What Is That? Author Harriet Baskas on Our State’s Unique Roadside Attractions

Why is Washington home to a teapot-shaped gas station and the world’s largest egg? Author Harriet Baskas explores such oddities in her Speakers Bureau presentation What Is That?: Unusual and Offbeat People, Places, Things, and Events in Washington State.

Why is Washington home to a teapot-shaped gas station and the world’s largest egg? While these oddities might appear, well … odd, they actually hold hidden stories about the history, culture and character of our local communities. Harriet Baskas celebrates such hidden corners and curios throughout the Pacific Northwest in her books Washington Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff; Washington Icons; and Oregon Curiosities.

Harriet Baskas

Harriet Baskas

As a travel contributor to national websites like USATODAY.com, msnbc.com, Bing Travel and AAA Journey, and author of the blog Stuck at the Airport, Baskas has logged miles all around the country. But Baskas calls the Pacific Northwest home, and her books focus on what makes our area’s institutions unique.

“Washington’s man-made landmarks are distinct – and often quite curious – because of the personalities that created them and the circumstances that inspired them,” says Baskas.

As part of Humanities Washington’s 2010-12 Speakers Bureau, Baskas regularly discusses these attractions during her presentation, What Is That?: Unusual and Offbeat People, Places, Things, and Events in Washington State. On April 19, Baskas will give her talk as part of a Think & Drink event at Gilbert Cellars’ tasting room in Yakima [directions], sparking lively conversation about the history of this region’s landmarks and events.

Humanities Washington interviewed Baskas via e-mail in anticipation of this event.

HW: What do changes in attractions in Washington over time tell us about the shifts in our state’s culture, economy and politics?

Harriet Baskas: Some landmarks and attractions, such as the World’s Largest Egg in Winlock, were very much “of” the community when originally created. Winlock is no longer the egg capital of the world, but the fact that the egg remains is as much a reminder of the town’s history as it is a great way to attract visitors to town.

HW: What are some of the newer attractions that have been established in Washington, and what do these tell us about the state’s current culture?

Baskas: “Newer” can be relative term, but one new-ish attraction that has been created in recent history is the giant troll statue underneath the bridge in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. The community wanted something to fill a space under the Aurora Bridge and, in 1990, held a competition to choose an appropriate item. A group for four artists won the commission and built the troll that year.

HW: Where do people get the inspiration to build some of these attractions?

Baskas: Good question. Some things – such as the teapot-shaped gas station in Zillah – were created in response to political hanky-panky in the news back in the 1920s. The teapot was just moved from the highway to downtown Zillah, so we’ll definitely be talking about it — and its meaning to the community — at the Think & Drink event. Other things – such as the giant, red, Radio Flyer wagon in downtown Spokane – are art. And still others – Emil Gerhke’s whimsical, made-from-scraps windmills in Grand Coulee – are the product of someone’s wild imagination.

HW: What oddities are particular to Central Washington, and what do they tell us about that region’s distinct culture and history?

Baskas: I love the teapot in Zillah: how it came to be, that it’s been around so long and the fact that the community is working so hard to keep it. I love Dick and Jane’s art-filled yard in Ellensburg; a gift to passersby and all the more precious now that Dick Elliot is now longer with us. And I love all the dinosaurs they keep “discovering” in Granger. Each has its own story and each is an example of how curious things link us to the past.

HW: Which really hidden Washington State gem would you recommend?

Baskas: The Don Brown Rosary Collection at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson. Among the more than 4,000 prayer beads are some that can be stored in thimbles, a rosary made from ping-pong balls and another made from Styrofoam balls that is 16 feet long and may very well be the world’s largest rosary. Brown’s life story is intriguing and the collection he amassed full of hidden treasures.

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