The Profit

America’s unusual roadside businesses

Highways and byways: Roadside businesses

Simon Willms | Stone | Getty Images

Canny small-business owners long ago saw a potential opportunity to hawk their wares to American motorists. This phenomenon isn't just limited to gas stations and fast-food drive-thrus—all kinds of businesses exist along the interstate, catering to aimless wanderers, daily commuters and drivers on vacation.

The most common roadside businesses specialize in two things—gas and food, commodities without which no road trip will last for very long. But there's another category of roadside business that caters to the travelers of America's highways: the curiosity, the tourist trap, the legendary destination, that place your friends have said you've just got to see if you happen to be going from point A to point B.

Some of these destinations have stood for the better part of a century, while others are just getting started. But all of these small businesses offer a glimpse into an offbeat side of American culture. Read ahead and see what they are.

By Daniel Bukszpan
Updated 20 June 2014

Clown Motel

Ken Lund | Wikimedia Commons

If you were traumatized as a child by reading "It" or watching "Poltergeist," avoid going to 521 N. Main St. off U.S. Highway 95 in Tonopah, Nevada. That's the site of the Clown Motel, which gets its name from the clown paintings, clown mannequins, clowns on doors and clowns in pretty much every other context that a coulrophobe would not wish to encounter.

Despite the single-mindedness of the proprietors, the motel doesn't skimp on the essentials. The Yelp reviews are nearly unanimous in describing it as "clean," and despite the small matter of being situated right next to an unlit cemetery that has been closed for 100 years, the reviewers were too busy gushing over the free continental breakfast to report hearing any ghoulish cries from the undead.

South of the Border

South of the Border roadside attraction.
Source: South of the Border

If you live in a state where it's illegal to buy fireworks, fret not. All you have to do is take Interstate 95 to Hamer, South Carolina, and visit South of the Border, a rest area with gas, lodging, restaurants and an amusement park, all overseen by its oversized bandito mascot, Pedro.

As enjoyable as it may be to view creation in all its glory from the Sombrero Tower or buy toothpaste at El Drug Store, the main attraction remains the wide selection of fireworks at Rocket City. Provided you've got enough money—and space—in your trunk, you can buy enough incendiary devices to make your neighbors hate you every Independence Day for years to come.

World's largest twine ball rolled by one man

Matthew Sachs | Wikimedia Commons

Motorists wishing to view one of the great wonders of mankind should turn onto 1st Street in Darwin, Minnesota, off Highway 12. It's not visible from outer space, and it's not a creation of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, but it does happen to be the world's largest twine ball rolled by one man, which surely is almost as good.

The man responsible was Francis A. Johnson, who started it in his basement in 1950 and didn't let up until 1979. Housed in a gazebo to protect it from the elements, it's been immortalized by "Weird Al" Yankovic in the song "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota." The funnyman has even been photographed with it—so take that, Great Pyramid of Giza!

Big Texan Steak Ranch

Image source: The Big Texan Steak Ranch

According to the cliché, everything is bigger in Texas, and Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch is a roadside institution determined to push this maxim to its limit. Located off of I-40 East, the legendary steakhouse was founded in 1960 and soon became the site of the 72-ounce steak dinner challenge, which was featured on an episode of the Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food."

The challenge: the brave customer must consume the entire steak dinner in one hour. Not just the 4 1/2-pound steak, mind you, but an entire dinner, including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a buttered roll. Should the patron succeed, the entire meal is free. In the much more likely event that doesn't happen, the humiliated patron has to pay… $72.

Mary Lou's Milk Bottle

Image source: Mary Lou's Milk Bottle

Mary Lou's Milk Bottle is a restaurant on West Garland Avenue in Spokane, Washington, that specializes in made-to-order diner food, such as burgers, fries and ice cream. If you're worried that you might inadvertently drive past it, just remember that it's the only building on that particular drag in the shape of a giant milk bottle, so it's kind of hard to miss.

The exterior no doubt makes the restaurant stand out, but it's not why people go there. The restaurant's Yelp page is chock full of four- and five-star reviews that describe it in glowing terms. The milkshakes, in particular, are singled out for praise.

Beer Can House

Image source: David Brown | dabfoto

John Milkovisch was a retiree who needed a project, and in 1968 the former upholsterer chose an ambitious one—a Beer Can House. Located in Houston off of Memorial Drive, the aluminum siding was sourced entirely from beer cans, drained by Milkovisch himself.

Covering the home took 18 years. The retiree would simply drink a beer, flatten the can, and add it to the exterior, a task that ultimately involved more than 50,000 cans. Admission to the house is $5.

Petrified Creatures Museum

Image source: Petrified Creatures Museum of Natural History

The Petrified Creatures Museum is a fossil-digging site off U.S. Route 20 in Richfield Springs, N.Y. Founded in 1934, the museum charges $9 for adults and $5 for children to wield a hammer and chisel and dig for their very own 390 million-year-old fossil.

According to the website, "over forty different Devonian and Silurian fossils can be found." However, visitors who don't feel up to the physical labor can simply visit the rock shop. After all, why dig for fossils when you can just buy one?

Oasis Bordello Museum

Image source: Visit Idaho

Many museums celebrate myriad cultural institutions of this great nation, and the Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace, Idaho, is just such an establishment. It has a wine press in the basement, but it's probably safe to assume that the majority of its visitors don't consider that a priority.

The museum was a functioning brothel as recently as 1988. It still retains the interior décor of its glory days since, according to the website, "the final occupants left in a hurry, leaving the upper rooms with their belongings as though they were going to come back." They didn't, and now visitors can see what they left behind for just $5 admission.

The Snowman

Image source: The Snowman

The Snowman on East Portersville Road in Portersville, Pennsylvania, sells lemonade slush and smoothies, but its main attraction is shave ice. The mound of ice shavings soaks in such sweet flavors as cherry, cotton candy, root beer and "Tiger Blood," otherwise known as tropical fruit blend.

The shop's exterior is a giant snowman eating shave ice with a smile of pure delight on his face. According to the website, the Snowman's shave ice uses "all natural 100 percent Pure Cane Sugar" and is completely gluten-free.

National Museum of Funeral History

Custom casket for three made at request of a couple in the 1930s.
Image source: NMFH

The National Museum of Funeral History is off of Ella Boulevard in Houston, Texas. It was founded in 1992 by Robert Waltrip, whose life's ambition was to create an institution to educate the public about the history of death care.

Admission to the museum is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and veterans and $7 for children under 12. And while some might question the wisdom of showing a very small child how cadavers are embalmed, kids under the age of 3 enter for free.

Haines Shoe House

Image source: Haines Shoe House

The Haines Shoe House is four miles from York, Pennsylvania, off Route 462. Modeled after a high-topped work shoe, it was built in 1948 by shoe salesman Mahlon Haines, who intended it to be a guest house for elderly couples. Though only 25 feet high, the interior has five different levels with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and living room.

Haines died in 1962 and left the Shoe House to his employees, who sold it 25 years later. It has since been restored and converted into a museum, and today visitors can receive guided tours of the Shoe House for $4.50 per adult and $3 for children ages 4 and up.