The giant peanut in Jimmy Carter's hometown, Plains, has a presidential visage. Illustration by Kati Sellers

The giant peanut in Jimmy Carter’s hometown, Plains, has a presidential visage. Illustration by Kati Sellers

Georgia has plenty of attractions worth tapping the brake for. Take a winding tour of some of the state’s quirkiest landmarks in this special ‘Backyard Traveler.’

To explore Georgia thoroughly, one must venture past the familiar grounds of grade-school field trips. Beyond the Iron Horse and Stone Mountain, there are Muffler Men standing firm as pine trees and historic replicas that have no budget for laser shows but are rich in civic pride.

Photographer Brian Brown of Fitzgerald knows roadside Georgia like the back of his camera. Since 2008, he’s been documenting its historic squares, forgotten farmhouses, aging murals and the like for Vanishing South Georgia, Vanishing Coastal Georgia, and other personal projects.

“Abandoned churches and country stores are among my favorite architectural subjects, but I like anything that seems under-appreciated or unknown,” says Brown. “Georgia roads pass through beautiful country in all parts of the state and they’re full of surprises, whether they be an historic marker for the world’s largest bass or the hometown of a president.”

So on your next cross-countryside excursion, view Georgia’s roadsides through the eager eyes of a documentary photographer or out-of-state tourist, and consider some boiled peanut-fueled detours to some of these kookier diversions.

 

Big Americana

Do you know the Muffler Man? He lives on hundreds of lanes across the United States, at least four of them in Georgia. But travelers, be sure to take out the sightseeing binoculars and return each giant’s gaze with a scrupulous once-over, for imposters stand among them.

“We are the self-proclaimed arbiters of what is a Muffler Man and what is not a Muffler Man,” says RoadsideAmerica.com publisher Doug Kirby, who began tracking Muffler Men in the ‘90s. “Over time we found all these mutants and variations.”

He lists their essential distinguishing traits: made of fiberglass, 18-25 feet tall, “well-chiseled facial bones” and other manly markers, left arm facing down, right arm facing up. Muffler optional.

You can find the real deal in Douglas, East Point, Leesburg, Powder Springs and Washington — all of which likely were produced in the 1960s and ‘70s by a California company. Each has been given its own unique paint job and accessories, such as a captain’s hat or a garden hoe. One was transformed into a saluting Native American and placed behind football bleachers in support of the McEachern High School Indians.

“The original appeal of them was when you put a Muffler Man up in front of your gas station your business would double,” said Kirby. The effect faded in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Muffler Men changed ownership and even location, and spotting them has become a niche pastime.

In 2005, the Muffler Man in front of a Washington brake shop was abandoned after the business owner’s wife won the lottery. But someone appreciated this titan of tourism, giving him a fresh coat of paint around 2010.

“It’s like anything, you sort of take it for granted until they start disappearing,” said Kirby, adding that the going rate for a post-recession Muffler Man seems to be about $6,000.

 

Cape Cordele

Take I-75 down to Southwest Georgia and you may get the sudden impulse to duck and cover. That’s because in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, the Cordele Rotary Club president brought a Titan missile to town in an effort to capture the attention of those speeding by on the newly built Interstate. A local newspaper reports that the site of the 100-foot-tall relic is now tended to by employees of the adjacent Krystal restaurant.

 

Jumbo Peanuts

There’s the World’s Largest Peanut, and then there’s the world’s largest anthropomorphized peanut. The World’s Largest Peanut sits atop a crown off I-75 in Ashburn, and is dedicated to the memory of Georgia Journalism Hall-of-Famer Nora Lawrence Smith. The world’s largest anthropomorphized peanut dons the unmistakable grin of former President Jimmy Carter, and is located a half mile north of downtown Plains.

 

Man’s Best Friend

“You’ll pass it if you’re not really looking for it,” says Royston resident Candy Rhodes. Her town is home to the Ty Cobb museum and mausoleum, but she’s not talking about those well-advertised tributes to a world-famous baseball legend.

She’s referring to the final resting place of another local hero: Old Fly, the Berryman family’s beloved mule.

“It was used for several generations, and when he died they buried the mule in the family graveyard,” says Rhodes, who works for the downtown development authority. “Sometimes it gets kind of grown up.”

But not all pet cemeteries are so obscure — or obscured.

In Waynesboro, “The Bird Dog Capital of the World,” Di-Lane Plantation marks the graves of more than 100 canine hunting companions.

The Augusta Chronicle writes that the cemetery was created in the 1930s as part of a private hunting property owned by New York millionaire and Eagle Pencil Co. heir Henry Berol. Epigraphs describe each pet’s personalities and accomplishments, or lack thereof. (Rexall was a “GREAT CHAMPION BUT NEVER WON A TITLE,” notes the guidebook “Weird Georgia.”)

And down in Waycross, there’s Stuckie the petrified dog.

“It’s exactly as advertised,” said Blackshear native Mack Williams, who used to see Stuckie every summer during Enrichment Camp at Southern Forest World. “A mummified dog stuck in a section of hollowed out tree. It’s kinda gross but also awesome.”

The story goes that the dog was hunting with his master about 50 years ago when he chased an animal 20 feet up a hollow chestnut oak. He became wedged inside, died out of reach of rescue, and was preserved in resin until other hunters found him in the 1980s. Southern Forest World displayed the petrified pup for years before holding the contest that gave him his woefully appropriate name.

 

Historic Replicas

Outdoor mall shopping and Swedish furniture wonderland Ikea lure out-of-towners to Atlantic Station, while the Millenium Gate beautifies their arrival. Or bewilders.

Some aren’t sure why there’s an 82-foot-tall variation on Rome’s Arch of Triumph in Midtown Atlanta, while others embrace the Millenium Gate as the perfect spot for a wedding or charity ball.

Within its limestone exterior is 12,000 square feet of gallery space and three period rooms, including an 18th century Colonial study.

While the Gate may have missed the turn of its titular millenium by several years, it is still the largest classical monument erected in the U.S. since the Jefferson Memorial’s completion in 1943.

A number of other neoclassical replicas turn traveler’s heads in Georgia, including a 13,000-square-foot “White House” in Lawrenceville that used to be the headquarters of a now-failed bank (and thus features a drive-up teller window).

And a little of that American can-do spirit led the townspeople of McRae to whip together their own Statue of Liberty from wood, styrofoam and other materials found around town. This little Lady Liberty stands near a Liberty Bell replica made from the old fire bell.

 

Living History (Almost)

“A little over five years ago I came over to Warm Springs and bought a piece of property, and it was dead as it could be,” says Preston Evans. “I already had a lot of motorcycles, and there was the beginning of motorcycle traffic coming in here. So I opened a [motorcycle] museum. Then I opened a second museum. Then I opened a third museum.”

Now known as Biker Village, the collection of exhibitions, game machines, jukeboxes, and other memorabilia needed something to tie it closer to the history of Warm Springs, Evans then decided.

“I got my mind set on getting a wax figure of [Franklin D.] Roosevelt,” he said. But, as with the original venture, once Evans started he had to go big. America’s 32nd president was soon followed by several other sculpted leaders of the free world as well as enough celebrities to populate a highly eclectic cocktail party (in which the guests are stiffer than the drinks).

Evans opened the Follow the Leaders Wax museum last summer, featuring creations by famous figure maker Katherine Stubergh. Strolling through the rooms of a former residence, you’ll find Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and FDR gathered around a seated Richard Nixon. Perhaps they are waiting in vain for Abraham Lincoln, who is being shot by John Wilkes Booth in a different room.

The star attraction is a waxwork of Albert Einstein that was made in 1947 from a mold of the physicist’s face. It is signed on the neck by both Stubergh and Einstein and went for a “phenomenal price,” says Evans.

A figure of astronaut Buzz Aldrin will soon join Neil Armstrong’s, stepping up the science quotient. Meanwhile, “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino and Dolly Parton work their physical charms.

“I’ve got two big signs outside of the house there,” says Evans. “One has Dolly in the middle, which doesn’t make sense to most people. I don’t like to make sense.”

 

Folks & Art

Just off State Route 137 near Buena Vista, you can follow Eddie Martin Road straight to its namesake’s kaleidoscopic vision of a peaceful future.

A self-taught artist with a self-made religion, Martin — a Marion County native who called himself St. EOM — established the Pasaquan art community in 1957 after struggling to gain recognition in New York City. Supporting himself through card reading, he set to work developing his mother’s old home and the surrounding seven acres into a vibrantly painted landscape that reflects his obsession with Native American, Mayan, Aztec, Egyptian and Eastern cultures.

“He was guided by designs in his head,” says Pasaquan board member Annie Moye. “I think St. EOM wanted to prove to himself and to the art world that he was a true artist.”

Pasaquan is open the first Saturday of each month between April and November, culminating in the annual Artists for Pasaquan weekend. There, festivalgoers can receive the signature Pasaquan up-do, reflecting the founder’s key theory that hair is an antenna to god.

Moye says St. EOM intended Pasaquan to be a sort of religious mecca, but that many visitors have trouble finding the place.

“We’ve had a lot of people tell us their GPS won’t get them there, and they end up lost out on the back roads of Marion County,” says Moye. “And although that poses a problem for attendance, I like the idea that St. EOM’s cosmic city seems literally out of this world.”

 

Finster’s Paradise

Howard Finster was a Baptist minister and prolific visionary artist who produced more than 46,000 works, including a maze of buildings, sculptures and displays made from found objects and recycled materials that became known as Paradise Garden. In 2011, Chattooga County purchased the land, and a plan for use and restoration of the art site was finalized in May 2012. •

Rebecca Bowen is a freelancer writer living in Atlanta.