and prosperous Middle East ... tangible proof of Dubai’s growing role in a changing world.” [13] The website does not mention that the building, originally called the Burj Dubai, was renamed at the eleventh hour for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi, whose $10 billion loan less than two months before the building’s opening saved the city from financial collapse.

The message conveyed by largest things in small towns is almost exactly the opposite of urban buildings such as the Burj Khalifa. If skyscrapers communicate cultural and economic arrival, however illusory or long past, largest things in small towns, particularly as seen today, more frequently suggest furtive hope, irreversible decline, or both. Take, for example, the world’s largest catsup bottle in Collinsville, IL, twelve miles east of St. Louis. Standing atop a 100-foot-tall steel base, the 70-foot tall “bottle” was built between 1947 and 1949 beside the then-burgeoning Brooks Catsup factory, near Collinville’s small but once-lively downtown. [14] Conceived as a corporate logo and a water tower for the factory’s new fire-protection system, the giant bottle bore the Brooks label and could hold up to 100,000 gallons of water (or catsup, one presumes). By the 1960s the town’s fortunes were in decline as industries, jobs and people moved to larger cities. It’s a familiar story. The factory eventually ceased production and was used for storage, the water tower/catsup bottle fell into disrepair, demolition loomed. 

The world's largest catsup bottle. Collinsville, IL. [Photograph: Straightedge217 via Flickr]

By the mid-1990s, however, a local preservation group was raising funds to restore the bottle in time for its 50th anniversary. Today it provides perhaps the main, if not the only, reason for most outsiders to visit Collinsville. T-shirts and other catsup-bottle memorabilia are sold in local shops. Each July a festival — the inclusively if inelegantly named Annual Brooks® World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Festival, Birthday Party and Car Show — is held in its honor. [15] According to Judy DeMoisy, Collinsville’s downtown manager and honorifically named “Catsup Bottle Lady,” the bottle provides a “sense of place.” It tells you “you’re not in St. Louis, you’re not at the Arch. You’re right there in good old Collinsville.” [16] The bottle stands, steeped in provincial pride and mild desperation, as a symbol of singularity, asserting the specialness of a place that was never extraordinary to begin with and has by now lost most of whatever individual identity it once possessed, along with its industry, to the greater St. Louis metroplex.

The symbolic potential of largest things is central to an oddly moving new film by Amy Elliott and Elizabeth Donius: World’s Largest, which premiered this past March at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival. [17] Over the course of four years the filmmakers visited 58 largest things in small towns and cities across the United States, interviewing local politicians, ordinary citizens, boosters and detractors. Their film offers a montage of small-town scenes with narration by the people who live in them. Most of these places were bypassed long ago by the Interstates, their populations are graying, their economies essentially moribund. All of them either have an over-sized attraction or are aiming to obtain one. In the former case, as with the giant olive in Lindsey, CA, the artifact is often a vestige of a local industry now lost or in decline. In the latter case, as with the ongoing effort to build the world’s largest functional lava lamp (proposed to be 65-feet tall) in Soap Lake, WA, the object bears little or no real relation to anything local — claims that lava lamps and the nearby lake’s mineral-rich waters are both related to healing aside — but is, rather, a blatant attempt to attract attention and tourism to a place that doesn’t get much of either. 

The world's largest lava lamp. Soap Lake, WA. [Rendering: copyright Braden Blake, 2002]

The decisions regarding what to build in these last cases are sometimes bizarrely calculated; take, for instance, the man in Jamestown, ND, who wrote to Kodak to ask about the country’s most photographed sites and determined from the company’s response that a giant buffalo was just the thing needed to make people stop in his town for photo opportunities, a little lunch, a little shopping. Most peculiar, perhaps, is the enormous boll weevil, lifted above the head of a white-marble, robe-draped, classical goddess standing at an intersection in downtown Enterprise, AL; the pesky weevil is honored here for having forced cotton farmers to diversify their crops and economy. 

When queried about their towns’ most celebrated attractions, the people interviewed for World’s Largest express a wide range of responses: delight, skepticism, outrage. Pride is hardly universal; some see these things as an embarrassment or a waste of money. One of the film’s most memorable scenes features an elderly man ranting about the costs and pointlessness of the lava lamp, finally demanding that the camera be switched off. Yet many others voice the belief — the hope — that these things will speak of local history, represent the unique qualities of a beloved place, attract tourists and money, and contribute to revitalization efforts. In fact, most such attractions have had relatively little economic impact upon their communities, despite the sometimes surprisingly high costs required to build and maintain them. The people of Soap Lake — their lava lamp saga providing the main story line threading throughout the film — have so far spent more than $100,000 on the project, and by the end of filming in 2009 the lamp had yet to be erected. Says the town’s mayor at one point, “We don’t want to hang all of our hopes on a lava lamp.” Still, it would be quite something to see.