43 giant presidents' heads, sittin' in a field...
Not every audacious patriotic project turns out like Mount Rushmore.
Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Saturday-morning Southern culture offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. If you’re just arriving for the first time, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.
Today in issue #67:
Where exactly does one store 43 gigantic heads?
Poll: Beach or mountains?
New country music that’ll kick you right in the heart
Let’s get to it …
The town of Williamsburg, Virginia is a peculiar confluence of high and low Americana. It boasts the finest institution of higher learning in the United Statesand a faithful, mile-long re-creation of colonial America. It’s also home to all the ancillary businesses that pop up around tourist spots — putt-putt courses, waterslides, outlet malls, and so, so many pancake houses.
Oh, and there are also 43 enormous, 20-foot-tall, 10-ton crumbling heads of presidents lined up in an overgrown field north of town. That too.
The heads once sat at a Williamsburg tourist attraction called “Presidents Park.” A Houston sculptor named David Adickes had been building the busts after a bout of inspiration while visiting Mount Rushmore in the 1990s, and found a kindred spirit in a local Williamsburg landowner. Over the resigned objections of Williamsburg officials — who didn’t consider the park up to the level of respectability of Colonial Williamsburg — the park opened in 2004 at a cost of $10 million.
Here’s a shot of the old park as it once appeared, with random tourist for scale:
(That’s allegedly the real fuselage from Nixon’s Air Force One. No idea where that ended up.)
Alas, little kids weren’t begging their parents to go see Rutherford B. Hayes and James K. Polk, so the park struggled from the jump, despite the presence of 43 kaiju-sized commanders-in-chief.
Williamsburg’s a tangle of bypasses and access roads, and it’s pretty much pure luck if you get from the highway to your destination without getting lost. Presidents Park was outside the main flow of both auto and foot traffic, and for a tourist site hoping to catch some of that sweet, sweet fine-we’ll-stop-here-if-you-just-calm-down roadside interest, that’s the kiss of death.
So Presidents Park fell into disrepair, and by 2010 the landowner decided to sell the property. One condition: the busts had to go. All of ‘em, even poor ol’ Millard Fillmore.
The landowner wanted to smash the busts into rubble, but the park’s operator, a gentleman named Howard Hankins, offered to move the busts to his own property north of Williamsburg, in a town called Croaker. (Yes, really.) This was no easy feat, considering the busts weighed around 20,000 pounds apiece, stood as high as 20 feet — higher than the overpasses on nearby Interstate 64 — and were, well, sculptures.
There’s no word on which president was the first to go, but what’s clear is that it took quite a few attempts to figure out exactly how to haul these gargantuan busts up to the Croaker field where they now rest. Necks cracked as the busts were lifted onto flatbeds. Noses and other protruding elements, like chins, ears and 19th-century mustaches, snapped off in transit. Finally, movers decided to bust open the backs of skulls — best not to think too much about that when viewing Abraham Lincoln — and hoisted the busts by the steel support beams within. Total cost for the effort: about $50,000.
The heads plunked down in the muck of Croaker, with George Washington looking at the rest of them like he can’t believe what became of his beautiful country. The rest are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in whatever order they were grabbed, I guess:
You can see the heads on Google Maps, all snug together without regard to political party, the holes in the back of their skulls plainly visible even from space:
There were once grandiose plans for the busts, but these days, hopes for the presidents’ future are crumbling like the tips of their noses. The site’s Facebook page hasn’t been updated since before the pandemic. A GoFundMe to raise the cash needed to rehabilitate the busts is seeking $500,000 … and has pulled in less than $2,400. (Oddly enough, the same sculptor had a similar project in the hills of South Dakota … and it too has gone belly-up.)
You can still visit the heads, though not on a whim — they’re on private property, set far back from surrounding roads. They’re behind an industrial recycling center, and any attempt to wander onto the property will earn you a fierce barking from the local workers. (Trust me on this.)
Still, there are ways to see the heads beyond Google Maps and outright trespassing. The photographer who now oversees the site offers occasional tours, including this coming Labor Day weekend. For photographers and chroniclers of abandoned Americana, the presidents are a bucket-list item; all the Labor Day tours are already sold out, though more dates are promised later this year.
I admire the sheer audacity of this project, simply because the original visionaries committed to the bit so completely. And the shame of it is, I can imagine that had the project survived past Dubya — a model of Obama was built, but never the full bust — it would’ve seen a huge uptick in business thanks to the ardent fans of America’s next two presidents. Ain’t nobody standing in line to pose next to Chester A. Arthur, but 20-foot-tall busts of Obama and Trump would have had five-hour waits each. (Of course, you’d need to hire additional security to run off the ones who wanted to vandalize/flip off/pee on those two particular busts as well, but still … )
You can take what you want from the images of the ruined heads. Are they just a very large relic of tacky roadside Americana, a bad idea born of a bygone age? Or perhaps they’re the visual representation of the fate of all nations, decaying like the statue of Ozymandias until nothing beside remains. Or maybe they’re a testament to the fact that one day, even the most famous of us all will crumble into the muck, so live for the moment…?
Bury ‘em all in 30 feet of Virginia marsh mud and let future generations figure it all out.
Poll of the week: Beach or mountains?
Whew, that got a little deep at the end there, didn’t it? Let’s lighten the mood a bit.
Summer vacation’s almost done. (Yeah, I know, most of us haven’t had “summer vacation” in decades. Ride with me here.) One of the reasons I love the South is that we have viable vacation destinations both in the hills and on the water. So let’s settle this debate once and for all: beach or mountains? Warm sand or warm fire? Rolling waves or rolling hills? Beachside pizza or roadside barbecue? Make your call.
Please elaborate on your choice here:
Song of the week: Amanda Shires, “Hawk for the Dove”
The story of country music is, by and large, one long string of bad men behaving badly while making beautiful music. (That’s the entire ethos of the indispensable podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones.) Women fighting their way up through the ranks have to be three times as badass as the men around them to survive. (See: Parton, Dolly.) One of my favorite country/alt-country/whatever singers of the moment is the Nashville-based Amanda Shires, who just released a damn scorcher of a solo album last week entitled Take It Like A Man. This is the lead cut off the album, and it’s a searing challenge from a serious woman.
You can find “Hawk For The Dove” on the ever-growing Flashlight & A Biscuit Spotify playlist right here:
That’ll do it for this time around, friends. Enjoy the last few quiet days we have left before football comes for us all. See you next Saturday—
This is issue #67 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
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The fact that I attended said institution has no bearing whatsoever on this description. It’s just fact.