STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Sorry to report this morning that interest in roadside attractions is not what it used to be. That staple of the American road trip, like the world's largest ball of string, could be unwinding.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: On Interstate 70 in western Kansas near the Colorado border, the billboards call frantically to motorists to come see the world's largest prairie dog, an 8,000 pound rodent.
And on this day the billboards have worked their magic again, luring Claude and Mabel Dewey(ph) into the souvenir shop lobby of Prairie Dog Town.
Ms. MABEL DEWEY: We have been seeing the signs (unintelligible) prairie dogs and snakes...
Mr. CLAUDE DEWEY: (Unintelligible) something like a museum.
Ms. DEWEY: We've seen them about 30 or 40 miles back.
Mr. DEWEY: We're in no hurry. We decided to stop by and see what was here. We're just out traveling.
BEAUBIEN: Along with the prairie dogs, the Deweys got to see the six-legged cow, a five-legged steer, several stuffed jackalopes and a wild Russian boar.
Larry Farmer, who opened Prairie Dog Town 40 years ago, pulls the cover off one of his other star attractions, a pit of hissing rattlesnakes.
Unidentified Man: Which one?
Mr. LARRY FARMER (Owner, Prairie Dog Town): That little baby right underneath the light; that little baby is about a week and a half old, and that little baby is more deadlier than the biggest ones in here. 'Cause what's in their heads is pure, pure poison.
BEAUBIEN: Larry Farmer charges $6.95 admission to what's essentially a large petting zoo with a couple of freak show animals. And the much hyped 8,000-pound prairie dog is actually made out of concrete.
Farmer turned 68 this year. He is no longer as passionate about prairie dogs as he once was, and he's decided to put his miniature theme park up for sale.
Mr. FARMER: I've had open heart surgery and two heart attacks. And after 40 years we sort of want to do something that we want to do.
BEAUBIEN: For decades, Prairie Dog Town has been a landmark on the highway between Kansas City and Denver. But in the age of DVD-equipped minivans, iPods, and hand-held video games, mom-and-pop attractions like this one are having a harder time pulling customers off the highway.
Five hundred and fifty miles east on I-70 near St. Louis, the Elvis is Alive Museum closed its doors earlier this month. For 17 years that museum put forth the case, complete with recordings and photos of an aging Elvis, that the king is still among us. But the proprietor was getting older too and at the age of 81 decided to auction off his Elvis museum on eBay.
Doug Kirby, who runs the Web site called RoadsideAmerica.com, says a lot of quirky attractions don't survive a transfer of ownership. Kirby says local building inspectors tend to crack down when a roadside petting zoo or an overgrown exhibit of hubcaps goes up for sale.
Kirby cites the King of Toilet Seat Art in Boron, California as a good example of an interesting attraction that just couldn't survive without its original proprietor.
Mr. DOUG KIRBY (RoadsideAmerica.com): Within probably weeks of his death, people just descended on his property and cleaned out all the toilet seats and just made it go away, and you could understand why you maybe wouldn't want to live next to a guy with toilet seats hanging all over the outside of his house.
BEAUBIEN: But Kirby still has faith that the roadside attraction will persist in some form as an American institution.
For every Toilet Seat Museum or Prairie Dog Town that disappears, he says there's some guy who we simply haven't heard of yet who's opened a backyard rollercoaster or a tribute to old glass bottles.
Just last week, Chief Henry, who claimed to be the world's most photographed Indian, passed away. But while Chief Henry may no longer be posing with tourists in Cherokee, North Carolina, there's a guy in rural northern Michigan who's putting a bridge over a sink hole, and he plans to be open in time for next summer's vacation travel season.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.
INSKEEP: For a list of recommended roadside attractions, travel to npr.org.
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