I first met Hubert Graham in 2017 when I pulled into his driveway located off the busy Andrew Jackson Highway in Bolton, North Carolina. I was on a road trip in search of roadside giants—particularly Uniroyal Gals, the rarer, female counterpart to Muffler Men—and Graham has two. He also has dozens of horses, cows, bears, flamingos, lighthouses, and other fiberglass figures standing at attention in his yard. Much like Graham himself, his creations are still awaiting their moment in the spotlight. Since he was a child, Graham has dreamt of opening his own amusement park—called Grahamland—but real life keeps getting in the way.
Graham has had a particularly rough couple of years when I visit him again in September 2019, and his spirits are understandably low. A year ago, hurricane Florence destroyed his home and flood waters washed many of the figures scattered around his property into the surrounding woods. Graham moved in with his father, who lived nearby, but in February 2019, his father got sick and died. A few months later, Graham and his girlfriend broke up.
“Everything is just a loss, loss, loss, loss,” Graham says. “Everything has really gone down. I could really use a win.”
Graham may be down, but he’s not yet given up on his dream. In November, he took a road trip to New York City, hauling a flatbed truck full of pink flamingos into Times Square to raise awareness and funds for his future park. “You want things to happen a certain way so you don’t feel any pain,” he says. “But sometimes you have to go through pain in order to get to the other side, or to get to a good place in life.”
A fantasy world
As a child, Graham begged his mother to buy him comic books. He devoured the stories, getting lost in fantasy worlds like that of Richie Rich. “I would read them, then I would turn them around and I would read them over again,” Graham says. “I had stacks of them. My sister said, ‘Why in the world are you reading about a little rich boy that’s got all these gadgets and all these things?’”
He says his idea for Grahamland was inspired by his desire to give children some of that magic he craved as a child himself. “[Richie Rich] is what put the fantasy in my mind about all this stuff,” Graham says. “Making the horses walk one day, making the cows be able to talk to you—a little pony walks up and says, ‘Hey, welcome to Grahamland. We’re glad you’re here.’ That would blow kids’ minds.”
Despite several devastating setbacks, the by-the-bootstraps American dream is still very much alive at the nascent Grahamland. Graham, who says he grew up “a poor boy in the country,” got his first job as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant. He worked hard and kept getting promoted, working as a line cook, then in food prep. He waited tables and tended bar before taking a job at the electric company. After 20 years, he retired and now works at Corning. It may seem inconceivable to anyone who drives by his seemingly never-ending cast of colorful characters, but fiberglass work is still not Graham’s full-time job.
200,000 pounds of resin
Graham has been creating and repairing fiberglass figures in his spare time for 15 years, but he got into the industry somewhat accidentally. In the early 1990s, someone broke into Graham’s house and stole whatever they could grab. “They took checkbooks, they took Christmas presents, they took all kinds of stuff,” Graham says.
His wife at the time suggested they install lights to deter any future break-in attempts, and Graham—a born-and-bred North Carolinian—started to build small wooden lighthouses. A friend recommended he construct them out of metal and Graham turned his personal tragedy into a side business called American Lighthouses. When a hailstorm battered the sheet metal, Graham searched for an alternative. He found it 2.5 hours north, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina: a fiberglass replica of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse made by Bill Sharp.
Graham began to sell Sharp’s fiberglass lighthouses, eventually asking Sharp to teach him the tricks of the trade. A few years later, when Sharp decided to get out of the fiberglass business, Graham jumped at the chance to buy his supplies. “I started buying the molds one at a time, one at a time,” he says. “Then I started buying them two at a time.”
When the electric company offered him an early retirement package, Graham began building fiberglass boats, further honing his craft. “I started making flamingos, started making cows, started making bulls, started making all kinds of stuff,” he says. “I also learned how to make molds.” When the boat company went out of business, Graham once again sensed opportunity. He purchased their entire remaining inventory—including 100,000 pounds of glass and 200,000 pounds of resin—for one dollar.
He enlisted the help of 10 former coworkers to clear out the warehouse, but the shelf life of resin is only six to eight months, so they had to work fast. “Every day I would get up, wax and gel all the molds,” Graham says. “They would come in, they would roll all the glass. Next afternoon I would get up, pop them all out of the mold, wax and gel it again, every day. We did that for about a year and a half and then, boom, everything was made.”
Everything is for sale
Using his yard as a defacto showroom, Graham grew his fabrication business to include custom orders and rentals. Recent additions include dolphins, bears, zebras, and blue and pink smart cars “driven” by flamingos. Graham rents the cars and other figures for gender reveal parties and baby showers, and his creations populate private yards and roadside attractions around the country, including at the nearby South of the Border.
“I’m in the manufacturing business and [South of the Border] is in the entertainment business,” Graham says. “I’m trying to go into the entertainment business and the manufacturing business and the rental business all at the same time.”
One of the molds Graham purchased from Sharp was used to make the original Uniroyal Gals. Legend has it that a sculptor at International Fiberglass modeled the giants after Jackie Kennedy. Graham currently has two standing in his yard—one dressed in a bikini and one in a cowgirl outfit—but he wants to add more, including the first women of color.
“Everybody has a dream to do things, but a lot of people don’t have the ability to actually create it with their hands and with their own mind,” Graham says. “Whatever comes to my mind comes to my hands and I create it.” Graham clearly cares about his craft, but he’s not overly sentimental about the final product. When I ask if he considers himself a collector, he says, “No, I’m a businessman. Everything is for sale.”
In 2018, Graham watched helplessly as his dreams were washed away by rising flood waters. “I was at work watching [on my laptop] as my stuff floated away,” he says. “It’s a dramatic scene. I was looking on the news. CBS, ABC, everybody is saying, ‘This place is gone. This place is done.’” Thankfully, like Graham, fiberglass is remarkably resilient. Water can cause damage, but in most cases it’s fairly simple to repair.
Life may have handed Graham more than his share of lemons, but he remains intent on making lemonade—and eventually serving it at Grahamland. If things start going his way, Graham says his amusement and miniature golf park will include bumper cars, a tilt-a-whirl, a Tex-Mex restaurant, and plenty of his signature whimsical creatures.
“Life is always lived by looking backwards, but it’s learned by looking forward,” Graham says. “What you live, you’ve already seen. But your learning, it happens every day. You have to go through pain in order to learn from things that are going to happen to you later on in life. You say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve learned that. I’ve seen that happen before. I’m not going to let this happen again.’”
If you go
Grahamland is technically located on private property, so please be respectful.