Heading south out of Kansas City on Interstate 49, about an hour into my Ozarks road trip, something draws me to the Butler, Mo., exit.
Towering over the Max Motors car lot is a giant gunslinger in the sky, six-shooters drawn and in a bit of a bad mood, judging by his expression.
A comically snarly Old West character high on a pole is not something one sees every day. Curious, right? Selfie possibilities for sure.
On the way to that Ozarks resort this summer, you could put it on cruise control and never look left or right, but then you’d miss the oddly fun stuff well worth a pause in southwest Missouri:
A chapel awash in Precious Moments artwork in Carthage. The world’s largest small electric appliance museum (seriously, toasters as far as the eye can see). A reassembled, somewhat spooky, early 20th-century town. A stunning National Park Service site you probably don’t know about.
That’s before you even get to Branson.
That’s home to the Titanic. And the world’s largest ball of string. And the Clampetts’ truck from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And a 40-foot-tall rooster.
Really, you won’t be able to resist.
Actually they just call him Max at the dealership, and getting a look at the 30-foot-tall mascot is a quick stop off exit 131, unless you’re actually shopping for a car. You know Max Motors from “God, Guns and Automobiles” fame on the History Channel.
Don’t worry if you miss the Butler exit. There’s another Big Max about 30 miles away in Nevada, Mo. He’s visible from I-49. And I expect you to say “Nevada” the odd Missouri way, with a long “a” in the middle, like “cicada.” (Another Max is coming soon to Harrisonville.)
In the past I’ve breezed past Carthage without making a pilgrimage. Big mistake.
After taking exit 50, signs on the way to the chapel are persuasive: “Fill your heart with peace,” “Walk among angels,” “Stop and smell the flowers.”
You totally should. At 76, artist Sam Butcher, creator of the Precious Moments figurine children, continues to alter and add to the biblical and heavenly scenes he has painted on the interior walls and ceiling of the soaring chapel.
Recently, says chapel supervisor Cindy Howrey, he repainted the clouds on the ceiling’s periphery, switching them from blue to purple.
The whole thing can feel a bit odd, all those murals of Precious Moments children depicting well-known Bible figures, among other reasons. But it’s also colorful and lovely and meaningful to the many who visit from across the country and the world.
“This has been Mr. Butcher’s way to thank God for his blessings,” Howrey says on a chapel tour, which is free. Donations accepted.
I met Janiece and Garey Wood of Damascus, Ore., who were on a road trip to a grandson’s basic training graduation at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. The stop at the chapel was important to them.
They had started a Precious Moments collection for their granddaughter when she was born. Now 25, the granddaughter was in a hospital with a high-risk pregnancy.
The great-grandbaby is to be called Brooke. For a gift, the Woods found a Precious Moments angel ornament in the chapel shop inscribed with her name.
They’re praying. They’re hopeful.
“She could be born any time now,” Janiece says.
Other things on poles and Wild Kingdom’s Marlin Perkins
Driving into Carthage from the chapel, my appetite unquenched for things perched on poles, I stopped briefly at Jackson Tire and Auto on East Central Avenue.
A metal sculpture, elevated on a platform, depicts a rusty pickup truck with a man in the cab, a dog in the back and a bedraggled woman changing the back tire. Then there’s the caption: “It ain’t no wonder his wives left him.”
Could it get any better? Yes. On the way out of town on Missouri 96 to Red Oak II, the reassembled “Americana” town, another metal sculpture on a pole soars outside the Flying W convenience store.
It’s a plane, but more specifically it’s made out of an old manure spreader, and it’s called “The Crap Duster.” Gotta love the metal “KC Chiefs” attached to the tail.
I have to admit I stopped in Central Park on South Garrison Avenue to see the tribute there — a statue of Marlin Perkins, a Carthage native. Marlin Perkins? Oldsters will recall, with fondness, the star of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” on TV.
No sign of co-host Jim Fowler, though, a regular on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Fowler was the one left to wrestle undomesticated animals while Perkins looked on from a safe distance.
Turns out those playful pole-topping sculptures are the work of Lowell Davis, the artist who in recent years has saved and transported antique buildings to his circa 1930s town on a former corn patch outside Carthage. A reminder of a simpler time, he says.
Close to the middle of nowhere, it’s an impressive historical collection that includes gas stations, country churches, stores, a town hall, a diner and a blacksmith shop.
Davis and his wife, Rose, live in the transplanted home of outlaw Belle Starr. Don’t miss Davis’ confounding “Plumber’s Nightmare” fountain out front.
To tell the truth, alone here in the middle of the week, I felt a bit like I’d missed the rapture. Or was suddenly on an empty Hollywood movie set — still and quiet, except for the sounds of wandering chickens and guinea fowl.
Rose says a tour could be arranged if you call ahead to 417-237-0808 or leave a message on the Red Oak II Facebook page. The name is a homage to nearby Red Oak, where Davis lived as a child.
World’s Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum
JR’s Western Store, south of Carthage toward Diamond on Missouri 59, would be an excellent stop to pick up a pair of cowboy boots. Never have I seen so many.
But past the boots and through a doorway there’s a different treat: 1,200 square feet of small electric appliances, shined up and lined up in glass cases. Some 3,500 in all, collected by owner Richard Larrison.
Did you know that toasters — including more than 700 here, some dating to the early 1900s — have been referred to as pinchers, tippers, flippers, droppers, swingers and flatbeds, to name a few types, depending on the how the mechanism works?
If there were toaster competitions, Larrison would be a winner. Well, there are. And he is. And has the ribbons to prove it.
All manner of appliances are celebrated here, including blenders, razors, hair dryers, coffee percolators and an impressive array of waffle irons. Larrison is sometimes available to meet visitors. Call the store at 417-358-2007.
Sometime back in grade school you probably learned about George Washington Carver, the former slave who became a renowned scientist. Think peanuts.
His national monument site is just west of Diamond, and it is a hidden gem — no kidding, a gorgeous respite. A one-mile trail loops through sun-dappled woods, past wildflowers and over streams.
This was the farm of Moses and Susan Carver, who owned George and his mother as slaves and later adopted George. A statue of George as a boy is along the trail.
“Somewhere in these woods is the site of a secret garden,” reads a trail plaque. “Imagine a young boy spending hours by himself there — looking, learning, cultivating, thinking and trying new remedies to make his collection of flowers flourish.”
Camelot Jacuzzi room
The first thing to do when you get to Branson is to secure your Jacuzzi hotel room. Because apparently you need a big whirlpool tub right in the middle of the room.
You’ll be jealous to know that I snagged one at the Stone Castle Hotel and Conference Center, just off 76 Country Boulevard, aka the strip. Bonus: It was the Camelot room, adorned with a castle-like stone arch and colorful Camelot-themed wall murals.
In the corner next to the bed … a sword cemented in a stone. And yes, I tried. By the wiggle in the cement, I’d say others had, too.
‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ truck
When I learned the actual Clampett truck from the classic TV sitcom was nearby, I had to move it to the top of my Branson “that’s odd” list.
It’s about five miles from the strip to the Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout. The museum is the “Smithsonian of the Ozarks,” which I know because it says so in big letters on the wall outside.
It’s true the museum has a little bit of everything, including a wood-carved hall tree of Theodore Roosevelt; an 1894 steam engine; an Ozarks pioneer cabin; a reproduction of the office of Ralph Foster, the museum’s namesake; an Ozarks music hall of fame; an array of firearms; and lots of taxidermied animals.
“It’s just a bunch of old stuff,” one woman said to her husband.
“That’s what museums are, hon,” he said softly.
But about the first thing you see after paying the $6 entrance fee is the famous vehicle, “the original truck used on the television series,” the sign says. “The truck is made from a cut down 1921 Oldsmobile.”
It’s all there, Granny’s rocking chair and rifle, a mattress spring, wooden buckets, a lantern — you know, stuff you’re going to need in Beverly Hills. Visitors can climb aboard the truck only if they pay $10.56 for the museum staff to take their picture.
In my defense, I wasn’t the only one excited to see the truck. Joyce Bryant, here from Fredericksburg, Va., with her husband, Bill, admitted she, too, was a fan of the show.
“It was so earthy, so silly. It was funny. And I’m from southwest Virginia, so I could relate,” she says, laughing.
After that encounter, it seemed appropriate to get a look at a big fake rooster. Branson has an enormous one, standing at the entrance of the barnlike Great American Steak and Chicken House restaurant.
Another selfie op? Sure, and don’t be embarrassed. People take pictures of him all the time. I mean, you walk between his legs to get in the door. Plus he’s a patriotically dapper 43-foot-tall rooster, what with his star-spangled vest and bow tie.
So you can see that while cruising the strip, it would come as no surprise to encounter really big, odd things — like the Titanic. A giant fake iceberg, too.
The ship is “the world’s largest museum attraction,” and although I don’t know what that means, I’m not surprised by the superlative. They’re kind of braggy in Branson.
Honestly, touring the Titanic is very cool (ha ha), if pricey. The box office rate is $27. I loved learning that powering the ship required 29 three-story boilers, 159 furnaces and 325 men working in shifts around the clock — coal shoveling, nonstop.
And that the grand staircase was all about the hand-carved wood and 24-carat gold leaf and a floor made of … linoleum, the neat new thing at the time.
Your ticket bears the name of a Titanic passenger, and later you find out whether you survived. My guy, Charles Hays, didn’t. I was comforted, though, when I ran into a visitor who was Clara Hays, my beloved wife! She made it!
“If it makes you feel any better,” said my wife’s friend, “she’s been mourning you these many years.”
The hostess said Dana would be my server, but I knew she was more than that. A little stack of Dana Lynn Bell’s CDs sat atop the silver napkin holder in the middle of the table.
Soon after she took my burger order, with microphone in hand, Bell weaved around tables and nailed the soulful “Cry Me a River,” Julie London-style.
And the songs kept coming. Two other servers serenaded diners during my short visit. Bernie Parquette got big applause for her rendition of the gospel hit “He Touched Me.”
No reason to just get a burger when you can get a burger and a song.
World’s largest ball of stringy stuff
Some might say it was cheating, giving the “odd” theme of the trip, to stop at Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Too easy. (One could argue it was cheating to visit Branson at all.)
Although I could have gotten sucked in here — a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh painted on the wings of butterflies! — of course I made a beeline for the “world’s largest string ball.”
Made of colorful nylon twine, it measures more than 42 feet around and weighs 6 tons.
I was curious because I thought Cawker City, Kan., was the home of the world’s largest ball of twine. Turns out, several such balls make the “largest” claim. Some people diss this one at Ripley’s, created by J.C. Payne of Texas, because it isn’t made of sisal twine.
So no worries if you’re not impressed. In another room, you can stare in amazement at “the world’s largest roll of toilet paper.” It weighs close to 4,000 pounds!
Barry Williams and his ’70s music show
I admit I really wanted a ticket to see the “world’s only acrobatic aerial violinist,” Janice Martin, but her act on the Showboat Branson Belle doesn’t start until Memorial Day weekend.
Then I learned that none other than actor Barry Williams — the former Greg Brady in TV’s “The Brady Bunch” — had moved to Branson and was the headliner in the “’70s Music Celebration!” show at the Hughes Brothers Theatre.
OK, not nearly as odd, but I was in.
Some of Williams’ nostalgic spiels during the musical numbers sounded a bit like a ’70s CD compilation infomercial, but he did spin some funny tales.
And the other five younger singers, the band and the costumes really were groovy. From the Eagles to the novelty song “Convoy” to disco — plus TV theme songs — I couldn’t think of a ’70s music style they didn’t represent.
Say what you want about Branson, but these people know how to put on a show, even at 2 p.m. on a random Thursday.
Other oversized stuff
Branson is a cornucopia of things writ large. Don’t miss the Mount Rushmore of John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin looking down on the parking lot of the Hollywood Wax Museum, itself topped by King Kong and the New York skyline.
A giant fiddle? Sure, inside and extending outside the front wall of Grand Country Buffet.
A big banjo? Of course, next door at the Grand Country Fun Spot, where Sergio Valle, 13; Lillie Parker, 13; and Brianna Johnson, 14, were preparing a surprise birthday party.
After I saw them take a walk around the banjo, which also juts through the wall to the outside, I had to ask: Isn’t it weird living here around all this odd stuff?
They looked perplexed.
“It’s Branson,” Lillie says.
The Precious Moments Chapel, 4321 S. Chapel Road, Carthage, 800-543-7975, preciousmomentschapel.org. Free.
Red Oak II, in Carthage go east on Missouri 96, left on County Road 130 and follow the signs, 417-237-0808. redoakiimissouri.com Free.
JR’s Western Store and World’s Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum, 51 Missouri 59 South, Diamond, 417-358-2007, jrswesternstores.com. Free.
George Washington Carver National Monument, 5646 Carver Road, Diamond, 417-325-4151, nps.gov/gwca. Free.
Stone Castle Hotel and Conference Center, 3050 Green Mountain Drive, Branson, 417-335-4700, bransonstonecastle.com
Ralph Foster Museum, at College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, 417-690-3407, www.rfostermuseum.com, $6 adults, $5 seniors, free for high-school age and younger.
Titanic, 3235 W. 76 Country Blvd., Branson, 800-381-7670, titanicattraction.com, $27 at box office.
Mel’s Hard Luck Diner, 2800 W. 76 Country Blvd., Branson, 417-332-0150, melshardluckdiner.com
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, 3326 W. 76 Country Blvd., Branson, 417-337-5300, ripleys.com/branson, $17.99 adults, $9.99 children 4-12, plus tax at box office.
“’70s Music Celebration Starring Barry Williams,” Hughes Brothers Theatre, 3425 W. 76 Country Blvd., 800-422-0076, hughes-brothers.com, call for prices.