The Pink Elephant Mystery

In this day and age it’s pretty rare to find a legitimate mystery. To be honest when I first came across this question I expected to just google it and find the answer, and was pretty scandalized when that didn’t immediately work. While digging up information on pink elephants didn’t involve much scrolling through microfiche or family records, it was still pretty fun to put in some internet detective work.

Multiple times when routing potential road trips towards the Midwest I’ve come across the same thing: large pink elephants. Recently I drove to Louisville from Atlanta and there were a whole mess of them scattered around northern Tennessee and Kentucky. Upon looking into it, I now know that they spread up into the Midwest and can be found around Indiana, Illinois, and up into Wisconsin.

BUT… WHY?

Why are there so many pink elephants? Why would so many businesses chose this as their mascot? Was it a trend at one time?

Pink elephant University Motors, West Nashville

I typed these questions with several different phrasings into google and dropped down a couple of internet black holes and found out very little. In response to the pink elephant in Northwest Nashville someone had written to the local NPR asking about the pink elephant phenomenon as they remembered seeing more of them around Tennessee when they were younger.

Nashville, TN

What I found out from this article was only that the elephant at a car dealership in Nashville is actually the second of 2 pink elephants to stand on the spot, and nobody really knows what happened to the first one or why it’s tradition to have a pink elephant there. I can only throw so much hate at that article since I’m about to write almost the same one which will ask lots of questions and answer very few.

Newspaper article showing University Motors original elephant

What they did find out was that original pink elephant at University Motors was a different elephant. They also found out who made that particular elephant. They reached out to FASTKorp out of Sparta, Wisconsin and while the company denied the current elephant is one of theirs they say that the original elephant was. It’s not currently on their website as one of their elephant designs but since they won’t answer MY emails I’ll have to take Nashville NPR’s word for it.)

This does solve the mystery of who manufactured some of the pink elephants. University Motors original elephant is a match to another elephant at another car dealership in Clarkesville, Tennessee. But is this the actual same elephant somehow moved to a different car dealership, or simply another FAST Korp elephant from the same mold? The weird  toupe of hair that appears to be painted on the elephants head in the original newspaper photos suggests maybe this is another elephant but he could have simple gotten a new coat of paint, although from the looks of things, not particularly recently. As a counterpoint though, how long do elephants realistically keep the exact same pair of glasses?

Car Market Clarkesville, TN

I found another article that claims that the pink elephant that’s been sitting in a gas station in DeForest, Michigan since the 1960’s, was among the very first pink elephants. Made by Wisconsin local Sculptured Advertising, the first one (a no sunglasses version) was installed in front of Pink Elephant Supper Club in Marquette, IA. After this pink elephant, other pink elephants, these with sunglasses were produced for Arco gas stations in the area which all for a time, displayed pink elephants. Sculptured Advertising went on to change their name to you guessed it, FAST Korp. I haven’t managed to find any old photos of Arco’s with elephants in front of them but man, people sure did love the Noah’s Arc set of animals they used to sell.

Pink elephant in DeForest, WI claiming to be one of the first

I located this original elephant from Pink Elephant Social Club. Although the club has since closed, the top hatted elephant is still in Marquette, where they have a slightly more detailed story of it’s origins. They claim that pink was originally made for a 1964 Republican Convention in Sparta Michigan, and was normal elephant grey. Once it became homeless after the convention and drinking laws changed in Iowa, the elephant was adopted by the new club and painted pink. My only impression of the symbolism of pink elephants comes primarily from a scene in Dumbo, and is that they denote hallucination or drunkenness. So a pink elephant mascot for a bar formed under new drinking laws make perfect sense. What they have to do with gas stations or the other businesses Ive found with pink elephants, I have no idea.

The Pink Elephant Social Club

Same pink elephant now on the waterfront in Marquette Iowa

At some point in time Fast Korp was capitalizing on the pink elephant’s drink associations and also producing elephants holding martini glasses in their trunks. Rumor is some of these also had glasses. I found one of these tipsy elephants next to an antiques malls in Cross Plains, Tennessee, just over the border from Georgia. This one has been given a circus headdress paint job and lost the base of its glass. The shape of the ears and wrinkles on the legs tell me this is a FAST Korp elephant modified from the originals to accommodate the glass.

Cross Plains, Tennessee

As an aside, the FAST Korp piece of the puzzle also solves another mystery unrelated to the pink elephants and instead related to cows.

Ashburn, Georgia cow

One of my very first big things was a giant cow at a gas station in Ashburn, Georgia on the way north from Florida. Several years later I took a photo with another cow in another small town, Guthrie, Kentucky. The cow in Guthrie is wearing glasses. Upon looking at the pictures I realized that aside from the glasses and slight paint job variations, they were the same cow.

Guthrie, Kentucky

You can just throw a pair of glasses on and fool me! This cow is still among the large animal offerings on the FAST Korp website. Guess they were really into making glasses that fit their animals.

Hopkinsville, Kentucky

The reasons for the apparent explosion in popularity the pink elephant seems to have enjoyed remains a mystery. Why they ended up extending from bars to gas stations, salons, and antique stores as a favorite business mascot I don’t know. Since their glory days though, the pink elephants seem to have scattered. One remains at a desolate feeling liquor store in Hopkinsville kentucky and another resides gas station conveinence store in Guthrie, Tennessee. Like the car dealerships, nobody seems to know why exactly a pink elephant.

Guthrie, Kentucky

This isn’t even near a completely satisfying explaination for roadside elephants are all over the United States. It’s also not near a complete list. When discussing this mystery with some friends of mine, I found my friend remembered not one but two in her hometown of Springfield Illinois, one of which has now been painted green, and one that’s holding a martini glass. Do you have a Pinky in your hometown? Know anything about it’s history? Pop in the comments or email me!

Public Service Announcement: Rock City is not a Nature Attraction

I live in Atlanta and travel with some frequency to Nashville. The drive is about four and a half hours long through the Tennessee mountains, and passes through Chattanooga , Tennessee. Much of the route (along with roadsides throughout all of Tennessee) is scattered with signs and the famous painted barns instructing driver to “see Rock City”. Tragically, I drove by all of these signs for several years without following their instructions.

Why? Because I had it in my head that Rock City was a nature attraction. Not that there’s anything wrong with a nature attraction, because there isn’t. If I had known the truth though, I would never have wasted so much time passing by Rock City in a rush to get from one place to another.

I thought this for several reasons. Rock City is in an area of Tennessee that has several nature attractions. Ruby Falls and Raccoon Caves are often advertised alongside Rock City. All of Rock City itself’s promotional materials show the famous overlook at the top of Lookout Mountain and it’s rock formations and paths. Even Rock City’s iconic barns mention it’s beauty and the view.

image stolen from google of one of Rock City’s famous advertising barns

Of course the most important reason I didn’t understand the true nature of Rock City is that all of my so-called friends are TRAITORS. Almost everyone who grows up in this area take trips to Rock City at some point in their life and not ONE of my local friends I made after moving to Atlanta including someone I briefly dated in Chattanooga who regularly rode his motorcycle up Lookout Mountain EVER MENTIONED there was a top notch kitsch roadside attraction I should visit. It just goes to show you can’t trust nobody in this world.

The most classic of the Rock City Barns, with the least lying by omission

Eventually I went to Chattanooga for a weekend and in an effort to procrastinate about undertaking the just-long-enough-to-be-annoying drive home, I decided to do as 50 painted barns I’d seen over the years had suggested, and check out Rock City.

The trail through Rock City does start out quite normal. The park itself was designed around the areas natural rock formations which form what have been acknowledged as resembling streets and buildings since the first settlers arrived in the area.

walking trails through rock formations

the fat man’s squeeze, a classic

During the walk through the initial trail you walk through natural rock valleys, across bridges, and squeeze through a narrow passageway between two giant boulders. A cavern allows light through colored windows to form rainbows on a wall. The trail ends on the very top of Lookout Mountain at a large outcropping called Lover’s Leap. At the top of the outlook you can see 7 states on the horizon.

The cliff known, as many cliffs are, as Lover’s Leap

The overlook promoted on all the postcards in the gift shop

Scattered throughout the trails are seemingly random groupings of gnomes. They were apparently original to the concept of the Rock City trail, but they definitely appear random. The same way a group of garden gnomes come across in someone’s yard, when there are few more than normal but they’re not really excessive or set up into scenes.

something weird is going on here

These gnomes were the first sign that there was something else going on here beyond mildly interesting natural rock formations. They were also the moment a sense of betrayal began to creep in. But they’re not the real stars of Rock City. It’s not until you reach the Fairy Land Caverns that things really start to get weird. And wonderful.

this looks promising

The underground portion of Rock City is an entirely different place. Rock City was opened in 1932 as the brain child of Frieda Carter who’s husband Garnet Carter had developed some of Lookout Mountain for the nation’s first mini golf course and a residential community which had failed during the depression. After the golf corse closed it was Frieda who marked off and landscaped a trail through the rock formations which her husband thought visitors might pay to see.

Frieda had a lifelong love for European folklore and had placed the first gnomes around the trails, and Fairyland had been meant to be the original name of the development on the mountain.

the gnome game is significantly upped once you walk inside Fairyland Caverns

Everyone I know has betrayed my trust

It wasn’t until the 50’s when World War has caused tourism to plunge that Frieda began working on a plan to revitalize Rock City as a tourist destination, and what a plan it was.

turns out the gnomes are kind of a warm up before the big guns come out

Frieda decided to fill the underground caverns of Rock City with fairytales. She commissioned local artist Jessie Sanders to sculpt scenes from her favorite tales and install them into caves set into the underground pathways walls.

Rip van Winkle and Jack’s beanstalk glowing under black light in the passageway walls

Keep in mind the 50’s were the golden era of Americana and mini golf and fiberglass dinosaurs, so maybe the whole thing seemed less weird at the time, but that honestly seems difficult to imagine, especially under black light

animatronics are the way to my heart

The piece de resistance of Fairy Land is the final cavern called Mother Goose Cavern, which opens up into a large underground room with a pathway around the outside edge filled in the center with a tableau filled with characters from every nursery rhyme you’ve ever heard and several that you haven’t.

scenes from Mother Goose Cavern

I wonder if children growing up now even know nursery rhymes. Do they even hear the fairy tales they were so ubiquitous in my generation and maybe especially in the baby boomer generation when Fairyland was built.

I think it is the lighting that makes everything in the caverns seem slightly grotesque, all though I doubt that was the intention. If you’re familiar with European folklore you might know that the versions we grew up with are quite sterilized. The German versions are quite grotesque and somewhat frightening and it’s difficult to know what the lesson they are teaching is sometimes. The step sisters cut off their toes to try to fit in the glass slipper in Cinderella. While none of the scary versions of tales and rhymes are literally depicted I did find it easy to see that side of them there. In a cave, with strange lighting, Hansel and Gretel being cooked and eaten by a woods witch, Red Riding hood escaping a hungry wolf, and even Humpty Dumpty’s fall do seem a little more what they are: slightly disturbing.

Frieda Carter has now been added to my fantasy dinner party with people alive or dead

Once you pass through the caverns you simply walk back out into the sunlight and have the surreal experience of being back in a normal environment.

There is a cafe at Rock City and multiple gift shops where you can buy the birdhouse version of the iconic red barn and postcards of the trails and the overlook and not one gnome or fairytale scene is to be found anywhere. Everyone acts normal like they weren’t just exposed to a dark room full of slightly insane things. You should visit it over and over. The wonder holds up quite well. Rock City makes itself relevant throughout the seasons by filling the paths with Christmas lights during the holidays and making the waterfall at Lovers Leap run green at Saint Patrick’s Day, and nobody mentions the caverns. It really is the strangest thing.

lovers leap decorated for Christmas

The fairy tales also get Christmas makeovers

So here I am, outing the elephant in the room at Rock City. Here I am to reassure you that it’s not like seeing the “The Thing” where 80 miles of signs work you up to see a cat mummy. The Carters were pioneers or roadside attractions and they built a strange treasure here. So tell your friends. Tell everyone.

seerockcity.com