Giant Thermometer in Baker

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Giant Thermometer in Baker

Postby davidk6 » Mon Apr 11, 2005 3:01 pm ... california
Stopping Traffic by Degrees
How hot does it get on the way to Vegas? Hot enough for a soaring thermometer to snag tourists who might otherwise drive past.
By Ashley Powers
Times Staff Writer

April 11, 2005

BAKER, Calif. — This little speck off Interstate 15 was suffering an identity crisis. Tussling with Barstow and Nevada casinos for travelers with empty gas tanks or full bladders, the town first tried to lure them with a moniker, "Gateway to Death Valley." It didn't really work.

So in 1991, a local businessman built a reason for drivers to brake: a towering 134-foot thermometer, just 17 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty.

The pink beacon signals an oasis to eyes weary from the desert highway. Travelers sometimes mistake it for a flight tower or a casino gimmick. Then they spot the Bun Boy Motel's red neon — with only the letters N, O and O blinking — and hear desert radio stations touting the 700-person town's signpost.

"Baker," the ads say, "home of the World's Tallest Thermometer."

The tale of the nearly 13-story thermometer shows how roadside oddities, concrete dinosaurs and muffler men that dot the California desert and stand next to U.S. interstates are more than junkyard relics. They can not only boost a town's income, they can also bolster its sense of self.

Although travelers would inevitably make pit stops in Baker — its sold-out motels brim these days with Death Valley wildflower-gazers — its gargantuan temperature gauge is so intertwined with its identity that it was erected twice, braced with concrete once and dimmed to cut costs.

If the thermometer were dismantled, "it would be like not having a name at all," said Le Hayes, the unincorporated town's general manager. "We'd be back to 'that little town east of Barstow.' "

Roadside kitsch has pocked offramps since Route 66 rolled out from Chicago to Los Angeles. The so-called Mother Road gave birth to a giant wooden blue whale at Catoosa, Okla.; several wigwam motels and the Cadillac Ranch — 10 Cadillacs half-buried nose down — near Amarillo, Texas.

The desert, with a particularly large number of eye-catching attractions to flaunt, carries on the tradition.

The stops that snare drivers include apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex statues in Cabazon, a burlesque museum in Helendale called Exotic World and a Last Supper reconstruction in Yucca Valley, even though an earthquake severed some of the statues' heads and hands.

Although there are plenty of road warriors — more than three-fourths of vacationers drive, the Travel Industry Assn. of America says — interstate towns still battle for growling stomachs and people taking bathroom-breaks.

A giant thermometer functions "like a great ad that gets you to go to a restaurant," said Scott Harris, a marketing consultant in Thousand Oaks who has driven through 48 states.

"It's a clutter-buster: If you see nine gas stations and the tenth one has a giant Paul Bunyan statue, where are you going to stop?"

Willis Herron figured as much when he dumped $700,000 into a thermometer whose 4,900 globe-style bulbs lighted up the night sky and required him to pull down his window shades at his home across the street.

Glittering casinos on the Nevada border 50 miles away tempted drivers to power past the rest stop, and Herron, who called Baker home for half a century, couldn't watch the roadside town turn into a ghost town.

When he was co-owner of the Bun Boy restaurant, Herron overheard diners bragging on pay phones about the skin-searing heat. Somehow, that morphed into an idea for a thermometer that would track temperatures that often creep into triple digits.

"Awww, I know it's tacky," Herron told The Times in 1991. "But I also know people won't be able to pass it more than four or five times without saying, 'What … is that?' "

So over the objections of his six children, who pined for a beachside condo, and some locals who fretted that the phallic symbol would sully their hometown, Herron built a thermometer big enough for Paul Bunyan. The idea sprouted from 60 feet to 134 feet after someone brainstormed that it should mark Death Valley's recording of the country's hottest temperature: 134 degrees in 1913.

"People would say Baker was a pit stop. They used that word: pit stop. I resented that," said Herron, 80, who once crowed that his creation would transform the town into Thermometer City.

Baker's biggest competition, International Falls, Minn., nicknamed Icebox of the Nation, dismantled its own thermometer in 2002 after it broke, though its 26-foot Smokey Bear statue remains.

The Baker thermometer's three sides broadcast the current temperature using strings of glowing ovals that climb in 10-degree increments — from 30 to 130 — though rain often hampers its accuracy and bulbs sometimes flame out.

The Bun Boy next door sells thermometer postcards and T-shirts, and its paper children's menu brags, "Our thermometer is 134 feet high! Cool huh? or … really hot huh?"

Just after construction ended, 70 mph winds snapped the thermometer in two. Its top 114 feet crushed an under-construction gift shop and an empty Southern California Edison truck. Two years later, the rebuilt thermometer swayed and clanged like a church bell in high winds, so contractors popped off its top and poured concrete inside to strengthen the metal core.

Herron fought to keep the thermometer standing out of more than fatherly affection. He said business at the Bun Boy and country store leaped immediately after its creation. Community leaders credit the thermometer for spurring some development and lots of curiosity.

The Lansdale family recently pulled over and gawked at the attraction on their way back to La Selva Beach, near Santa Cruz, after a spring break spent admiring desert wildflowers.

The three kids were amused. Their mom was indifferent. And dad?

"I'm more into the natural phenomena than a chintzy, man-made, ugly thermometer," Michael Lansdale said.

Still, they stopped in Baker.

Likewise, reporters phone the Bun Boy when the mercury soars and ask: How hot? The Travel Channel in 2002 listed the temperature gauge as one of the world's best roadside attractions.

"It's like the pyramids and the Statue of Liberty: the largest thermometer of its kind," said Darryl Griset, an admirer from Wyoming walking his Pomeranian, Lucky, on a recent afternoon.

Another peculiar stop has joined the thermometer, the Bun Boy and a 24-hour gyro joint, the Mad Greek, on the dusty artery of Baker Boulevard. Alien Fresh Jerky greets roadsters with a saucer and "space troopers" in a Ford Taurus, which the owner has locked since a woman jumped into the car and got "naked with the aliens."

"The UFO pulls them off the road," said owner Luis Ramallo, who lives in Las Vegas. "Then they see the space troopers and — bing! — they get inside the store."

Many dots on the roadmap, barely squeaking out a living, look to visitors as their saviors. "They're praying people run out of gas at some point," said Benjamin Winchester of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

But refilling coffee, stocking Cheetos and patching flat tires tend to be low-paying jobs that lack health benefits. Towns that lean on roadside attractions may not weather a downturn in travelers, he said, or may pump money into tourist stops, not into townspeople.

Some Baker residents grumble that although the town opened a Coco's restaurant and prettied Baker Boulevard in the last decade, officials have lagged in improving their lives. The area's median income is $27,000, and two-thirds of residences are mobile homes, census figures show.

"I asked my grandson, 'What's the greatest thing about living in Baker,' and he said, 'We're the place with the world's largest thermometer,' " said a woman sipping Coke at the Bun Boy.

"And he was being sarcastic," said the boy's mother, Susanne Layes, an AAA dispatcher who went to high school in Baker.

The thermometer's sheen has recently dimmed. Larry Dabour — co-owner of the Bun Boy, the Mad Greek and the giant thermometer — grimaced at an $11,000 monthly electric bill too many times. He doused the lights between temperature ovals, which lowered his payout to $5,000. He couldn't switch it off, though.

"You need a gimmick, a reason to stop besides the bathroom," Dabour said, sitting under plastic grapes at the Mad Greek. "You know, what we need is the world's largest bathroom."

He glanced at the thermometer. The temperature read 63 degrees.

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Postby Futura Girl » Tue Apr 12, 2005 3:16 pm

i USED to stop at the Bun Boy on the way to/from Vegas - but they close way too early nowadays. Plus their sign always has burned out letters making it look less than hospitable anyway. So now I go to the Mad Greek for a pit stop and some baklava for the road.

It's a shame that the Bun Boy and the thermometer have deteriorated so badly.

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Postby nredom » Mon Dec 24, 2012 10:32 am

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Postby I_LUV_POWER!!!! » Thu Jan 03, 2013 7:07 pm

I remember seeing several Bun Boy restaurants in the mid-'70s as my family traveled to northern CA and passed through small towns. In ensuing years, I thought they'd been eradicated from the face of the earth until I passed the one between L.A. and Vegas in 1990. That's the only one I've seen since the '70s.

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Postby So_Cal_Native_in_Texas » Sun Feb 10, 2013 10:25 am

The World's Largest Thermometer is up for sale! Asking price: $1.75 million!

Plus the owner of the Bob's Big Boy was ordered by a judge to pay the Big Boy company in Michigan $40k for not paying his franchise fees, and to cease and desist using the Big Boy name.....I'm sure the Bun Boy name is available for him, though!


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Postby Futura Girl » Mon Feb 11, 2013 12:57 am

wow! thanks for that dramatic update!

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Postby Joe » Thu Mar 07, 2013 1:54 pm

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