By Jessica Mozo
A word to the wise when driving through Illinois: Don’t blink. Because if you do, you’ll probably miss something extraordinary.
Bizarre attractions you won’t see anywhere else sprinkle Illinois’ roadsides. They include the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville to the fire-breathing Kaskaskia Dragon in Vandalia to the World’s Largest Stained Glass Window.
“As the starting point for historic Route 66, Illinois is the place for travelers to explore what lies along the open road,” says a representative of the Illinois Office of Tourism. “Route 66 universalized the concept of the classic American road trip, so it’s only natural that Illinois offers so many unique roadside attractions for visitors and residents to enjoy.”
World’s Largest Catsup Bottle
Towering 170 feet over Route 159 just south of Collinsville, the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle was built in 1949 by the W.E. Caldwell Co. for the G.S. Suppiger catsup bottling plant, which bottled Brooks Rich & Tangy Ketchup in Collinsville from the 1890s until the mid-1960s. Today, it’s a popular photo stop with passersby, but it nearly met its demise in the 1990s with talk of demolishing it due to disrepair.
“It got to be kind of a mess, but in 1995, several citizens formed a group to raise money to restore and repaint it,” says Mike Gassmann, president of the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes the attraction and sponsors the annual World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Festival every July. “After two years of selling shirts and souvenirs, the group raised the $78,000 needed to strip the catsup bottle down to bare metal and restore it exactly as it was in 1949.”
The nonprofit hopes eventually to build a visitor center and a small museum detailing Collinsville’s catsup-making history, but for now, the catsup bottle is just a fun, weird place to stop and snap a photo. Catsup bottle T-shirts, key chains, baseball caps and post cards are sold at Ashmann Pharmacy on Main Street.
“A lot of the old-timers in Collinsville worked at the factory, so the catsup bottle has sentimental value for them,” Gassmann says. “People around the country appreciate the effort it took to save it. Kids love it because it looks so huge to them. Architects appreciate it, and people in the food industry think it’s pretty cool, too.”
Just off Veterans Parkway in Vandalia, you’ll find the 36-foot-long metal monster known as the Kaskaskia Dragon. Built by employees of Walt Barenfanger’s Kaskaskia Supply True Value store over a slow winter in 1995, the dragon started as nothing more than a grown-up toy.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would attract this much attention,” Barenfanger says. “We were just playing, really.”
When someone suggested the dragon should breathe fire, a local propane expert created a system using a hidden button to cause the creature’s eyes to glow and fire to shoot from its nostrils. Barenfanger’s crew anchored the dragon beside the highway in 2001 and installed a self-service coin box so tourists could insert tokens whenever they wanted to see it breathe fire. For a $1 token, the dragon shoots fire for 12 seconds. Tokens can be purchased at Kaskaskia Supply or at a liquor store across the street from the dragon.
“A lot of people like to see it shoot fire after dark, because it’s even more dramatic,” Barenfanger says. “Since we put the token taker on it two years ago, we’ve had more than 3,700 tokens go through it.”
The list of oddities in Illinois doesn’t stop there. At the mausoleum at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, you’ll find the World’s Largest Stained Glass Window, a 22,381-square-foot structure depicting stories from the Bible. Other offbeat attractions include the 27-foot-long Large Radio Flyer Wagon in Elmwood Park; the World’s Largest Lincoln Statue in Ashmore; the Big Blue Adirondack Chair in Galesburg; the Gemini Giant in Wilmington; the Superman Statue in Metropolis; and a life-size statue of Robert Wadlow (cited as the World’s Tallest Man by Guinness World Records) in Alton.
More Roadside ATtractions in Illinois
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