For nearly a decade, a 14-foot-tall fiberglass man with no arms and a crude makeshift head stood in a donkey pasture on a hillside overlooking Edward T. Breathitt Pennyrile Parkway. Upon closer inspection, an axe hung from its right arm, and cracks up and down the body were patched together with old road signs, rusty rivets and broken bolts.
To the average person driving by, it was a strange statue to come upon in the green hills of Mortons Gap, Kentucky, but Joel Baker knew this shabby piece of art was actually a Muffler Man – a piece of roadside Americana rarely seen along U.S. interstates today. The Mortons Gap Muffler Man is one of only about 200 known figures still found throughout the country. Most have been destroyed over the years and many others are in disrepair, but Baker’s passion for these curious roadside giants led to a Kickstarter fund for its restoration, which has saved at least this one from a similar fate.
Baker’s interest in such attractions began in 2010 when he found a massive headless dinosaur statue on the side of a highway in Florida. A bit of research led him to Roadside America, where a trio of authors (Doug Kirby, Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins) is constantly on the lookout to find quirky diversions for road trippers. As Kirby, Smith and Wilkins journeyed along America’s highways through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, they discovered several similar fiberglass statues, ranging in size from 14 to 25 feet tall, with their right hands facing up and their left hands facing down. The ones they spotted held giant car mufflers, and the Roadside America team began calling them Muffler Men.
Having stumbled upon Roadside America and its current online curated collection of Muffler Men, Baker ended up in Dade City, Florida, where he spotted his first true-to-life Muffler Man on January 31, 2011. In this version with a black beard, yellow cap and a wrench in his hands, Baker discovered a hobby that would eventually lead him to Mortons Gap. “I think what really pulled me in was the fact that there were more,” Baker says. “They were somewhat connected but scattered.” Intrigued by the giants, he began making detours into towns to look for them when he traveled.
Baker’s interest in their history led him to discover that Muffler Men were more than just bizarre roadside oddities. Produced in Venice, California, by International Fiberglass from 1962 to 1972, these massive statues helped promote small businesses throughout America. The company referred to them as Giant Men, since they held a variety of objects including axes, car parts and other things sold by family-owned companies during a time when road trips were common, but the Roadside America moniker has stuck as the common vernacular for these figures. Baker began a website, USAGiants.com, that chronicled his expeditions to find the fiberglass men, and in June 2013, he took a film crew on the road and began to shoot a YouTube series called “American Giants.”
The very first fiberglass Muffler Men produced was a pair of 20-foot Paul Bunyan statues built for Lumberjack Café in Flagstaff, Arizona, and they are believed to be the same ones that stand on the grounds of Northern Arizona University today. Roadside America’s map notes only one Muffler Man in Kentucky: The armless statue with a makeshift head made from plaster and a burlap bag in Mortons Gap. It wears a short-sleeve red shirt with a white collar and buttons, blue pants and black work boots. Though it certainly has seen better days, it’s no worse off than other Muffler Men that have lost limbs or the objects they originally held. Nonetheless, it was this statue that drew Baker in even deeper to his hobby.
“In my research, I discovered certain Muffler Men were pretty rare – only a few were made or many of them have been destroyed,” he says. The 14-foot lumberjack version found in Kentucky was never as popular as the taller statues that International Fiberglass made, and when Baker spotted a photo of it on RoadsideAmerica.com, he recognized the body mold and its rarity. The fact it was tucked in a donkey pasture in rural Kentucky, far from where most people would ever see it made this Muffler Man even more appealing, so Chicago-based Baker took off on a road trip, specifically in search of this figure. This led to a conversation with the owners (one of whom has since passed away) and this particular Muffler Man’s now-restored status.
In 1995, the owners acquired the already headless and armless statue from Pistol Pete’s Pawn Shop near Oak Grove, Kentucky, when the business closed. They set it up in their yard next to a tree for a few years before moving him to the donkey pasture, where it could be seen from the road. Though the owners knew nothing of its history at the time they bought it, when Baker mentioned his interest in Muffler Men to them, they noted their interest in finding replacement parts and restoring it to the original condition.
And so the Mortons Gap Muffler Man Restoration Project Kickstarter campaign was born in fall 2014. Exceeding the pledged goal of $1,575 by more than $800, Baker and a team of friends in Chicago began deconstructing the fiberglass giant so it could be restored as accurately as possible from its roots, despite the fact no photographs exist of this or versions of similar Muffler Men of which Baker is aware.
While removing several layers of paint, he literally began to uncover the Muffler Man’s past. “Working on him gave us even more clues to their history,” he says. They found a plate with the statue’s serial number and the year it was made. On the statue’s right chest, they uncovered the words “Implement Specialty Co. Inc.” and on the left chest was the name “Luke Lombard.” A search through newspapers from the 1960s revealed Lombard was a brand of chainsaws and Luke Lombard – with his square jaw, big nose and oversized hard hat – was the company’s mascot. “We don’t think ‘Luke Lombard’ was originally written on him,” he says. “It’s not as well done and it’s a different font, so we think it was put on a few years after.”
After the statue was sanded down, Baker recreated and replaced broken pieces and sealed cracks in the fiberglass. Mark Cline, who had made a mold of a 14-foot Muffler Man at his business Enchanted Castle Studios in Natural Bridge, Virginia, recast new parts and an axe for the Mortons Gap man. “The head is a close match, and the arms aren’t an exact match – they’re a bit puffier than what the original would have been – but few people would know that,” Baker says. The team then primed and painted the entire figure. At this point in time, they won’t repaint “Luke Lombard” back on the chest or recreate the hard hat it likely wore, though he says they may do both eventually.
Though the restoration process took a bit longer than expected – “I’m such a perfectionist, this project kept getting more detailed,” Baker says – the once dilapidated Mortons Gap Muffler Man has now traveled home to its donkey pasture. Once again, cars will speed past on the Edward T. Breathitt Pennyrile Parkway, though a complete Muffler Man – a restored piece of classic roadside Americana – now stands on the horizon instead of a hapless, limbless figure.
“It’s easy to forget about different periods in our history,” Baker says. “We don’t advertise that way anymore. That era came and is gone.” But for those traveling America’s roads – in Kentucky and beyond – there’s always a chance that a 20-foot fiberglass giant awaits around the next bend.
Thank you to Joel Baker, who shared the Mortons Gap Muffler Man story and pictures with me.