In Croaker, Virginia stands a sight that would make just about anyone stop in their tracks. 43 ghostly effigies of presidents past crowd together in the tall grass. Some of the 18-to-20-foot busts have crumbling noses. Tear-like stains fall from the eyes of others. All have bashed-in heads to some degree. This could be a scene from the world’s most patriotic horror movie, but it’s all too real—and Howard Hankins’ family farm is just the latest stop on the busts’ larger-than-life journey from iconic pieces of art to zombie-like markers of America’s past.
The busts are all that remains of Virginia’s Presidents Park, a now-defunct open-air museum where visitors could once walk among the presidential heads. Presidents Park first opened in nearby Williamsburg in 2004, the brainchild of local landowner Everette “Haley” Newman and Houston sculptor David Adickes, who was inspired to create the giant busts after driving past Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
But their presidential visions soon (literally) went bust. The park, which cost about $10 million to create, went belly-up due to a lack of visitors in 2010. Doomed in part by location—it was hidden behind a motel and slightly too far away from colonial Williamsburg’s tourist attractions, the park went into foreclosure.
That’s where Hankins, who helped build the park, comes in. Before the land was auctioned off, Newman asked him to destroy the busts. But Hankins didn’t feel right about it, and instead offered to take the heads and move them to his 400-acre farm. And so began the laborious process of moving 43 giant presidents, each weighing in between 11,000 and 20,000 pounds, to a field ten miles away. Hankins estimates the weeklong process cost about $50,000—not including the damage done to each sculpture during the move.
Any hopes of preserving the presidents in their original state were literally crushed as the busts made their journey from park to field. Each bust had to be lifted from its base by a crane, cracking the sculpture’s neck to get the full piece off the ground. The crane attached to a steel frame inside the busts through a hole smashed into the top of each sculpture’s head. Then, each president was loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled away to Hankins’ property.
Cracked skulls were just the beginning: The team improvised as they went along, and the earlier busts moved bore the brunt of the movers’ initial inexperience. The first few moved have broken noses, missing backsides and other structural issues. Abraham Lincoln's bust now has an eerie hole in the back of its head that brings to mind his tragic end, and Ronald Reagan's bust bears the scar of a lightning strike. They all now sit decaying in three neat lines on the farm (except for George Washington, who stands to the side overlooking the group), where they continue to crumble, peel and crack.
Hankins’ field isn’t officially open to visitors—he tells Smithsonian.com that he lacks a tourist attraction license and turns away requests to visit his property. But intrepid explorers and photographers have found ways of getting to the crumbling presidential ruin anyway.
Another park featuring similar presidential heads by Adickes met a similar end. The 2003 Presidents Park in Lead, South Dakota is also now closed—although most of the heads there remain on the property, littering the hillside and serving as de-facto homes for wild turkeys in the area. Busts at a third location in Houston, Texas are visible through a fence.
Hankins’ heads may have a new home soon. He tells Smithsonian.com that he’s working with a couple local governments to find a good site to rebuild the museum. His vision is a grand one that takes the original Presidents Park model, which included a visitor center with presidential memorabilia and a recreation of the Oval Office, to a new level. Hankins envisions a new incarnation complete with Air Force One fuselage, Secret Service museum, First Lady memorabilia, Wounded Warriors room, interactivity and more.
His goal, says Hankins, is to build something both local children and local economies can benefit from while educating the public and making money. But mostly, he says, he’s keeping his battered presidential dream alive for the kids.
“One boy came out to see the heads, then he sent me a picture he drew of the presidents,” Hankins said. “It just tugs at your heart to look at it.”