The World’s Tallest Gnome has found a new home—but not all ‘roadside orphans’ are as lucky

Repurposed Muffler Men are proof that there’s value in saving forgotten roadside attractions

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

As the popularity of road trips skyrocketed, starting in the 1940s, so did the opportunity for entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the wants and needs of people criss-crossing the United States and Canada. As more and more businesses were popping up along highways, the competition to lure travelers to a specific business became fierce—and sometimes downright entertaining—with all sorts of kitschy roadside icons being constructed.

But what happens when the times change, businesses close, and the roadside icon once used as a symbol of a business falls into disrepair? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Howard, the World’s Tallest Gnome, in the small Vancouver Island community of Nanoose Bay.

Gnome-man’s land

Created in 1998, Howard the Gnome helped Ron Hale and his family welcome travelers to a Nanoose Bay amusement park.

Howard, the World’s Tallest Gnome, in Nanoose Bay. | Photo: Bridget Matewish
A Facebook page dedicated to saving Howard received over 150 requests. | Photo: Bridget Matewish

Standing at just shy of 26 feet tall, Howard is recognized as the World’s Tallest Gnome by the Guiness World Records, and he gleefully greeted visitors to Hale’s family amusement park for years.

Sadly, the property’s new owners, who now run a gas station on the site, didn’t really have a use for old Howard. He fell into disrepair and risked being completely destroyed—unless someone would be kind enough to adopt him.

A little over a month ago, Hale’s granddaughter, Bridget Matewish, took to social media to find a new home for Howard—and over 150 offers flooded in. The family narrowed the requests down to five finalists before announcing he would be going to Galey Farms in Victoria, British Columbia.

The fun-loving farm features a corn maze, farmer’s market, and plenty of other family-friendly activities for Howard to preside over in his “gnome-man’s land.” The plan is to repaint Howard to his original colors and even make his arm wave.

Howard, however, is one of the lucky ones.

Many other “roadside orphans” of the past twenty years have fallen by the wayside. You’ll find no better example than the Muffler Men that once dotted the American landscape.

The Gemini Giant roadside attraction was named for NASA's Project Gemini space program.
Made for the Launching Pad Drive-in on Route 66 in Wilmington, Illinois, the Gemini Giant was named for NASA’s Project Gemini space program. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Before he was moved to the site of the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, NY this roadside fiberglass giant stood outside of a car repair shop in Albany, holding a muffler.
Before he was moved to the site of the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York, this fiberglass giant stood outside of a car repair shop in Albany, holding a muffler. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The fate of the Muffler Men

At their peak, approximately 150 giant Muffler Men beckoned travelers to service stations—arms outstretched, holding oversized mufflers. As many of the service stations closed, the giant statues eventually fell away, too.

Some were repurposed into Paul Bunyans or given new things to hold instead of mufflers. Unfortunately, when their new “occupations” fizzled, many were orphaned a second time. One example is the giant Muffler Man holding a hot dog that once advertised a restaurant in Cicero, Illinois.

When the business owner retired and sold his business, the giant hot dog-holding Muffler Man seemed to be alone once again—but the owner’s family graciously agreed to relocate the statue to the small town of Atlanta, Illinois, right on Route 66.

Not only had the giant found a new home, but he’d put a tiny Route 66 town back on the map.

"Tall Paul," a roadside attraction holding a hot dog, on Route 66 in Atlanta, Illinois.
“Tall Paul” holding a hot dog on Route 66 in Atlanta, Illinois. | Photo: Shutterstock

“It’s obvious, the Bunyon Giant is Atlanta’s largest tourist draw. Since he arrived in town in 2005, he has attracted tourists from all over the world,” says Bill Thomas of Atlanta, Illinois.

Today, “Tall Paul”—as he is known around town—is one of the most photographed spots on all of Route 66, and his presence drives customers to multiple small businesses in the town, particularly Atlanta’s Palms Grill Cafe.

With towns like Atlanta finding great tourism value in these old roadside attractions, and with the enormous number of adoption requests for Howard the Gnome, it’s obvious that many towns, cities, and businesses still see the value in these funky icons.

Is there a roadside attraction that you’d like to see revitalized before it’s too late? Try convincing its owners to put it up for adoption—and you just might be amazed to see how quickly it could find a new home.