Peek Inside This Traveling Museum of the Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things
It's a roadside attraction… about roadside attractions.
Scattered along the plains and prairies of America, you'll discover a sea of concrete dinosaurs, eerie ghost towns, mysterious caves, and abandoned rest stops. The railroads may have built this country, but its roadside attractions made it the stuff of road-trip legend.
Smack in the center of Kansas, you'll find the largest concentration of roadside attractions in the known universe, including dozens of versions of the world's largest objects. And they're all crammed into one regular-sized room: The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Or maybe, if you're lucky, it'll come to you.
Twenty years ago, Erika Nelson was wrapping up her MFA at the University of Kansas, teaching animation and textiles -- and suffocating within the confines of academia. To keep herself sane, as she put it, she’d take road trips, where she found herself drawn to roadside attractions and artist-built environments.
Her favorite attractions usually didn’t have souvenir shops, so she started taking photos and making miniature models to remember them by. After 9/11, Nelson found herself at an impasse, and ready to commit to her true passion. So she went all in.
"At that point, it was like, are you gonna go on this track that everybody set out for you?" Nelson said. "Or are you gonna do what you’re really passionate about?"
Instead of signing on to a tenure-track position, Nelson sold everything she owned and moved into a bus. For the next two years she lived on the road, working on what would become World’s Largest Things, Inc., home of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.
The first WLCoWSVoWLT Mobile Museum -- her bus -- had its inaugural tour across the US in April 2003. Her journeys took her all over the country, and included a stop on Conan in 2010 after catching producers' attention with her replica of the World's Largest Cow Hairball, which she made out of cat hair.
Today, Nelson’s Mobile Museum units -- the original bus, plus a "Jeepalope" -- are based in Lucas, Kansas, a tiny, artsy town in the center of the state that punches way above its weight in terms of roadside attractions and oddities. In 2017, she opened a brick-and-mortar version of the Roadside Sideshow Expo.
For the roadshow, each stop gets a different array of her pieces: She curates her Mobile Museum collection to appeal to the residents of wherever she’s driving, usually displaying about 30 at a time. She even has her own theme song, a rollicking country-tinged anthem perfectly calibrated for road tripping.
"You get this thing that used to be a badger, with some black and white paint, but all of its innards just kind of squirting out.”
The process of creating each miniature usually takes between a few hours and a few days, but this is nothing compared to the work that goes into identifying and procuring the materials that will allow the proportions to scale. Nelson is, to put it very mildly, a stickler for details.
The World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker, Kansas, for instance, is made of sisal twine. "The replicas they were selling at the gift shop were like, normal-sized twine around a golf ball," Nelson said. "Like, this is crap! This isn’t right!"
Nelson painstakingly re-created her world’s smallest version of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (.5" diameter) with twine-colored embroidering thread, "so you still get that difference in scale of the material itself, but also that obsessive winding."
Miniaturized Carhenge (24" x 24" x 4") took a week to complete once materials were assembled. But it took a couple years for Nelson to find models of the same cars that make up the real automotive Stonehenge in Alliance, Nebraska.
For Wilmington, Delaware's World’s Largest Rubber Band Ball, she contacted a dentist and got braces bands so that the miniature version (.5" diameter) could have miniature rubber bands. For the World’s Largest Penny -- the pride of Woodruff, Wisconsin -- she found a miniature penny, and carefully scratched off the date, replacing it with the date on the world’s largest one.
The World’s Largest Baseball Bat in Louisville, Kentucky, was made by a water tower manufacturer, so Nelson made her miniature bat (4" x 2" x 3") out of wood and then hand painted all the detailing so it matched. Then she got a model railroad set of buildings and painted those to match the buildings behind the bat, too.
Nelson estimates she’s built around 300 of these miniatures over the years, though only maybe 200 are viable at any given time. Sometimes the big thing gets taken down, and then the little thing is obsolete. Sometimes she doesn’t find one interesting anymore.
And sometimes, in the case of clay models, they explode. The extremely not-temperature-controlled Mobile Museum window displays cause the clay models to expand and contract in the heat. Acrylic paint, however, is not breathable, so the skin that encapsulates the clay is not expanding with it. Inevitably, the pressure becomes too much.
"You’ll go out one day and the model is fine, but then the next day the clay has burst through the skin," Nelson said ruefully. "So you get this thing that used to be a badger, with some black and white paint, but all of its innards just kind of squirting out."
The world’s smallest version of Birnamwood, Wisconsin'sWorld’s Largest Badger (1" x 1" x .75") is a labor of love, and her explodiest creation. Nelson has tried remaking it out of different kinds of clay, but nothing’s lasted more than two years before exploding.
"There’s no pre-produced thing that can replicate [it] the same way, so it always has to be sculpted," Nelson said. "But I just love the badger so much I can’t stand to not have it in the Mobile Museum, even though I know it’ll kill it eventually."
In an extremely meta turn of events at the world's most meta tribute to roadside America, Nelson is simultaneously making her own World’s Largest Ball of Chewing Gum and its accompanying miniature version. For every stick of gum she chews for the big one -- some untold hundreds thus far -- she chews a Mini Chiclet for the smaller version. This is a somewhat burdensome process... mostly because she doesn’t actually like gum.
"It just gets bigger and bigger," Nelson said. "I’d like to see how far it can go. At some point it’ll get unwieldy or maybe a health hazard -- I’m sure there’ll be a logical stopping point, but I haven’t predetermined it."
Chiclets were discontinued in the US in 2016, so she hasn’t been able to work on the miniature since her stash ran out in 2017. After our conversation, I emailed her upon discovering that Chiclets may have popped up in 2019 from a manufacturer in Mexico. I also asked why someone who by her own admission "kind of hates gum" had decided on a project that committed her to chewing inordinate amounts of gum indefinitely.
"Thought it'd be funny," Nelson wrote back. "And achievable."