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Quirky roadside attractions bring small town pride

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a line in the movie "Vacation." Chevy Chase is driving his family across the country, and he promises that just in 4 hours they're going to see the world's second-largest ball of twine. The movie is fiction, but attractions like that are real. Here's David Condos of Kansas News Service.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: The rural Midwest doesn't have all the natural wonders that can attract tourists to other parts of the country, like oceans, for instance. So to stand out, some towns in Kansas try to manufacture their own larger-than-life wonders.

ERIKA NELSON: We've got the world's largest prairie dog in Oakley and the world's largest cow hairball in Garden City. Hutchinson has the world's largest grain elevator.

CONDOS: In the small town of Lucas, artist Erika Nelson displays her shrine to roadside attractions that bill themselves as the world's largest. And for those, Middle America is a bit of a hotspot. Five years ago, she opened her own roadside attraction - this collection of nearly 250 miniature giants, aptly named "The World's Largest Collection Of The World's Smallest Versions Of The World's Largest Things." It even has its own theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) The world's largest collection of the world's smallest versions of the world's largest things and roadside attractions.

CONDOS: No matter how kitschy, these curiosities offer real boosts to rural economies. They also give communities something to rally around and a feeling that their town, no matter how overlooked, deserves a nod from the outside world. A classic example sits one hour north in Cawker City, where thousands of visitors come each year to see the world's largest ball of twine.

LINDA CLOVER: You do what you can with what you have, and we have a ball of twine.

CONDOS: That's Linda Clover, the site's caretaker and self-proclaimed belle of the ball. This ball got rolling in 1953 when a farmer didn't know what else to do with leftover twine from hay bales. Today, the twine wrapped around this ball would be long enough to stretch from here to New York City. It weighs nearly 14 tons and is roughly the size of a shuttle bus. And each time, she helps a new traveler add their own piece to it, the ball and its fame grow a little bit bigger.

CLOVER: And you have made the ball the biggest it's ever been. You have set a world record. People love that.

CONDOS: Clover pulls out the ball's guest book and rattles off dozens of far-flung places tourists have come from - California, Florida, Italy - just in the past day or two. And while it might seem, well, unconventional to have a twine ball as your town's claim to fame, Clover says most residents are grateful that it puts them on the map.

CLOVER: It makes them feel good that the world is interested. We all kind of like to think about - that somebody cares about us.

CONDOS: It's a similar story across the country. You have the largest peanut in Georgia, largest pistachio in New Mexico and largest ketchup bottle in Illinois. Cheryl Hargrove, a cultural heritage tourism expert, says a site that gets tourists to pull over and spend a few dollars at the gas station or diner can make a big difference for a small town's economy.

CHERYL HARGROVE: It is having something that does make you different, something that makes you distinctive and, you know, worth a detour.

CONDOS: But the significance goes beyond dollars and cents. Artist Erika Nelson says these attractions resonate with rural Midwesterners because they're a way to show pride in accomplishing something big and unexpected in an often-overlooked place. It sends a message that there is much more to the story of places like rural Kansas. And that message isn't just aimed at tourists.

NELSON: Continually telling your story to outsiders means that you're reminding yourself of why you built it. You're reminding yourself that this is something special.

CONDOS: And rural Kansas isn't done telling that story just yet. Abilene, a cattle drive town east of here, just announced plans to build - wait for it - the world's largest belt buckle.

For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Lucas, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TRIPPIN'")

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) Road-tripping with my two favorite allies. Fully loaded - we got... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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