No road trip is quite complete without making a stop at something billed as the “World’s Largest” this or “World’s Tallest” that. It’s even better when these superlative roadside attractions aren’t written on our road trip itineraries and you come upon them by surprise.

This is what happened during a recent trip to Metropolis, Illinois. On the way to take a few selfies with hometown (super)hero Superman, we happened upon a big, big, man – so big, in fact, he stands twice as tall as Superman and is built like he could give the Man of Steel a real run for his money.

His name is Big John and he’s been standing around Metropolis since 1967.

The Birth of Giants

Back in the early 1960s, roadside giants were standing tall over America’s highways from coast to coast.

Stephanie Stuckey posing with a Muffler Man.
Image: Stuckey’s Corp./Stephanie Stuckey

The first of these fiberglass colossi was a larger-than-life Paul Bunyan statue holding an oversized axe built by Prewitt’s Fiberglass of Lawndale, California, in 1962 to promote the Paul Bunyan Café on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

In 1963, California boatbuilder Steve Dashew acquired the original Paul Bunyan molds when bought the Prewitt Fiberglass Company and changed its name to International Fiberglass. Using these molds, International Fiberglass began creating other character variations of the Paul Bunyan statue, keeping the same right hand up, left hand down characteristics of the original. Some of these characters would be used for restaurants while others were used for a variety of automotive products like mufflers (hence, the commonly used name to describe these roadside giants – “muffler men”).

“A Big, Big Man…”

Around 1967, Bob Martin and Frank Bayley decided they wanted to go big, too. The two owned a chain of grocery stores in Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee and giant roadside mascot built in front of their stores to promote them.

Image: Stuckey’s Corp./Stephanie Stuckey

Besides just being big, however, they wanted it to represent the culture, value and grit of their customers who, at that time, were mostly made up of people who worked in Southern Illinois’ coal mining industry. 

So, Martin and Bayley got together with General Sign Company of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and created a 28-foot-tall (five feet taller than muffler men) giant of a man who wore a red and white checkered shirt, blue jeans, a work apron and two big black shoes. In his big brawny arms he held two bags that were nearly spilling over with groceries. Taking inspiration from the 1961 Jimmy Dean hit Big Bad John, they called the hulk of a grocery boy (and their supermarkets) “Big John”. Bob and Frank ordered a dozen of them.

No Sleeping Giant

Over the last 60 years or so, like their namesake supermarkets, Big Johns have come and gone. However, also like their stores, there are still some of these silent sentinels standing out there. In fact, two of them stand watch over Big John stores in Illinois – one in Eldorado, the other in Metropolis.

Image: Stuckey’s Corp/Stephanie Stuckey

Others are reincarnated when a Big John Supermarket goes out of business like the one that has been standing outside the Big John Plaza in Cape Coral, FL since 1969. You’ll find another one that’s made the rounds at businesses all over Carmi, Illinois. For now, he’s known as “Little Giant” and has settled in front of the grocery store that also bears that name. You can find “State Line Big John” outside of Boom City Fireworks on the Mississippi/Tennessee state line.

Still others have made their way into private collections like the Big John that stands tall at the Farnham Colossi near Berkeley Springs, WV, and two more that are located in the collection of Glen Goode’s “Big People” in Gainesville, TX.

Though maybe not as popular as muffler men, they’re just as fun to discover on your way to see Superman or wherever the road may take you.

While we’re on the subject of shopping, you can still shop online at stuckeysgifts.com  for all of your holiday gifts and snacks. You might not get it by Christmas, but if you order by December 24, we’ll still throw in a free 2oz. Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll as our way of saying “Merry Christmas!”

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again.