America’s Superlatives

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on July 23, 2006
Mike Carmichael has the world's biggest ball of paint at his house in Alexandria, Ind.

The biggest ball of paint. The oldest drive-in theater. The shortest river. The smallest post office. The largest candy counter.

From California's redwood forest to Florida's Gulf Stream waters, the United States is home to hundreds of superlatives—the biggest, tallest and smallest of everything imaginable—from the longest covered bridge in Windsor, Vt., to the tallest barbershop pole in Forest Grove, Ore.

In Hebron, Neb., townspeople built a giant porch swing—that seats 16 people—to show their friendliness. In Murphy, N.C., a colossal set of Ten Commandments is written in concrete letters 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, giving new meaning to the phrase biblical proportions.

The nation abounds with naturally occurring superlatives, such as the world's oldest exposed rock in Granite Falls, Minn., and the nation's deepest river gorge along the Idaho-Oregon border.

More often than not, superlatives are the result of individuals or families who have dedicated money, time and effort to build something special, show it off and maintain it for its exaggerated uniqueness. Just ask Mike Carmichael, who has the world's biggest ball of paint at his house in Alexandria, Ind. (pop. 6,260).

Biggest ball of paint
People travel from across the nation to brush another coat on Carmichael's 1,800-pound ball of paint, which grows larger—layer-by-layer—every year.

"People who come by bring me paint, too," says Carmichael, 58, a house painter by trade, who began painting the ball in 1977.

Beneath the 19,400 coats of paint is a baseball. The creation actually was inspired by an accident that occurred while Carmichael was a high school baseball player working a summer job at a paint store. One day he and a friend were playing catch in the store and a missed throw resulted in the baseball getting covered in paint. Liking the appearance of the accidental art, Carmichael painted the ball repetitively through the remainder of his high school years. He quit after 1,000 coats and donated the ball to the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home Museum in Knightstown, Ind.

Years later as a young father, Carmichael got the urge to paint again and recruited his 3-year-old son to put the first coat on a new baseball. Thousands of layers later, the ball has easily surpassed his original creation in size. In fact, it has gotten so big that, with the help of a $10,000 donation from the Sherwin-Williams paint company, Carmichael built a barn next door to his house to store the giant ball of paint, which remains a work in progress. Carmichael supplies paint, brushes and aprons for visitors who are encouraged to slap on another layer.

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Oldest drive-in theater
Shankweiler's Drive-in Theater in Orefield, Pa., is reminiscent of a time when movie lovers knew the family who owned the local drive-in.

Wilson Shankweiler opened the theater in 1934, next door to his hotel just outside of Allentown, Pa. It was Pennsylvania's first drive-in theater and the nation's second.

Paul and Susan Geissinger bought Shankweiler's in 1984 and operate the business from April through Labor Day with the help of their daughter, Jennifer, 14. The outdoor theater accommodates 320 vehicles and strives to show family-friendly movies that are typically rated G and PG.

"It is great to see a family of three, four, five, six people and even the kids' friends all together," says Paul, 53, whose first full-time job in 1971 was projecting films at Shankweiler's. "That makes me feel good."

Through the years, the drive-in has advanced technologically. Speaker poles and car speakers were installed in 1948, followed by a snack bar and projection room in 1955 after Hurricane Diane leveled the theater's projection booth and screen. In 1982, AM radio broadcasting was introduced and four years later movie audio could be heard on the FM dial.

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Shortest river
The D River near Lincoln City, Ore., (pop. 25,754) isn't a place to take a long, leisurely canoe trip. In fact, the river is so short that it has an abbreviated name.

Local residents call it the D River and claim it as the shortest river in the world at a mere 120 feet. The D flows from Devil's Lake into the Pacific Ocean on the picturesque central Oregon Coast, where wind whips the shoreline and giant boulders stand just off shore like sentinels.

The river's name probably originated in the 1920s with Finnish settlers who called Devil's Lake and the surrounding community "Delake," says Frank Howard, a spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The river's name came to match the name of the town, which was incorporated into Lincoln City in 1965.

The D River vies with Montana's Roe River for the shortest in the country. The Roe, which originates at Great Springs near Great Falls, Mont., and flows into the Missouri River, is 201 feet long.

Smallest post office
Names of places near Ochopee, Fla., say a lot about the countryside: Tamiami Trail, Alligator Alley, Ten Thousand Islands.

Ochopee (pop. 950) is home to the nation's smallest post office, a 62-square-foot building that serves residents of the swampy area. The structure, about the size of a child's playhouse, is located in the middle of the Big Cypress National Preserve, between Miami and Naples, Fla., along U.S. Highway 41.

The preserve—the first nationally designated preserve in the nation—teems with wildlife, including bears, alligators and the elusive Florida panther, that live among pine trees, orchids, prairies and mangrove forests.

The Ochopee mail carrier drives 132 miles every day, making 350 stops to serve nearly 950 residents along the route. "Ninety percent of who we deliver to are the Miccosukee tribe," says postmaster Nanette Watson, who lives in Ochopee.

The post office building originally served as a shed for a tomato farm. After a 1953 fire destroyed the Ochopee general store where the post office was located, the shed was converted into the post office that remains today.

"We have everything the other post offices do. We just have it on a smaller scale," Watson says.

Largest candy counter
Jim Alden has a unique relationship with things big and small. Alden, the owner of the world's largest candy counter, says the large chain stores that have moved into Littleton, N.H. (pop. 5,845), haven't been totally bad for business.

"It's turned us into a destination marketplace," says Alden, 42, who with his wife, Lynn, bought Chutters Store last year. "Our calling is now, 'How do we get shoppers to our end of town?'"

People from the region travel to Littleton for the large retail stores, but they also like to stop on Main Street to browse through unique shops such as Chutters, home to an 111-foot candy counter with 700 jars of sweet treats. The selection includes gummy cola bottles and eight kinds of black licorice. The three-tiered candy counter is lined with jars of candies that include circus peanuts, candy lipsticks and other confections, with no repeats.

"People grab a bag and go to work," Alden says. "We still have a section of penny candy that you can get for a penny, and we do count it out."

Chutters is located at 43 Main St. in Littleton. Visit or call (603) 444-5787 for more information.