Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 12, 2011

Dark Days for World’s Tallest Thermometer

(Jerry Garrett Photo)

BAKER, California

These are dark days for the World’s Tallest Thermometer.


Except for an occasional random number or two being shown on its display, the thing is broken. Is anyone going to fix it?

“The plan is to fix it, definitely,” said a cashier at the Big Boy restaurant adjacent to the thermometer, in mid-November. “The lights are controlled by a computer, and the computer is apparently fried.”

Exactly how long it will take to fix it is unknown, the cashier said. Unfortunately the cost to repair it may be significant. It is the only apparatus of its kind, in the world.

Problems started a couple of years earlier, right after the owners of the Bun Boy restaurant, adjacent to the sign, sold it and the restaurant to Matt Pike, a Mojave Desert racer of some note.

The plan was to revitalize both facilities and leverage the iconic nature of not only the World’s Tallest Thermometer, but also the Big Boy name, image and menu. Both needed more work than Mr. Pike apparently knew about. So while the restaurant issues take precedence, repairs wait for the “thermometer”.

It isn’t really a thermometer, per se; it’s an electric sign that registers a temperature supplied by an outside source. The temperature is shown in eleven 10-degree increments, up to 130 degrees – or more – like one of those carnival attractions where you swing a sledgehammer to try and ring a bell atop a pole. When it’s working. Right now, like an amnesia victim, a light bulb or two goes on occasionally, but generally, nobody’s home.

“There were some other issues to deal with here that had to be done before the thermometer,” said the cashier. “But the owner’s had two groups of people come in already, to try and fix it. It’s not going to be an easy thing.”

Too bad, as 2011 was going to be the year the thermometer celebrated its 20th birthday.

The sign was commissioned by Will Herron, a local businessman, who had dreamed of erecting a huge thermometer in Baker for 25 years, before he was able to make it a reality. The catalyst was a fire at J. O. Failing’s popular Bun Boy restaurant in 1990, as insurance claims were being paid and the restaurant was reconstructed, Mr. Herron saw an opportunity to move ahead with his thermometer project. So he contracted with Young Electric Sign Co., of Salt Lake City, to construct the digital thermometer of his dreams. The sign maker is known for its work on several memorable casino marquees in Las Vegas.

What they built was comprised of 33 tons of steel and, ultimately, untold zillions of cubic yards of cement. Mr. Herron claimed more than 5,000 electric lamps were needed to light the sign’s three sides. As per Mr. Herron’s direction, the structure is exactly 134 feet tall.

There was a reason for that: In 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded in the world – 134 degrees – occurred in Death Valley, Calif. Mr. Herron thought Baker, although 120 miles south of Death Valley, should try to cash in on some of that reflected glory – no matter how far removed its claim to such an association might be. Baker islocated about 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas, Nev., and 180 miles northeast of Los Angeles. At least it is one place from which it is possible, via a CA state highway, to actually drive into Death Valley National Park.

And, besides, Baker itself is hotter than Hell most of the year, and likely only a few degrees less unbearable than Death Valley. Checking out just how hot the daily scorcher is – that passes for entertainment in Baker.

Besides inhospitable temperatures, Baker is also known for its nasty dust storms and almost constant winds.

In fact, a fierce storm during the sign’s construction toppled it – it landed on a gift shop that was being constructed, and flattened it. That’s when Mr. Herron and the sign company agreed to fill the structure with cement, to anchor firmly against any future apocalyptic weather. It’s now sturdier than the Washington Monument.

The thermometer is pretty much Baker’s only claim to fame (although the Mad Greek restaurant here also claims to be “world famous”) in fact, Baker’s water storage tank is just one of several places where “Baker, California – Home of the World’s Tallest Thermometer” is emblazoned. The blacked-out sign, understandably, constitutes somewhat of a local embarrassment.

Until the thermometer gets fixed, Baker has no real competition as far as other large outdoor phallic thermal measurement devices are concerned.   International Falls, Minn., disassembled its 22-footer in 2002, after technical problems rendered it inoperable.

There was no discussion about replacing it, as the town’s claim to be the “Coldest Spot in 48 States” came in for a challenge from thermometer-less Cut Bank, Mont., which produced some data to back up its boast.

In honor of its dubious claim, Cut Bank has even erected a 27-foot concrete penguin statue (it can talk too, although as of now it is also broken), denoting “Coldest Spot in the Nation”. Actually, data shows Stanley, Idaho, probably has colder temperatures than either one. But as a local wag once said, “It’s been too cold here to go outside and put up our sign.”

So, for now, the competitive landscape for tall thermometers has really flattened out.

[Update: News reports in late 2012 indicated the thermometer and the small building at its base were being offered for sale. No listing price was disclosed.]

Jerry Garrett

November 12, 2011


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