Autumn is fast approaching, and with it the beginning of a new school term. Whilst Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and Yale all undoubtedly have their charms, there’s only one seat of higher education where you can learn all about the Room of Forgotten Souls, where to find the world’s largest Bowie knife, or even a house floating mysteriously in the clouds. If like us, you would love to major in the study of roadside kitsch and peculiar oddities, there’s only one place to enrol: Oddball University!
For this edition of the Fellow Explorer’s Club, we caught up with C.J. Calhoun, Founder and Professor at our new favourite academic institution.
Society for Gentlemen Explorers (SGE): How did the Oddball University come about?
Professor Calhoun (PC): I wanted a page where I could build camaraderie and communicate with people with similar interests. I liked the idea or theme of a ‘University’ where I, and others, could share information and background on the ‘odd’ discoveries that were photographed. The ;Oddball’ just made sense as an all-encompassing word for various finds and discoveries that are just a little bit different. You must admit, Oddball University does have a ring to it!
SGE: All good educational institutions have a motto, and yours is particularly fine. What is the message behind “Building A Quirkier Tomorrow?”
PC: Thank you for that! We’re trying to share and promote a somewhat different way of looking at things. Shining a light on people or attractions that don’t quite fit the cookie cutter mold of what’s thought of as the “norm” today.
SGE: On your Instagram page you list your interests as roadside/kitsch/oddities……what is it that you love about these so much?
PC: I’ve always been fascinated by things or people that are just a little different, or perhaps, see things from a slightly different point of view. Take for example, John Mikovisch, the creator of the Beer Can House in Houston, Texas. Mr. Milovisch had a vision in his head for something different (plus a love of beer!), and combined those two things and over the years and created one of my all-time favourite oddball locations. Guinness World Book of Records estimates over 50,000 cans of beer were used constructing this masterpiece of folk art. I would have loved to have had a chance to have a beer and a chat with that guy!
SGE: Roadside oddities seem to be more common in North America than anywhere else in the world. I’m thinking particularly of things like the giant Paul Bunyan statues and the Sinclair Oil dinosaurs. Why do you think that is?
PC: Roadside Oddities or Attractions seem to flourish in locations with lots of roads and wide-open spaces. For this reason, they seem to have flourished most in the United States, Canada, and Australia. After driving for hours without seeing anything interesting, almost any sort of diversion or attraction is a welcome sight!
SGE: What can you tell us about the history and origin of these odd roadside attractions?
PC: There is a lot of truth in the famous Field of Dreams quote, “If you build it, he will come.” For about as long as there have been paved roads and automobiles, there have been roadside attractions. Most often roadside attractions were found after vast stretches of empty road with hardly anything in-between. Billboards were used to great advantage promoting these oddities. After seeing billboards promoting an attraction for perhaps 100 miles, with each sign becoming more and more insistent that you MUST STOP for say, the “World’s Only Fiji Mermaid!”…well, which gas station are you going to stop at? Never mind the “Fiji Mermaid” looks nothing like the beautiful siren depicted on the billboard but is a one foot long, charcoal coloured, taxidermy oddity! These well-advertised roadside attractions were hit and miss, but with the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the late 1950’s, most of these roadside oddities slowly died out, with only the best and strongest attractions left to lure interstate travellers off of the beaten path. Today, ‘Oddballers’ gladly go miles and miles out of there way to see these roadside wonders. It used to be that a roadside attraction was a stop on the way to somewhere. Today, for some of us, they are often the destination themselves.
SGE: What are some of the favourite things you’ve come across?
PC: Beer Can House (of course!), The “Eye” (Dallas, TX), Mammy’s Cupboard (Natchez, MS), Cadillac Ranch (Amarillo, TX), The Blue Swallow Motel (Tucamcari, NM), Museum of The Weird (Austin, TX), just to name a few.
SGE: How do you go about finding places and things to feature? Are you researching online, or are you just out and keeping your eyes open?
PC: When someone asks me where to start, I usually tell them to check out the website Roadside America. They have a great inventory of many of the more well-known roadside attractions in the United States. If you want to start digging deeper for interesting oddities and bits of history local to you, a few tried and true methods for me are geocaching.com, local museums, libraries or books and websites covering the odd, haunted, or abandoned. You’ll often find, that while researching one topic, you will come across another, more interesting topic, and you’re off down that rabbit hole! One of my biggest joys is discovering an oddity or bit of history that has been forgotten or at least not known to my fellow Oddballer’s. It truly is a great hobby!
SGE: We liked your recent posting about recruiting people to become professors, and getting like minded people together generally. Are there future plans at the University to give classes?
PC: Ha-ha!! No, there aren’t any current plans for proper courses at Oddball University. We do try to give a pretty good description for all our finds and features. Also, we have in the works some University themed merchandise for some our devoted Oddballer’s coming out soon. A special shout out to Oddball University Grad Assistant @ms_ravenwood and fellow Professor @arentyousogladi for all their support and assistance with day to day operations at Oddball U. Make sure to check them out on Instagram!
SGE: What’s some of the best stuff your fellows have sent in?
PC: This is a very tough one. Currently, we don’t feature a photo unless the photo is hash tagged #oddballu and then we ask permission to feature the photo. We are truly very grateful to everyone that has submitted a photo to us. They are a part of this thing and are ‘Helping to build a quirkier tomorrow!’ In saying all that, some of my personal favourites are the “Room of the Forgotten Souls” by @ms._nerdy_by_nature (located at the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health); “World’s Only Mechanical Corndog” by @chimpkisser (located at Rockaway Beach, Oregon); “World’s Largest Concrete Gnome” by @online_oscar (located at Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University); “Carhenge” by @justjiggles (located in Alliance, Nebraska); “World’s Largest Chest of Drawers” by @sarahsweetie_onthemove (located in High Point, North Carolina); “Granny’s Motel” by @lora1050 (located in Frackville, Pennsylvania), “Giant Table and Chairs” by @arentyousogladi (located in Grand Rapids, Michigan); “World’s Largest Chocolate Moose” by @nook_and_cranny_newengland; “The d’Arenberg Cube Restaurant” by @audreyashley66 (located in Adelaide, Australia); “Mr. Rex” by @staggscrossing (located in Cabazon, California); “The House In The Clouds” by @megmeg724 (located in Suffolk, England); “Peeking Giant Bear by @thevanpirechronicles (located in Denver, Colorado) … and that’s just to name a few!
Editor’s Note: The Room of Forgotten Souls was discovered during renovations at Oregon State Hospital, when 3,476 copper urns containing the ashes of cremated patients were found in an abandoned room at the psychiatric hospital, the filming location for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
SGE: Is there something in particular you’ve got in mind you’d love to go see next?
PC: At the very tip top of my “Bucket List Mountain” are the Cabazon Dinosaurs in California and “Larry the Lobster” aka The Big Lobster, located in Kingston, SE, South Australia. The Cabazon dinosaurs came to my attention decades ago via “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. It’s my opinion that every self-respecting roadside oddity enthusiast should, at least once, visit Mr. Rex. Myself, being a self-respecting roadside oddity enthusiast, plan on scratching that itch at some point in the near future. The Big Lobster landed on my radar years ago via Bill Bryson’s classic travel book, “In a Sunburned Country”. Having recently finished with college, I found myself on a long Qantas flight to New Zealand. The local bookstore didn’t have any books on New Zealand, and myself being a naïve young American, I assumed a book about their next-door neighbours, Australia, would be good enough. Well, the book is a classic (my young research methods are another matter!) and I ended up being very charmed by the book and the chapter dealing with Larry the Lobster and Australian ‘Big Things’ in general. Also, hopefully this autumn, a trip to the Northeast will come together. I really want to visit Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving’s classic about this ‘sleepy’ little area has intrigued me for years and I think the area really needs the Oddball University treatment!
SGE: We noticed your interest in finding John Murrell’s Treasure. How is the hunt coming along?
PC: If anyone wants to help find John Murrell’s Treasure, they are more than welcome to come help!! I’m more than happy to share a little background about the treasure. In the early 1800’s, Spain and the United States could not settle on a boundary between Texas and Louisiana. Rather than go to war over this area, the “Neutral Strip” was formed. This area was lawless with no governing body. Soon bandits and outlaws of all sorts inhabited the area. John Murrell was one such outlaw. Murrell, who often posed as a Preacher, took advantage of the lawlessness and was rumoured to have amassed a large fortune in treasure. This area of Louisiana was also geologically unique in that there was a series of caves in the otherwise swampy State. Murrell and his men used these caves as a hideout and a place to hide their stolen loot. No one knows whatever happened to Murrell but people have been searching for his treasure ever since. Sadly, in the 1940’s, the Forest Service blew up most of these unique caves in order to stop people from potentially hurting themselves (and shooting others) while out treasure hunting. Fortunately, I’ve scouted a few promising locations and plan to go back this autumn to search a few of the remaining caves.
So there you have it! Our thanks to Professor Calhoun for taking the time to lift the lid on some of the more peculiar, odd and intriguing corners of our world. Everyday at Oddball University, new field research is being undertaken and presented! If you take only one new class this autumn term, make sure it is at Oddball University!