Tuesday, November 21, 2006

in the days of old when we dug up the gold, in the days of 49

The Thing? is an Arizona roadside attraction hyped by signs along Interstate 10 between El Paso, Texas and Tucson, Arizona. Teaser ads, such as The Thing? What is it?, entice travelers along this sparse stretch of desert highway to pull in just to find out what the mysterious Thing? might be. Such billboards are similar to the signage seen in the South as drivers approach the South of the Border near Dillon, South Carolina and Rock City near Chattanooga, Tennessee).
The Thing? is located just off I-10 at Exit 318 on a hilltop between Benson and Willcox, near Texas Canyon, at 2631 North Johnson Road in Dragoon. On the south side of the highway, the attraction is part of a large gas station and gift shop complex painted red, yellow and blue. Amid the bows and arrows, moccasins, baseball caps, velvet paintings and turquoise jewelry, the gift shop also sells The Thing? shot glasses, bumper stickers and T-shirts.
The Thing? rates an entry in Doug Kirby's New Roadside America (1992), and it once was featured in a Jane Pauley television special on NBC. For a one dollar fee, paid at the shop's cash register, one can enter a small outside courtyard leading to three prefab corrugated steel sheds. Inside are a variety of exhibits, including odd wood carvings of tortured souls (by "Ralph Gallagher, artist"), the "wooden fantasy" of painted driftwood (from an Alamogordo collector), framed lithographs, saddles, rifles, a covered wagon and several vintage automobiles. A sign by a 1937 Rolls-Royce makes the claim that it once belonged to Adolf Hitler. Winding corridors and exhibit halls eventually lead to The Thing?, a mummified mother-and-child tableau encased in a glass-covered coffin.
The concept of the exhibit references the 1950 novelty song, "The Thing", recorded by Phil Harris, and the 1951 science fiction film, The Thing from Another World, later remade by John Carpenter as The Thing (1982).
The roadside area was the creation of attorney Thomas Binkley Prince, who was born in Texas in 1913. He grew up in California, studied at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona College of Law, entered law practice in Phoenix and briefly served as a prosecutor for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. During World War II, while he was working for a Seattle law firm, Prince also ran a pool hall. In the 1950s, Prince and his wife Janet opened their first Thing? roadside attraction and curio shop on Highway 91 between Barstow and Baker, until the expansion of the road into an interstate brought about the loss of the building. In 1965 the Prince family packed up The Thing? and moved to the current location. A heart condition and several strokes led to Prince's death in 1969 at the age of 56.
Syndicated columnist Stan Delaplane traced The Thing? back to 1950. Janet Prince, who later moved to Baltimore, was interviewed by Delaplane in 1956 and told him, "Man came through here about six years ago. He had three of them he got somewhere. He was selling them for $50." Today, the attraction is operated by an Albuquerque-based company, Bowlins, Inc., which owns several roadside trading posts throughout the Southwest.


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