Elephants Never Forget — And At 6 Stories Tall, This One's Unforgettable Lucy the Elephant is the oldest roadside attraction in America. Saved from the wrecking ball, she's a survivor among the increasingly endangered species of American roadside oddities.

Elephants Never Forget — And At 6 Stories Tall, This One's Unforgettable

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From giant statues of Paul Bunyan or dinosaurs, to the house made of beer cans, we tend to think of roadside attractions as an outgrowth of automobile culture. But the oldest surviving roadside attraction dates all the way back to the era of the horse and buggy. Reporter Emma Jacobs took a road trip to see Lucy the Elephant.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: At six stories tall, Lucy is hard to miss. The gray pachyderm towers over the main drag in Margate, N.J., a sleepy beach town south of Atlantic City. A door in one of her legs reveals a narrow wooden staircase up to a wood-paneled room in her stomach. Ten-year-old Rosie Garcia is visiting on a tour this afternoon.

ROSIE: I actually thought it would look a little bigger on the inside, but this is pretty big.

JACOBS: Lucy has welcomed generations of visitors since she was dreamt up by a real estate speculator back in 1881 to get people to stop by his otherwise empty section of beachfront property. Richard Helfant grew up here in Margate in the 1960s, when his favorite restaurant stood in the shadows of the decaying elephant.

RICHARD HELFANT: There was this hotdog stand called Lenny's, and it was right here on the corner, and that was open 24 hours a day. And they had the best - the best hot dogs on the planet.

JACOBS: Lucy was in such bad shape then that she had been condemned.

HELFANT: And we would ride our bikes here, sometimes two or three o'clock in the morning, have hot dogs and break inside the elephant and eat them.

JACOBS: Now, a reformed Helfant has his own key. He's the executive director of the elephant, which was restored and reopened with help from residents. Today, experts believe she's the oldest surviving roadside attraction in America. Brian Butko works at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. He says Lucy predates a lot of the roadside giants that went up as growing numbers of cars hit the road in the '20s and '30s.

BRIAN BUTKO: Early on, probably the most common were cafes that were trying to let people know exactly what they offered, and they were built in the shape of a coffee pot or a teapot.

JACOBS: More went up after World War II, with the most impressive collection in California.

BUTKO: The sunny weather, the fantasy of Hollywood and the car culture all combined.

JACOBS: But Lucy has outlasted many of her descendants. In the '50s and '60s, interstates literally bypassed many of the roadside attractions on the older highways. A great number have fallen to development. House movers had to relocate Lucy two blocks to make way for condominiums. But paradoxically, Butko thinks the disappearance of many roadside attractions has rekindled interest in those that remain. Today, websites and apps like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura allow people to learn about and plan visits to roadside oddities.

BUTKO: Hi, folks. Welcome to Lucy. If you're interested in our last tour of the day, it goes on...

JACOBS: Lucy the Elephant gets 130,000 visitors a year. In addition to the price of admission, Richard Helfant raises money with the gift shop, which sells stuffed elephants, elephant jewelry.

BUTKO: We even had Lucy underwear at one time. It was called Lucy's trunks.

JACOBS: The funds are important because a tin elephant 100 yards from the ocean requires constant, expensive maintenance. During Superstorm Sandy, the water flooded her toes. But Lucy's outlook is good. This landmark, at least, has supporters now who will fight for her survival. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Margate, N.J.

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