Roadside Attractions Across Iowa,
Dakotas, and Wisconsin
by Eric Dregni
Reviewed by A.J. Herrmann
Eric Dregni’s Midwest Marvels is not a comprehensive guide to traveling across the Northern tier of the American Midwest (you would never find attractions like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in a Lonely Planet Guide). But Dregni isn’t trying to compete with typical travel guides; his book is an homage to the weird and whacky and to the strange individuals who decide to spend their time creating attractions like the International Mustard Museum. The book is meant to be lightly tongue in cheek (like most of the attractions themselves), and for this reason the book succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do: profile the wonderfully tacky slices of Americana that are strewn along roadways throughout the Midwest. As Dregni explains in the preface: “The folks who have created these marvels are not normal, thank God. They have followed their passion, whether it’s wrapping twine, stacking cans, or sipping vinegar….These are the people who add character to our towns; these are the people who make living in the Midwest worth it” (Dregni, xix).
The book is laid out logically by state, starting with Iowa (home of The Museum of Ice Cream and an authentic Danish Windmill, among other things) and ending with Wisconsin (home of the World’s Largest Six Pack). The book profiles 20-30 attractions in each of the five states of the Upper Midwest. Each attraction gets a couple of pages of description on its background and history: why it was built, who built it, and why it is important or unimportant to the town or area where the attraction sits. Dregni also devotes a few sentences at the end of each profile to other possible activities in the area, a welcome addition since most readers will tire quickly of looking at something like Og the Gorilla (a sixty foot fiberglass statue of a gorilla in Harvey, North Dakota).
It is in the descriptions of the background of each monument that Dregni really hits his stride. You can tell that he is really interested in the history of the various attractions and of the people who built them, but he writes his descriptions with the light-hearted sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek tone that these monuments deserve. Some of the best backgrounds include interviews with people involved with the attractions themselves: a woman from Darwin, Minnesota (home of the World’s Largest Twine Ball made by one man) bemoans the fact that another twine ball “took us out of Guinness” (Dregni, 114) because the other town’s ball was made by a team and the Darwin ball was made by one man over the course of 39 years.
While most of the sites in MidwestMarvels are of the tacky variety, there are a number of attractions profiled that are closer to typical tourist attractions. Among these “normal” destinations are some well known places like the Covered Bridges in Winterset, Iowa (profiled in The Bridges of Madison County) and South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Monument. Some of other attractions are less well-known by still fall towards the normal end of the tourist-attraction spectrum: an example of this type of site is the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (the concert hall where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper played their final concert before they died in a plane crash on the infamous “Day the Music Died).”
Of all the attractions profiled, my favorite one has to be Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Most of the attractions profiled by Dregni were built by misguided Midwesterners who hoped that giant fiberglass statues of animals (or something else along those lines) would attract tourists to their towns and businesses. Most of these attractions failed in this regard and are now forgotten, but Wall Drug is an example of one that got it right. Wall Drug started out as a small drugstore in an even smaller town in South Dakota, but its owner decided to increase business by offering free water to travelers and (here’s the catch) put up signs reflecting that fact along roads across the country (eventually the signs would spread to all fifty states). Dregni explains what followed: “Free ice water began an empire. Wall Drug became a must-stop along the desolate ‘wall’ of bone-dry badlands to have a sip of water and break up the monotony of the trip” (Dregni, 336). As visitors poured in the drugstore would built a general store, pharmacy museum, and restaurant and turned itself into a bona fide tourist attraction in its own right. As Dregni writes: “While Wall Drug signs may have originally been tongue in cheek for the tiny town with an even tinier drugstore, the promise of these billboards has now been fulfilled. Wall Drug is indeed one of the most beautifully kitsch spots in America.” Wall Drug exemplifies the spirit of Dregni’s book, and if its story interests you, you’ll probably the type of person who would love his unorthodox guide to the Midwest.
Dregni, Eric. Midwest Marvels: Roadside Attractions Across Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.