Billboarded to Death: Adventures on a Road Trip

Featured GeekMom Travel
Photo credit: Flickr user SeeMidTN.com via CC.
These “See Rock City” barns dot the landscape in a north-south line from Ohio to Alabama. I saw several on the 300+ miles I spent on I-65 and I-59 last week. Photo credit: Flickr user SeeMidTN.com via CC.

A couple of years ago I posted about some of the mind games I play while bored on a road trip. During a similarly long road trip in June, I enjoyed seeing some unique kitschy ways to advertise tourist traps such as the “See Rock City” barns in northern Georgia.

In traditional geeky fashion, I got to thinking about some of the other attractions in America that start advertising about 200 miles before drivers will actually reach them, in the form of billboard…after billboard…after billboard.

I present to you a list, in no particular order, of some of the more familiar ways to be billboarded to death. I have seen several of these billboards personally and I consulted with other GeekMoms to include those in parts of the country with which I’m not familiar.

Let us know how many of these you’ve seen! (And how many of you get so sick of the billboards, you choose NOT to stop?)

1.) Wall Drug – Wall, South Dakota

Like I'd said in the text, I didn't have any good pictures of Wall Drug. This is my bad picture from through a bug-splattered SUV windshield. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I didn’t have any good pictures of Wall Drug. This is my bad picture taken through a bug-splattered SUV windshield. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Believe it or not, I’ve been here. My family took a trip to the Black Hills area to see Mount Rushmore, among other attractions, and like so many others we were suckered into pulling over to see check out all the hype. The billboards started for us as soon as we hit I-90 West in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at Exit 396. Wall Drug is at Exit 110. You do the math.

I first heard of Wall Drug while in college, having read Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need. The account of him refusing to stop at Wall Drug is hilarious, and we were in a similar situation in 2010. My husband and I bickered for 250 miles about whether we were going to actually pull off the road and see this place. We compromised and pulled off the interstate to drive past Wall Drug, but did NOT stop! Besides, we had our dog with us and the attractions didn’t seem too pet-friendly.

I don’t have any good pictures of the billboards, but this blog post has a nice collage and a better explanation of what a visit to Wall Drug is like. The billboards don’t have many words—several just say “Wall Drug.” or “Visit the T-Rex at Wall Drug,” so your curiosity is quite piqued by the time you get to Exit 110.

Of course, you think it’s a drug store, which it is in part, but there’s so much more! You’ll have to visit to fully experience all it has to offer.

2.) South of the Border – Dillon, South Carolina

The South of the Border billboards don't offer any information about what it is. They just constantly implore you to just STOP THERE! Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Many of the South of the Border billboards don’t offer any information about what South of the Border actually is. They just constantly implore you to STOP! Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in elementary school in Virginia I remember friends coming back to school after summer break, donning black t-shirts with the words “South of the Border” splashed across them in fluorescent colors. I never went south on family trips because all of our vacations were to points north for some reason, so from about 1980 through 2002, I never knew what South of the Border actually was.

In 2002, while heading to Melbourne, Florida for our 4th military move, my husband and I began to see the billboards on I-95 South just across the Virginia/North Carolina border.

In the lower right corner of the billboard is a countdown of how many miles to go until you reach South of the Border. Many of the billboards offer a hint of what’s ahead: Mini Golf! The Africa Shop! Leather shop! Hot Dogs! Fireworks! But most of the billboards simply bug you to stop . My favorite kitschy South of the Border billboard is “You Never Sausage a Place.”

Wikimedia Commons has a catalog of billboards for your campy enjoyment.

Travel about 180 miles south down I-95 through North Carolina and the billboards become more and more frequent. Kids in the car will get excited like my nephews did on a 2007 trip we took to Florida. Cross into South Carolina and you’re greeted with a very campy, fluorescent-colored rest area complete with a sombrero water tower.

Every time I've ever passed this place, it seemed empty. I'm not sure when this Wikimedia photographer passed here. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Every time I’ve ever passed this place, it seemed empty. I’m not sure when this Wikimedia photographer passed here. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Hmmmm…frankly, the place freaked-me-the-heck out. I’ve never stopped. There never seemed to be a lot of cars and the campiness always made me suspicious.

As a piece of history, though, there’s some cultural significance. South of the Border was once a popular watering hole during a time when North Carolina’s Robeson County to the north was a dry county, meaning that alcohol sales were prohibited. Customers drove to Dillon to get their fill. The town’s geographic position at the crossroads of I-95 and U.S. routes 301 and 501 made it a popular stop, especially for vacationers heading to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Today, South of the Border is so big it has its own infrastructure, fire, and police service. Visit its official website here.

3.) Ron Jon Surf Shops – Assorted Locations

Really? Only 183 miles to go? Don't worry, Ron Jon's won't let you forget before it will remind you about every 3-5 miles all the way down Interstates 75 and 95. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Really? Only 183 miles to go? Don’t worry, Ron Jon’s won’t let you forget; billboards remind you about every 3-5 miles all the way down Interstates 75 and 95. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

I can only speak for the Cocoa Beach, Florida location, although I have seen a few billboards for outlets in Panama City, Florida and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I’m guessing the company took advantage of the numerous highways leading to central Florida to do its billboard campaign on I-75, I-95, I-4, and Florida’s Turnpike.

Ron Jon Surf Shop was founded in 1959 in Ship Bottom, New Jersey and not long afterwards set up an outlet in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Ron Jon’s in Cocoa Beach is pretty massive. According to Wikipedia, the Cocoa Beach location is currently the largest surf shop in the world with over 50,000 square feet of surfing, skating, and other tropical-themed paraphernalia. You can’t miss the building. It’s huge and brilliantly painted. For the 3 1/2 years that I lived on the Florida Space Coast, Ron Jon’s was the go-to attraction for our numerous visitors. It’s open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day…for your convenience!

Is this worth all the billboards? This is probably the one thing on the list that’s close to being worth it. Buy anything in the store and you get one of those ubiquitous stickers free of charge.

4.) Rock City – Lookout Mountain, Georgia, near Chattanooga, Tennessee

The idea to paint barns came during the Great Depression: if a farmer was willing to advertise for Rock City, he/she could get a free paint job. Photo: Flickr user brent_nashville via CC.
The idea to paint barns came during the Great Depression. Farmers willing to advertise for Rock City got a free paint job. Photo: Flickr user brent_nashville via CC.

The Rock City advertising story is a very interesting one. In this case, we aren’t going to see a ton of billboards, but rather barns and buildings along the roadsides painted black with “See Rock City” in white.

Go back nearly 80 years. In 1932, Georgia entrepreneur Garnet Carter opened his wife’s landscaped gardens on Lookout Mountain to the public. He came up with a win-win arrangement for depression-era farmers. He hired a young painter named Clark Byers to find barns along the well-traveled highways leading into the Chattanooga area. The first barns to be painted were along U.S. Highway 41 in northern Georgia. In exchange for the barn owners receiving tickets to Rock City, a free paint job for a barn, and some Rock City souvenirs, Byers painted huge slogans all along the countryside. It’s some of the most iconic advertising in America.

For the next 30 years, Byers painted more than 900 barns in 19 states with variations on the “See Rock City” theme. These barns have been sources of backseat kids’ games and overall intrigue for generations of motorists.

With the passage of the National Highway Beautification Act in 1965, areas closest to interstate highways had to undergo federal advertising controls and one of the provisions deemed that “See Rock City” barns closest to the interstates had to be repainted. Byers himself did much of the repainting, but he was getting older and in 1969 he retired to northern Georgia.

Today, “See Rock City” barns are still found along rural roads and along interstate highways when the barns are more than 1,000 feet from the roadways, especially along I-24, I-75 and I-59 in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.

Read more about the history of the Rock City barns at their website.

Is Rock City worth all the billboards? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve never been there. A couple of my friends who have been there attest that it’s very pretty.

5.) Winchester Mystery House – San Jose, California

The Winchester Mystery House is advertised all over California. It's an architectural oddity that is chock full of history.
The Winchester Mystery House is advertised all over California. It’s an architectural oddity that is chock full of history.

I’ll say up front that I’ve never visited the Winchester Mystery House, nor have I seen the billboards. But my west coast GeekMom peeps tell me that the billboards are still out there and that the house is still open to the public.

There’s an interesting story behind this tourist attraction. Sarah Winchester is the widow of rifle baron William Winchester. After William’s death in 1881, Sarah started construction on a mansion rich in Victorian architecture and woodworking.

The mansion’s construction continued from 1884 through at least the 1906 earthquake that knocked the top three floors off the house. That earthquake explains such oddities as the stairs to nowhere. The stairs’ destination was destroyed by the earthquake. There are rumors that construction continued through Mrs. Winchester’s death in 1922, but this blog post by Katy Dickinson cites some historians who have proven otherwise.

How many of you have see these all over California? Image credit: Katy Dickinson, used with permission.
How many of you have see these billboards all over California? Image credit: Katy Dickinson, used with permission.

A lot of paranormal activity is thought to surround the house. Mrs. Winchester believed that continuing construction of the house would keep the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims at bay, so when construction stopped, the ghosts took up residence.

Is it worth all the billboards? GeekMom Marziah says, “It’s smaller than you’d expect, but it was still cool to get to see it in person.” GeekMom Jenny says, “I love the Winchester House. Been twice!”

Have you visited any of these attractions? What do you think? Which ones are worth all the billboards and which were disappointments?

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10 thoughts on “Billboarded to Death: Adventures on a Road Trip

    1. I wish we could have looked around more. But (a) we had our dog with us and it was warm outside and (b) we were trying to get to a campsite by dark. As much as I wanted to stop, my husband was right (this one time) that we needed to press on.

  1. I’ve seen all of them and have actually been to every place but the surd shop. 🙂 My opinions: Wall Drug – Meh. Coolest thing was the Jackelope.

    South of the Border – I’ve been stopping here since I was a kid and now we keep up the tradition with my kids. We play a game to see who can spot the first sign or the most. It’s a good spot to stretch your legs, grab a snack or lunch, buy some cheap toys to keep the kids entertained and on good behavior, etc.

    Rock City – I actually like this one. Beautiful views mixed with the weirdness of caves with toy trolls and stuff. Make a day of it in Chattanooga and see other sites while you’re there. My hubby and I still talk about it and recommend it to anyone driving that way.

    Winchester Mystery House – Another Meh for me. I’ve actually been several times because I lived in San Jose for a while. As mentioned, it’s a lot smaller than you’re led to believe and some of the “oddities” mentioned in the tour are kind of a stretch. That said, I always thought going on the candlelight tour that they have around Halloween would have been fun.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and offering your perspective. It’s funny, I tend to get into a “I just need to get there” mode with my marathon road trips…so I’m typically the one more reluctant to stop at these places. But I need to learn that the traveling itself is half the fun (so quotes Clark W. Griswold in Vacation.

  2. Thanks for the reference in your fun post! Two more attractions that use billboards to advertise widely here in California are Casa de Fruta in Hollister (http://casadefruta.com/), and of course Disneyland in Anaheim. Another interesting pattern can be seen along fifty miles of highway 101 in the Silicon Valley, where many high tech companies buy billboard space to announce their new products: using a very-old advertising venue to promote ultimate-geek goods.

  3. Whether we’d stop for lunch at Anderson Split Pea Soup in Buellton was always a huge family debate on car trips between Northern and Southern California in the 70s and 80s, reignited every time we passed their billboards.

  4. I love Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need! I love the campfire song particularly, because I don’t camp.

    Winchester Mystery House is super. Sarah Winchester had some serious issues! Even aside from her being haunted by everyone ever killed with a Winchester rifle, physically, she had crazy arthritis and so made some of her staircases with 2″ risers, back and forth and back and forth.

    I’ve never actually made it into South of the Border, but I’ve driven 95 enough to be intrigued-if-I-wasn’t-just-trying-to-get-to-_____. But every time I’m back home after going south ANYwhere, my dad asks me if I went to South of the Border.

    Also never been to Wall Drug, nor even South Dakota, but my parents did before they had kids, and brought back Wall Drug advertising wall art home. So my entire growing up in Maryland, we had “Where the heck is WALL DRUG” on our wall. That’s effective advertising.

  5. My family years and years ago used to take a vacation to Sea Island Georgia coming from New Jersey and pass by “South of the Border”. We stopped ever year for a while. I loved the theme and the toys and stuff. However, the last time we were there (and I want to say this was like 1988, so it has been a while), we had a horrorible experience. Got bugs (I think bed bugs not sure), the pool was green and nasty, the store was very low on any kind of merchandise, and the list goes on. Sadly, my grandfather, who used to organize and pay for the trip, began to take ill shortly after that and we never went again. Now, I live in DFW, TX area and heading that way–driving–isn’t in the cards for the foreseeable future.

    1. Thanks for reading Patrick! I understanding on the driving trips…we now live in the western U.S. and driving towards many of those attractions I had featured isn’t going to happen for my family for a long time. I’m glad I got to see the ones that I did, though. And perhaps Winchester Mystery House is in our future….

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