Thousands if not millions of words have been written about the romance of traveling across the United States by motor. The subject of the great American road trip has been celebrated in every form of art there is: in the poetry of Jack Kerouac, in song by Bobby Troup and in too many movies to mention. My point by stating this is that there is very little I can say in my 500 words that would be anything new about the allure of this subject. What I do want to talk about is a by-product of this theme: roadside attractions.
Tucked away in a small Texas town called Hillsboro is a museum dedicated to that most uniquely American phenomena, the roadside attraction. “The Roadside America Museum” was founded by Carroll Estes and consists of a spotless collection of items that were created during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s to lure the traveler inside to eat, sleep or simply to marvel.
Mr. Estes has been collecting all things roadside, large and small for, as he puts it “as long as I can remember,” and has everything from small signs, to a full drug store soda fountain, to several cars and busses dating back to the 1920’s. Almost everything in The Roadside America Museum” is in great condition-but not restored.
“I don’t think you should restore an item if you don’t have to, because it loses something,” says Mr. Estes, as he leads me through the immaculate collection. “All I do is clean it up and repair it, if it needs it.” Cars are the exception, he tells me. There aren’t many left that don’t need restoration.
Maybe the best representation of this particular genre of Americana is the advertising road sign. Before the invention the automobile and its distribution to the masses, the road sign didn’t exist. There was no need for a flashy sign if you were hobbling along in a carriage at 5 MPH. But, after WWII, cars became affordable to every family, the great American road trip was born and with it, the great American roadside attraction.
Roadside museums have become something of a roadside attraction themselves and I have seen my share of them. Usually, they are haphazard, outdoor affairs, overgrown by weeds and rotting away in the sun. The first thing that struck me as I entered the 100-year-old brick building was how the museum was curated. The cavernous building (a former Ford dealership and antique in it’s own right) was crowded with nostalgia, but well organized into a thematic journey. Mr. Estes is obviously more than an expert; he is a curator and historian. He instinctively knows how to present each item in a way so that it can tell it’s own story.
Money is not what spurs this collector to preserve and display these irreplaceable items from America’s highways and byways. It is the appreciation of the subject that drives him to collect. He admits that the museum is in a terrible location, being more than two miles off a major interstate and too far into the town to actually be an attraction itself. He is reluctant to talk about his own dedication and work, but sources close to him say he is obsessed. He has been known to spot a rusting hulk of a trailer or bus, baking in a field and immediately stop and seek out its owner to purchase the treasure on the spot. Then spend weeks, months, even years nursing the vehicle back to its full glory.
You may never get a chance to visit “The Roadside America Museum,” and that is a shame. There are very few museums that so well capture the romance of traveling across the land via car or motorcycle and there is no finer example of one mans attempt to preserve a lost period of America. It is truly a labor of love.
The Roadside American Museum 212 East Elm Street Hillboro, TX 76645