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If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. See all Strange States entries here.

Our next strange stop is the Grand Canyon/Copper state, Arizona.

What is...The Thing?

Wikimedia Commons

Ask anyone who’s driven I-10 between New Mexico and Arizona, and they’ll testify to the sheer number of billboards touting, “The Thing? Mystery of the Desert” off Exit 322 near Dragoon, Arizona.  The roadside attraction/gift shop/gas station has been open there since 1965, and for a mere $1, you can check out three machine sheds filled with oddities and curiosities from days gone by. For example, a 1937 Rolls Royce that was (possibly) owned by Hitler, a chair (allegedly) built in China circa 1467, rifles (supposedly) made in Spain around 1680, as well as all the Thing?-branded souvenirs you never knew you needed until now.

So what is The Thing? mentioned on all the billboards? Follow the giant yellow footprints through the museum and you’ll soon find a glass-covered, cinderblock sarcophagus where the (purported) body of a woman and her child are forever frozen in time thanks to a mysterious form of mummification.  Of course, to the savvy roadside explorer, The Thing? doesn’t appear to be the gen-u-ine article, but the artifact still has a pretty fascinating history.

The Thing? mummies are believed to be the work of artist Homer Tate. Born in Texas in 1884, his family moved around the Southwest in the early part of the 20th century, giving Tate the opportunity to hold a variety of careers, such as a miner, a farmer, and even a county sheriff in Oklahoma during Prohibition. But in 1945, he landed in Apache Junction, Arizona to open a roadside attraction, Tate’s Curiosity Shop. His museum of oddities was populated wall-to-wall with shrunken heads, petrified pygmy Wolfboys and Devilmen, the preserved remains of mermaids, and a “bamboozle bat, a bird that flies backwards to keep the dust out of its eyes.” But even in his own words, they were all baloney—and he should know, because he created them with his own two hands. His sculptures were made of a variety of found objects, but mostly old newspapers and wadded-up toilet paper, horse glue, animal bones, and clippings from the floor of the local beauty parlor, and stained with a wide range of colored shoe polishes.  Tate even sold his manufactured curiosities in a mail order catalog to provide a “gaff” (fake attraction) for aspiring roadside hucksters.

According to a 2002 interview with Tate’s grandson, Shad Kvetko, for Shocked and Amazed Magazine, Tate was forced to close up shop in the late-1950s or early '60s under dubious circumstances. The family is hesitant to talk about exactly what happened, but apparently there was some trouble with the law, and Tate’s shop was shut down by his children, who most likely threw his collection into the local landfill. Tate lived until 1975, dying at the age of 90. Today, a gen-u-ine Tate monstrosity fetches top dollar on the sideshow collectors' market.

The Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

Over the course of the Cold War, there were 54 Titan II ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) silos in the United States, each capable of launching a 9-megaton nuclear warhead in less than a minute, striking a strategic target as far as 6300 miles away.  Thankfully, no launch command was ever issued before the last silo was shut down in 1987. Although this nuclear standoff might be over, there are still important lessons to be learned from the era that brought us so close to mutual assured destruction.

Helping to impart those lessons is the mission of the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona, the only nuclear missile silo in the world that’s open to the public. The facility, officially known as complex 571-7, was the largest silo in the U.S. until it was decommissioned in 1982. The base features living quarters for a four-man crew that would have been on-site and at the ready 24/7, as well as the communications and launch control centers, all hidden 35 feet below the Arizona desert. The equipment is a time capsule of Cold War technology, complete with dials, gauges, toggle switches, and the two-key launch system that has become famous thanks to TV and movies. But the highlight of the museum is the full-sized Titan II test rocket contained in the missile silo that reaches over 150 feet underground.

The museum is open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving, and offers a variety of different touring options.  The most common is the hour-long tour, which gives visitors the chance to see the launch center, and view the dummy missile from the top level of the silo. There’s also the the Titan Top-to-Bottom Tour, an extensive, 5-hour journey through the entire complex, including all eight levels of the silo, the crew quarters, and the communication center. But the ultimate adventure is a Cold War slumber party, where up to four guests can stay in the silo overnight to see what life was like for the crew.  No matter what tour you take, though, you’ll witness a simulated missile launch, complete with secret codes, coordinated turning of launch keys, and a countdown to nuclear annihilation. Sounds like a blast!

If you’d like to check out the Titan Missile Museum, head over to the website for more details. 

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States! See all Strange States entries here.