Joel Baker is a giant hunter. He travels across the country in search of towering sentinels that watch over small businesses. It's a quest that began more than ten years ago, when he became fascinated by a family of fiberglass figures collectively known as the "Muffler Men." "I think it's just because I never heard of them before," he said.
"They were larger than life. It was like, they were these massive things that were so hard to miss, and yet hardly anybody knew about them, or cared, and I think that intrigued me." Examples of "Muffler Men" - 20-foot-tall fiberglass figures that served as advertising, and a peculiar kind of American totem.
CBS News Back in the 1960s, these 20-foot-tall characters were considered the height of outdoor advertising. Businesses purchased figures from a California company, International Fiberglass, which had acquired a mold for a Paul Bunyan character. It could be modified to promote all sorts of establishments, with different versions of arms to fit into the giant sleeves. The giant currently watching over Lauterbach Tire & Auto Service in Springfield, Illinois, was one of those early Bunyan designs.
He's been moved back and forth to different locations, has survived a tornado decapitation, and is featured in local radio ads. Joel Baker points out an early version of the Muffler Man now standing outside Lauterbach Tire & Auto Service in Springfield, Illinois. CBS News According to co-owner Mark Lauterbach, he remains a pillar of the community to this day: "No one knows where we're at until we say, 'Hey, look for the giant.' And they're like, 'Oh yeah, yeah, I know exactly where you're at," he said. The giants were originally intended to draw attention to local businesses.
But they've since become attractions in their own right, thanks to a fan community that coalesced around the website Roadside America. Baker said, "Every giant has their personal story, right? And they vary so much. Arms fall off, heads are stolen or missing, and oftentimes people will take pictures and Roadside America will update their site." The site coined the term "Muffler Men" after noticing a few businesses had swapped out the Bunyan axe for a muffler.
But the statues have been modified to hold nearly anything – giant tools, birthday cakes, barbecue utensils, tires, even rockets. A map chronicles sightings of a whole extended family. There may be a Muffler Man near you! Roadside America Some consider the giant Vikings part of the cast of characters, as well as the Uniroyal Tire Girls. These giant figures include women and Vikings.
CBS News In the 1970s, International Fiberglass stopped making the figures. The craze had cooled off; many of the giants were torn down and tossed aside. There are thought to be just a few hundred left. But every once in a while a Muffler Man resurfaces. "That's my favorite part of all of this, is the hunt, looking for something that's lost," said Baker.
"You got pictures of a giant in a town in 1984, and then what happened to that? That's what I love to do." Baker and friends have started a side business tracking down, collecting and restoring the characters, documenting their quest on their YouTube channel American Giants. Today, restored figures in good condition can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Michael Younkin, who helps restore the fiberglass giants, with correspondent Conor Knighton.
CBS News The team is currently at work on preserving the legacy of these figures. They've recently created a small museum of giants in Atlanta, Illinois, just down the road from a giant "hot dog man." The Hot Dog Muffler Man in Atlanta, Ill. CBS News Baker said, "It's really a shame to have giants and have them where nobody can see them.
These were built to be out where the public can enjoy them and visit them, take their pictures." If only the statues could speak. They have seen it all – unflinching witnesses to decades of road trip history, providing countless smiles to help break up the miles. For more info: Story produced by Aria Shavelson.
Edited by Mike Levine and Carol Ross.