5/12/22: Oddball Attractions from Grand Island, NE-Iowa City, IA!

Dear family and friends,

Driving across this country’s heartland can be utterly boring in my opinion if you stick to the interstate. However, if you spread your wings and want to find out about the ‘real’ America, it’s absolutely worthwhile to detour to some of the nation’s byways as we had the time to do at the beginning of this marathon road trip. That was how we discovered why Nebraska of all places has a lighthouse, were able to see a hilltop shrine overlooking the prairie, a Superman carved from a tree, and the most moving Freedom Rock among many oddball or unusual attractions. Come, take a ride with us and see what we did!

All the best to you and your loved ones,


As Steven and I continued our way across the state of Nebraska and into Iowa on the second day of our trip, we thought it would make the drive a little more exciting if we tried to see some of the states’ oddball or quirky attractions! Back in 1964, a businessman bought land next to the new interstate exit in Milford, Nebraska, initially opening a campground named “Westward Ho!” with big wooden teepees. A gas station measuring 50 feet long by 50 feet high was constructed in 1971 across the street so it could later be expanded into a giant covered wagon. In 1976, the man’s dream was realized with the station’s roof or canopy consisting of white roofing shingles over seven wooden arches. Four 24-foot-tall wheels were bolted to the four corners of the building.

The wagon was designed to replicate the old covered wagons that crossed the Nebraska plains on the Oregon and Mormon Trails in the 1800s. It was rather sad to see the former wagon missing its wheels, the building itself falling apart, and graffiti evident on what had once been a local attraction. Neither of us wanted to linger long as the stench from the nearby fields was intense!

Further east, in downtown Lincoln was a mammoth head made entirely of bricks. Located at the entrance to the Jayne Snyder Trails Center, the ten-foot-tall, eight-ton head, named Groundwater Colossus was the largest of several big brick heads built by New York artist James Tyler. Its purpose was to personify the Ogallala Aquifer that sits beneath it. I read that there were loudspeakers built into the head that sometimes play the “sounds of clanging metal to represent the jarring impact of people on the environment” but we heard nothing that day.

The center appeared to be a lovely place to take a stroll in the city.

Instead of hiking, though, we chose to see Superman – or at least, one created from wood after a large tree died in the front yard of a huge fan of the Man of Steel. The bulging muscles and six-pack abs came to life after a full-time University of Nebraska architecture student agreed to work on Superman in his spare time even though he’d never carved a human or, should I say, superhuman, before!

Notice the Superman flag proudly flying beneath the American flag!

Until I looked into the history as to why the Linoma Lighthouse existed in the inland state of Nebraska, it just seemed extremely odd! However, it made some sense when I learned the Linoma Beach Resort was created in 1924 about halfway between Lincoln and Omaha, the state’s two largest cities. The Linoma name came from the first three letters of each of the two names.

As automobile ownership increased and roads were improved, roadside businesses across Nebraska installed whimsical and eye-catching structures. As a waterside attraction, Linoma opted for a maritime theme so a 100-foot lighthouse was constructed beside the highway in 1939. The base of the lighthouse was a glass-and-masonry filling station. Now you, too, know the story!

Definitely not ‘oddball’ but certainly unusual was the large Holy Family Shrine perched on the bluffs overlooking the Platte Valley in Gretna, Nebraska. The shrine, accessible via a mile-long gravel road off of Interstate 80, acted as a beacon atop the hill, attracting pilgrims and others to it.

The mission for building the large Holy Family Shrine  was to create a place for travelers to pray and discover the Catholic faith who were not only on the road but part of the “spiritual voyage on earth.”

The design elements included native perennials highlighting the entry and the passage to the chapel. 

A path cut into the earth exposed a natural limestone entry through a tomb-like passage symbolizing the Catholic belief in the need to die to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Both photos below from Trip Advisor:

The path led to the visitors’ center where a suspended sculpture represented the shroud of Christ as it fell to the tomb after the resurrection. The suspension was intended to remind believers that the resurrection was still present in our lives today. 

Leaving the visitors’ center, we noticed the chapel facade was constructed with Western Red Cedar with the upper trusses interlaced like waving wheat in a field. The wheat, symbolic of the Eucharist, is the basis of the Catholic Church. The chapel sat upon limestone that appeared to have been eroded on a piece of exposed rock atop the hill. 

Inside the chapel, water split to each side of the aisle increasing in both volume and velocity. Limestone bridges allowed people to enter and exit the pews which recalled the sacrament of Baptism. The water was at its peak beneath the altar which represented the Holy Spirit reaching its height through the Eucharist. The glass walls allowed “the harmony of God-made nature to interact with the man-made structure, creating seamless beauty.”

Tiered metal sconces represented the ribs of Christ and the cross’ wood was supported by Christ’s arms.

The 16-foot by an 8-foot single piece of the etched glass figure of the Holy Family may have been the largest in the US. Above is my interior view but this exterior view is from Trip Advisor.

Other exterior views I took:

Whether one is religious or not, I think it would be hard to deny the architectural beauty of the shrine, its stunning location overlooking the prairie, and how it is truly one with nature. A perfect place to sit and reflect. 

This was another case of from the sublime to the ridiculous: from the glorious shrine to the Spinning Yellow Man in Omaha! Dressed in a fun rain slicker with a big grin on his face, we found the 20-foot-tall man at Speeder’s Car Wash cheerily greeting all passersby. And yes, we drove by a couple of times to make sure he was spinning!

After crossing over into the state of Iowa, our quest for oddball attractions took us to a farm in tiny Avoca to see what surely was a Louise Bourgeois-inspired piece, a Volkswagen Beetle Spider!

Whipping along Interstate 80 so often on previous trips we’d never seen these ridges in the farm fields before that went on for about 20 miles. We wondered whether they were to prevent erosion on the windswept plains?

Atop a small hill in the Iowa town of Adair, a wagon wheel and a short train track marked the site of the first train robbery in the West. It was committed by the notorious Jesse James and his game of outlaws on July 21, 1873.

I think I’ll more likely remember Adair by its bulbous yellow municipal water tower, Ol’ Smiley, that was erected in 1979! The town’s slogan once was, “Adair: It’ll make you smile!” Apparently, Adair is the only American town with a smiley face water tower and a monument for Jesse James!

Shortly after entering the wind farms of southwest Iowa, it was impossible to miss the 148-foot-tall single turbine blade erected like a tower in 2012 in Casey. It was certainly the first time we’d seen one sticking out of the ground!

The Casey rest stop had some great ideas for sleepy drivers – advice Steven and I found we needed just yesterday after committing to too long a drive on too little sleep with almost dire consequences. 

Thirty-three miles away in Greenfield was Freedom Rock which was continually repainted on all sides every year by Ray “Bubba” Sorenson II, with patriotic images to support veterans. The 2019 design was dominated by a tribute to the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I read that other themes included Washington crossing the Delaware, the MIA logo, a plane launching from an aircraft carrier, and the 9/11 rubble. 

It gave me the willies to learn the artist has, upon request, included ashes of vets mixed into the paint. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the artist displaying his support for those who serve 

When we stopped by, the 24th permutation of Freedom Rock wasn’t yet finished in time for Memorial Day later in the month. It was so heartwarming to read that since 2013 Sorenson has been painting Freedom Rocks in each of Iowa’s 99 counties! The one for Madison County is next to the John Wayne Museum in Winterset and includes pictures of Wayne in various military roles.

I found the rock so moving I could easily see our making a stop at Freedom Rock every time we’re nearby to see what design Sorenson has created to honor the vets.

In 1934 Harry Kalbach commissioned the Nebraska Neon Sign Company to build a metal service station attendant, in a blue uniform outlined in red neon, greeting travelers on the White Pole Road or Old Route 6 with a friendly neon wave. Airline pilots used it as a beacon, and young children would wave back at the sign as they passed the sign in Menlo!

We thought that we’d get right back on I-80 but then decided to take most of the 26-mile-long White Pole Road, so named because its poles have been painted white. In December of 1931, sections of White Pole Road officially became a part of US Highway 6, which at one point was the longest continuous east-west route in the United States stretching from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Long Beach, California. In 1947, Iowa joined other states in officially designating US 6 to be named the Grand Army of the Republic Highway at the urging of an association of Union Veterans of the Civil War. 

From small-town USA, we hit the big city of Des Moines and the Iowa state capital where we stopped at a “huge” sculpture park. I intentionally used quotation marks as not only was the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park huge but many of its sculptures were also super-sized as you can see from the Clare Oldenburg trowel!

Although we weren’t supposed to touch, I was sorely tempted to do just that with these colorful characters titled Three Dancing Figures Version C by Keith Haring. I wonder where versions A and B are?

Spaniard Jaume Plensa created Nomade from painted stainless steel in 2007. It was only when we got very close that we realized the figures were made of letters!

At the opposite end of the park, Steven couldn’t wait to pose by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Moonrise! 

Doesn’t this other Rondinone work put a smile on your face?!

No Beetle Spider here but the real Spider by none other than the spider queen herself, Louise Bourgeois!

Some other pieces caught our fancy before we headed another 115 miles onto Iowa City for the night.

Next post: From the world’s largest wooden nickel in Coralville, Iowa, to Chicago, Illinois!

Posted on June 28th, 2022, from Rockland, Maine, after we returned to the States this morning from touring a good chunk of eastern Canada for the last five weeks and are now beginning our long swing south toward Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama.


4 thoughts on “5/12/22: Oddball Attractions from Grand Island, NE-Iowa City, IA!

  1. This looks like just our sort of day on the road. I love all the oddballs, especially the Volkswagen Beetle Spider and that huge head 🙂 And the sculpture park looks great too!


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