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Roadside behemoths stand tall at the American Giants Museum Memorial Day weekend

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CHICAGO (CBS) —The holiday weekend is a popular time to hit the road, and a new museum hosting its official grand opening on Friday combines that tradition with celebrating iconic outdoor advertising beacons of the past. 

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It's not Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, but Mortimer Snerd was a popular dummy with fans of Chicago-born ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Yolanda Perdomo/CBS

From Chicago, the start of Route 66, it's about 150 miles south to a one-of-a-kind space. 

In the form of an old-fashioned gas station, the American Giants Museum is the first of its kind to exhibit a collection of advertising phenomenons known as Muffler Men. Yolanda Perdomo/CBS

The American Giants Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to what Roadside America calls "Muffler Men." 

You know them when you see them: Large, lantern-jaw fiberglass outdoor statues once used to draw attention to everything from auto repair shops to hotdog stands. 

"I think they're a unique, successful attempt at advertising in the 1960s. And there's nothing else like them. They've got this very iconic look. And they just mesh so well with those who like nostalgia, the vintage roadside," said American Giants founder Joel Baker. "So I think they're an important part of our advertising history."

A huge history

International Fiberglass created them in the 1960s, and the first one took the form of the large, legendary folk hero Paul Bunyan. 

That decade also saw the boom of auto travel, which became a popular and relatively inexpensive way to vacation.   

"They were called Brand Man. The idea would be you could apply the brand of your business to it," said Doug Kirby of Roadside America.

The billboards in the shape of giant men and women were also fun for people who wanted to stop and take pictures with a giant, quirky landmark. 

Soon, companies began placing orders for giant statues, ranging from 14 feet to more than 20 feet tall. The statues' arms and hands can be adjusted to hold things like an axe, an ice cream cone, a flag, a rocket, and, of course, a muffler.  

"Back in the 60s, International Fiberglass was always trying to come up with ways to alter that original Bunyan Muffler Man to make new versions. The cowboys and the pirates and the Bunyans and so on. They made an Alfred E. Neuman-looking guy that they call the Snerd," Baker said.      

More than 500 were made, but around 200 are still around, according to Roadside America, a website that describes itself as "Your Guide to Offbeat Tourist Attractions" and has a tracking map of the Muffler Men still standing across the country. 

At least five are in the Chicago area, including "Indian Brave" statues. A handful of Muffler Men are downstate. 

"They're sort of this iconic character, these stereotype characters that are tongue in cheek. They're not patriotic figures. But they are familiar," Kirby said, explaining their popularity. In the American West, the cowboy or just the service station man—any of these things that are just emblematic of driving in America. And you know, because they're, they're large." 

A gigantic idea

In 2011, while on a work trip in Florida, Baker became intrigued—and later obsessed—with finding the mammoth-sized statues.

Following the Roadside America website and map, he traveled the country looking for them, ultimately buying and restoring as many stunning statues as possible. He also got their life stories from people who had them lying around on their property. 

"They would pull out family photo albums and let me take pictures of the pictures. They would give me all kinds of information that wasn't making its way onto social media platforms," Baker said. "And I realized pretty quickly that people ate this stuff up. So I kept doing it."

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The work never ends for Joel Baker and his quest to find, restore, and reset the famed American advertising Muffler Men giants. Joel Baker/Instagram

As he found Muffler Men pieces, a head here, an arm there, he and a friend, Michael Youngin, began restoring them, adding sturdy steel supports inside to keep them from tipping over.

"We became experts in taking these guys down, setting them up, and transporting it, which is a unique skill in itself because who does that, right? So we kind of became the guys that did this very unique work of transporting and restoring and taking giants down," Baker said, adding that the giants have an online life of their own.

Since molds can be made of existing Muffler Men, new ones can be created starting at around $20,000. But the originals are very much in demand. 

Earlier this year, the Gemini Giant outside a restaurant in Wilmington was auctioned off, with the Joliet Area Historical Museum buying him for $275,000. The goal is to restore and reposition the giant in a Wilmington park. 

"I've been doing all this social media stuff for a few years. So it's like the fan base and the business owners who want giants or want them restored is growing, and we're seeing this increase in interest in these giants," Baker said.

Where to put a colossal collection?

Baker's passion for following giant footsteps took him to Atlanta, Illinois, home of the "Bunyon Giant," a Muffler Man clad in a bright red shirt and blue jeans holding a huge hotdog complete with a yellow mustard stripe. 

This Muffler Man stood in front of a Cicero hotdog stand for decades before the restaurant owner retired. His family has lent the statue to the city of Atlanta. Yolanda Perdomo/CBS

Bunyon once stood in front of a Cicero hotdog restaurant. Still, when the owner retired, the "Bunyon" (spelled differently for copyright reasons) came to Atlanta, where he's been looking out over Route 66 for the last 20 years. 

From his office window, Bill Thomas saw Baker taking pictures of the statue and went to introduce himself. They soon became friends, sharing an enthusiasm for all things giants.

"I learned that he was on a personal mission to find and save all of these giants, or as many as he could. And he just sort of offhandedly, in the course of our conversation, said, 'Yeah, I have the giants. I have body parts. I have paperwork and photography from the company. But what I don't have is a museum.'"

Thomas, with the Atlanta Betterment Fund, a preservation organization, worked to secure funding and a location for a museum. 

"It is directly on an original alignment of Route 66. This building looks like an old circa 1965 Texaco gas station. Back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, there was a gas station on this corner that sat at an angle, so we thought, okay, we like that historic connection," Thomas said. "And because we knew that one of our biggest artifacts that we would eventually have at the museum was a Texaco Big Friend. We thought we'd just design the building to look like a Texaco station. So he'll feel at home."

A little more than ten years after their first meeting, Baker and Thomas swung open the huge doors of the American Giants Museum. Baker supplies the giants for the museum, and an offshoot company, ReGiant, works on restoring and repairing Muffler Men. 

Inside are fiberglass pieces of Muffler Men and a detailed history of their place in American advertising. 

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A Uniroyal Gal and Muffler Man welcome visitors to the American Giants Museum Yolanda Perodmo/CBS

Concrete slabs outside the museum will serve as platforms for future Muffler Men to stand tall with their fiberglass brethren, greeting visitors and anyone driving on this stretch of Route 66.

The goal is to have six of Baker's Muffler Men on site by 2026 when Route 66 will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Atlanta's American Giants Museum is hosting several events this holiday weekend, including installing a Texaco Big Friend giant and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Baker will also be there to talk about his passion project.

Baker said on his Facebook page that the Gemini Giant will visit the American Giants Museum on Sunday, May 26, making a pitstop before passing through to the ReGiant restoration facility downstate.

A "sleeping" giant was recently discovered in the Chicago area, and Baker said it will also be restored to its original towering glory.

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A recent find for the American Giants, a Muffler Man that once stood in a Chicago suburb. Joel Baker/American Giants

Baker said it was from Bartlett and stood at Big Ben's Tire Barn in the 80s and 90s. 

"The giant was called Big Ben and was taken down in the late 90s and stored in the attic of the building, which today is Conway Auto Imports," Baker said, adding that research is being done to confirm its previous home in another suburb.

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A Muffler Man was recently discovered in the Chicago area and, according to Joel Baker, will be restored to be part of the American Giants collection of iconic Muffler Men. Joel Baker/American Giants

"Before moving to Bartlett, we believe the giant was at Adventureland in Addison, Illinois, during the 60s and early 70s. This giant has some great Illinois Chicago area history, and we plan to restore him for the museum," Baker said. 

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Bill Thomas with the American Giants Museum will be on hand for the big grand opening this weekend. Yolanda Perdomo/CBS

Thomas, an Atlanta resident, is happy to welcome visitors to his city because he knows they'll love seeing the same thing he gets to look at every day. 

The giants loom large and have a special place in American history.

"Children are just in awe of them and just love being able to go up to them and touch them," Thomas said, adding that adults also find them fascinating. 

"It's such a fabulous idea. Who would have ever thought of building a giant and putting it next to your business as a means of attracting people," Thomas said. "It also captures the sort of kitschy nature of Route 66 and how idiosyncratic the road is. It's not just cookie-cutter restaurants and hotels. It's one unique, interesting thing after another."

The American Giants Museum has information on its website about the history of Muffler Men and details for the holiday weekend event, rain or shine.

A smiling Snerd welcomes visitors to the American Giants Museum Yolanda Perdomo/CBS
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