When I was a kid, my family spent a lot of summers on the road, visiting national parks in the West to escape the Kansas heat. In between listening to audiobooks and defending my side of the back seat from my brother, I would look out the window for weird places to stop.
One of my favorites was the World’s Wonder View Tower near Genoa, Colorado, which promised two-headed cows, rooster glasses, and a view of six states from its tower. I would plead with my parents to stop. “That’s just a tourist trap,” my dad usually said—but depending on how tired he was of the back seat battles, we might get to stop anyway. The place was always jam-packed with weird and wild things, and 30 years later, I still think of it fondly.
When I share this story with Erika Nelson, artist and creator of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, she immediately knows what I mean.
“That light in your voice, that’s what it’s all about,” Nelson says. “Most of us still have that [inner] kid in the back seat screaming for mom and dad to stop.” Nelson’s own inner kid was partially her inspiration for her unique collection.
Back in the early 2000s, as she was finishing her MFA and teaching at the University of Kansas, Nelson was also roadtripping around the middle of the country as often as possible. She found herself stopping in small towns boasting an object billed as the “World’s Largest,” including the World’s Largest Booming Prairie Chicken in Rothsay, Minnesota, and the World’s Largest Badger in Birnamwood, Wisconsin.
As many of us would, she wanted to take a souvenir with her, but most of these artworks didn’t have any such option. “So, I started making them,” Nelson says. But her artistic mind didn’t stop there.
“It was during the first batch of model-making that it occurred to me that since I was making replicas of the World’s Largest [things], it would be a fun play on superlatives to make them tiny,” Nelson says. Next thing she knew, she had amassed the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Version of the World’s Largest Things (WLCoWSVoWLT for short).
Today, Nelson is one of the country’s premier experts on World’s Largest things, which are often erected by small towns looking for ways to put themselves on the map. “The reason they have a big thing is to celebrate something about their town and they decided to do it in a big, iconic way,” Nelson says. “Everybody can tell you the story of that monument.”
These oversized icons are often set in small agricultural communities, and Nelson originally thought she’d find tension between the artists and the locals, or between different towns who each claimed the World’s Largest version of something. But it turns out World’s Largest communities aren’t at each other’s throats. Instead, she found some good natured ribbing.
“There is a beautiful one-upsmanship,” Nelson says.
If two towns claimed to be the home of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, for instance, Nelson found that one (or both) would add some additional signifiers. For instance, you will find the World’s Largest Ball of Sisal Twine Built by One Person in Darwin, Minnesota. But the World’s Largest Ball of Sisal Twine Built by a Community is in Cawker City, Kansas. And the World’s Largest Ball of Nylon Twine lives at a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum in Branson, Missouri. The list goes on. Everybody just wants visitors to stop in their town and share the stories about their World’s Largest item.
As Nelson’s collection of hand-crafted souvenirs grew, she began sharing WLCoWSVoWLT with others. One of the amazing things about the collection is its multiple iterations. The most static place to find a portion of the collection is at the Roadside Sideshow Expo in Lucas, Kansas, about 15 miles off of I-70.
Open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, April through October—or any other time you can catch Nelson in town to open it for you—the Expo features themed exhibits from the collection, as well as other images and souvenirs from the traveling museum. Of the more than 200 miniatures on display, Nelson says a favorite is a fully playable miniature version of a Gooney Golf miniature golf course.
“It’s very meta,” she says. During a summer festival, a few local boys stopped in regularly, announcing, “I’m just here to play golf.”
On the road
But in the true spirit of road trips, WLCoWSVoWLT’s main life is on the road. Because Nelson was essentially living on the road when the idea was born, it became a traveling exhibition out of necessity.
Over the years, WLCoWSVoWLT has been housed in windows in the side of her bus, inside of portable trunks which are easy to set up at a show or festival, or, most recently, in The Circus Wagon, three trailers with hand-painted banners advertising the “Sauk County Superlatives” and “Wisconsin Wonders” contained within.
When she’s not on the road, Nelson’s creations may also live at their home in Lucas—but if you’re really lucky, you’ll just happen to spot them out in the world.
“People going to a museum expect to see something and may have already decided what that’s going to feel like,” Nelson says. “But when you happen upon something in a parking lot, it’s an unexpected little spark to somebody’s day.”