Over the years, the United States has cultivated some pretty off-kilter sights and roadside attractions that can make any cross-country trip memorable. Cadillac Ranch along Route 66, Bubblegum Alley in California and the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” in Kansas, are just a few that lend a lot of credence to the idea that people will stop to look at just about anything. Having a lot more historical merit than a wall full of people’s chewed bubblegum, the story behind these giant presidential statues actually begins with an artist on a road trip of his own.
David Adickes, a sculptor from Houston, Texas, was traveling home after a trip to Canada when he decided to visit Mount Rushmore. That pitstop in South Dakota lit a spark of inspiration within him. He began to conceptualize an open-air sculpture park/ indoor museum hybrid, where people could be wowed by these larger-than-life busts of the nation’s presidents, while also learning about them and their time in office. Adickes needed a backer to turn his dream into reality, and teamed up with Everette Newman III. A well-known real estate developer and, according to his obituary following his death in 2018, a “presidential and Civil War historian,” Newman loved the idea, and helped secure 10 acres of land in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Despite the enthusiasm from both artist and developer, the idea for Presidents Park, as it would be named, wasn’t without its critics. In addition to initial concerns that it would pull tourism traffic (i.e. money) away from the well-established Colonial Williamsburg, some just didn’t even like the idea. Many with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, residents from York County, even some at the National Park Service felt as though it was “tacky” and saw it more akin to a “sideshow” than the homage to American history the creators intended it to be.
Following public scrutiny, construction stoppages due to lack of appropriate permits, and setbacks from Hurricane Isabel hitting Virginia in 2003, Presidents Park finally began to take shape in the early 2000s. The $10 million endeavor opened in March of 2004, and featured the oversized likenesses of all the Presidents up until that point, from George Washington to George W. Bush. While overall, the park itself was regarded as a nice, clean, family-friendly stop in the Old Dominion, its location, which for most tourists was just a hair too far away from their main destination of Colonial Williamsburg, set it up for almost inevitable problems.
By 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President, the park was faced with footing the bill for a new bust for the first time since it opened. Estimated to cost around $60,000 to construct, which they did not have, a fundraising effort was started by the park in order to meet the financial goal. They did erect a much smaller, 3-foot, life-sized bust of Obama in what they thought would be a short interim, which ultimately became the last to be included in Presidents Park.
With no foreseeable way to meet their fundraising goals, or even bring in enough visitors to stay afloat, Presidents Park closed its gates September 30th, 2010. For a short time the American Constitution Spirit Foundation, a non-profit set up by Ronald Reagan in 1986, took an interest in reopening the park as a learning center for schools. This interest dissolved after considerable time and energy was spent trying to discern which bank actually had possession of the park following its closure.
When it came time to auction off the land, the busts were not to be included in the purchase, and were originally slated to be destroyed. Enter Howard Hankins. Hankins had a close connection with the park, as he was on one of the teams that helped construct it. Initially, Hawkins was asked to demolish and remove the statues prior to the auction, but he had a different idea. Just ten miles away in Croaker, Hawkins lived on a 400-acre farm, and asked if he could relocate them there instead of permanently removing them. The idea was given a thumbs up, and Hawkins began the week-long, $50,000 task of giving these Presidents a new home.
Moving these overwhelming structures wasn’t as easy as throwing them onto the back of a flatbed. Not only did each piece weigh anywhere between 11,000-20,000 pounds, but they would also have to quickly reconcile with the hope of getting them from point A to point B unscathed. Made from concrete over a steel frame, issues arose with maintaining structural integrity while also moving everything safely. In order to get them onto the truck, holes would need to be made in the backs of the heads, so that the crane could grip onto the steel framing properly. Every single bust incurred that damage, and many others experienced additional breakage during transport. Ronald Reagan’s is even said to have been struck by lightning at some point (morbidly coincidental, given that a horse previously ridden by Reagan when he was the host of the television show “Death Valley Days,” was struck and killed by lightning in 1982).
Now, to answer the question at least some of you are wondering: No, for the most part, you can’t just make your way over to Croaker to try and get a glimpse of them. They sit well within Hankins’ property, and the road leading to them has enough security cameras and trespassing signs to ward off the majority of those with piqued curiosity. Hankins turns down most requests to visit his farm, as he doesn’t currently have the proper tourist attraction permit, and would be held liable should anyone get hurt on his property. That being said, a handful of photographers and journalists have been lucky enough to get face to face with what now resembles a post-apocalyptic, presidential Easter Island.
One photographer, John Plashal, currently holds the golden ticket for anyone wanting to get up close and personal. A Richmond-based photographer, author, and public speaker, Plashal has a particular interest in exploring rural Virginia, trying to “identify, photograph and document places that offer beauty in decay and unique histories.” The remains of Presidents Park pretty wholly encompass what Plashal is after as an artist. Along with offering hands-on photography workshops, he has also been given the ability to offer limited tours of Hankins one-of-a-kind collection, giving budding photographers and history buffs alike a truly unique experience.
Though many of Adickes sculptures have fallen into almost certain disrepair, Hankins has hope that one day they can be seen by everyone, without trespassing or holding out for a twice-a-year tour. He spoke with Smithsonian Magazine in 2016, and shared some of his plans for the future. While the biggest hurdle comes from getting local governments on board and finding the ideal location, Hankins wants to not only incorporate the original Presidents Park blueprint, but expand the museum portion to include everything from an “Air Force One fuselage, Secret Service museum, First Lady memorabilia, Wounded Warriors room, interactivity and more.”
Though the idea of this endeavor ultimately helping the local economy is not something Hankins takes lightly, a major source of inspiration for Hankins is the potential to be a part of preserving history and getting children interested in learning. In his interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he even recounted a drawing of the busts he had received in the mail from a young boy who had previously visited his property with a tour group, saying, “It just tugs at your heart to look at it.”
Though it was criticized for being exactly this, comparing Presidents Park to more traditional roadside attractions seems a bit misrepresentative. While many of the tourist stop art installations exist as an artist’s commentary on specific issues, stopping in Alliance, Nebraska to snap a picture of Carhenge (which is exactly what it sounds like) isn’t necessarily the same as an attraction intended to educate visitors about prominent historical figures. What the two can remind us of, however, is to try and experience as much as we can, whenever we can, because it may not always be there if we wait to come back to it.
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