On a sprawling industrial site in Croaker, Virginia, an unlikely attraction draws lovers of strange and abandoned places. Surrounded by overgrown vegetation are the giant heads of 43 U.S. presidents, battered and crumbling after years of neglect. But how did these statues end up suffering such a cruel and undignified fate?
Inspired by Mount Rushmore, the vast presidential memorial carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Croaker heads tower over the surrounding countryside. And at 20 feet tall, they make for an imposing sight. However, their banishment to rural Virginia is only the latest chapter in a long and intriguing saga.
Today, intrepid explorers can find themselves face-to-face with the leaders of America’s past, from George Washington all the way to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And according to tour guides, the decaying statues inspire a wide range of emotions. But despite their current state, the heads started life as part of a grand and ambitious project.
The story began in Williamsburg, VA, a celebrated city famous for its links with the colonial past. Founded by early settlers in the 17th century, it went on to play an important role in the events of the American Revolution. Even today, in fact, the town boasts an entire district dedicated to preserving the history of the United States.
In the 21st century, Colonial Williamsburg is a museum in the living history style. It’s streets are filled with costumed actors and its buildings frozen in time. And every year, around one million visitors flock to the region, keen to immerse themselves in the past and visit nearby attractions, such as the Governor’s Palace.
Given Williamsburg’s connections to American history, then, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the town was chosen as the location for President’s Park, the initial home of the giant heads. However, it wasn’t the first choice of David Adickes, the Texan artist behind the larger-than-life creations. According to reports, he first wanted the sculptures installed in the revered surroundings of Washington, D.C.
In a 2011 interview with the Washington Post, Adickes explained that he was inspired to create the heads when he passed Mount Rushmore on a road trip. “I was overwhelmed by the majesty of it,” the artist said. “Driving to Texas, the idea occurred to me to do a park with all the presidents, big enough to get in front of and look in the eyes, rather than from a quarter-mile away.”
Unfortunately, Adickes was unable to convince the austere guardians of America’s capital city to welcome his ambitious idea. And so, the artist turned his attention to Williamsburg instead. And before long, he’d made contact with Haley Newman, a developer and entrepreneur previously responsible for launching a water park in the historic city.
Newman loved Adickes idea, and soon agreed to pour $10 million into the project. With financial backing secured, the artist got to work constructing the giant heads. And in 2000, while Bill Clinton was still president, the first of the sculptures was completed. Unfortunately, however, the project faced some opposition from local authorities.
As Newman fought to gain permission for the attraction, completed heads continued to arrive. And at first, they were strapped on to the backs of trucks or placed temporarily in the botanical garden in nearby Norfolk, VA. Eventually, however, the authorities were persuaded of the educational value of the project, and President’s Park opened in Williamsburg in 2004.
Despite Adickes’ grand dreams, however, President’s Park never reached its full potential. Located in a sheltered spot, the heads were hidden behind trees, meaning that tourists couldn’t see them from the nearby highway. And even though early surveys indicated that visitors enjoyed the attraction, it was not a financial success.
As the years passed, President’s Park began to suffer from a lack of maintenance. As a result, the heads succumbed to decay and – in one case – a lightning strike. And by the time that Adickes proposed a sculpture to mark the inauguration of President Obama, Newman and his backers could no longer afford the expense.
Eventually, in September 2010, President’s Park closed its doors for good. And when the land housing the attraction was auctioned off, the old owners reached out to a man named Howard Hankins. Years earlier, the local contractor had been involved in the construction of the park – and now he was being asked to destroy it.
Talking to Washington news outlet, DCist.com, Hankins explained his involvement. “They called me and wanted to know if I would come down there and crush [the heads] and haul them away.” He went on, “I said, ‘Heck no, can I have ‘em?’ I’m going to preserve them.” Unwilling to see Adickes’ artworks destroyed, the contractor began the laborious task of transporting the sculptures to his own property, 15 miles away.
The sculptures, some of which weigh more than 20,000 pounds, didn’t have an easy journey to their new home in Virginia. In fact, Hankins soon realized that he would first need to crack the heads open, revealing the metal framework within. Only then could an excavator get a grip on the vast busts and deposit them on a waiting flatbed truck.
At first, the process was challenging, and the heads that were moved first sustained the most amount of damage. But, over time, the team got the process down to a fine art, and, eventually, all 43 heads were lined up in their new home. In total, the salvage operation cost Hankins somewhere in the region of $50,000.
Initially, Hankins hoped that a private collector would come forward to make an offer on Adickes’ heads. Or, failing that, he had plans to launch his own tourist attraction featuring the presidential sculptures. Unfortunately, however, nothing came of either idea, and the artworks were left to decay even further in their new home.
Today, the land that houses Adickes’ sculptures is home to Hankins’ industrial recycling facility. Sitting on private property, the heads were off limits to visitors for years. But after a while, rumors began to spread about this graveyard of abandoned presidents, and urban explorers started to flock to Croaker in the hope of catching a glimpse of them.
Sitting on a patch of swampy ground, the sculptures are mostly arranged in three neat lines. In fact, the only exceptions are the busts of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, which stand slightly apart from the rest. This honor, however, has not spared the statues from being slowly reclaimed by nature just like the others. And today, all 43 heads rest on a thick blanket of vegetation, with weeds creeping slowly up their shoulders.
For the modern visitor to this alternative President’s Park, it’s clear that these sculptures have seen better days. Ronald Reagan, for example, has been left scarred by a bolt of lightning, while the bust of Woodrow Wilson appears to be suffering from some disfiguring disease. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton is depicted without much of his right ear.
Perhaps the most sinister example of the sculptures’ decay, however, is what happened to the head of Abraham Lincoln. As one of the first statues moved from Williamsburg to Croaker, it bore the brunt of Hankins’ experimental technique. And as a result, it now boasts a gaping hole in the back of the president’s head, an eerie reminder of his own gruesome fate.
In Hankins’ field, the presidents’ heads are not arranged in chronological order. And this has led to several fascinating juxtapositions. In one spot, George W. Bush sits incongruously between fifth cousins Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, an honor which would baffle most historians. Elsewhere, the disfigured face of Reagan sits next to the head of John F. Kennedy, while Ulysses S. Grant and Bill Clinton make for unlikely bedfellows further down the line.
Despite the odd arrangement and obvious decay of the heads, however, they have taken on a new life in their latest incarnation. In fact, people seem to be more interested in seeing the sculptures in their abandoned state than they were during the heyday of President’s Park. So what’s the secret behind their appeal?
Pablo Iglesias Maurer, of DCist.com, visited the site in 2015. He later wrote about his time in Hankins’ field. “The sculptures are truly beautiful, a testament to Adickes and his team’s craftsmanship.” Maurer went on, “There’s something to be said for studying the lines and features of a person’s face, and it’s impossible not to when their head is twice the size of your entire body.”
According to some, the giant heads’ battered and crumbling nature is part of their appeal. Certainly, they have attracted a number of visitors over the years, most of whom trespassed on Hankins’ land in order to reach the statues. Eventually, in 2019, John Plashal, a tour guide and photographer, approached the presidents’ custodian with a proposal.
An aficionado of abandoned places, Plashal has worked for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, giving talks about derelict locations. And in the process, he realized just how much interest there was in the presidential heads. So, the lecturer came up with a plan to secure legal access to Hankins’ land.
In February 2020, Insider interviewed Plashal about the new venture. He said, “I approached Hankins about doing it because the president’s heads are the ultimate abandoned place in Virginia – if not the world – and it blew up.” Now, the guide runs occasional tours of the sculptures, with proceeds going to reimburse the considerable expenses associated with the site. He went on, “There’s a lot of people who want to see these things.”
Despite Hankins’ earlier goal of establishing his own attraction, he’s a long way from realizing that dream. Currently, he does not have a tourist license, and visitors must sign a waiver before setting foot on the site. But for those who have managed to get a spot on Plashal’s tours, the decaying heads have had a lasting impact.
As Plashal told Lonely Planet Travel News in 2019, “The emotional responses are very powerful from people who visit – ranging from complete elation to profound sadness.” Apparently, the tours are mostly popular with photographers, who find the combination of once-powerful figures and inescapable decay difficult to resist. Some, in fact, even take the opportunity to capture the heads at night under the stars.
Plashal explained, “The statues assume an entirely new level of creepiness under the evening skies. It is really cool to see these things during daylight, but it is absolutely indescribable to witness these statues at night. Almost ethereal.” The tour guide, though, doesn’t understand why it’s taken people so long to realize the artworks’ appeal.
The guide went on, “It’s perplexing how nobody cared to see these statues when they were accessible in a public park, and now the whole world wants to see them since they are decaying and largely inaccessible.” Intriguingly, Plashal also mentioned that the heads wouldn’t be staying in Croaker for much longer – although he didn’t give any further clues as to their future.
Over the years, Hankins has spoken with a number of local governments, hoping to find a permanent home for this strange collection. According to reports, he envisions the heads taking center stage at a larger exhibit modeled on the original President’s Park. However, this attraction would take things far beyond its initial incarnation.
The President’s Park of Hankins’ dreams is certainly ambitious. In it, the heads would sit alongside the fuselage from a disused Air Force One, as well as a replica of the Oval Office. Elsewhere, a visitor’s center would feature memorabilia of past presidents and first ladies, while museums would explore topics such as the secret service.
According to Hankins, his goal is to create something that will educate and entertain – as well as generate money for the local economy. In a 2016 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he explained that children are a large part of his inspiration. “One boy came out to see the heads, then he sent me a picture he drew of the presidents,” he said. “It just tugs at your heart to look at it.”
In 2015, Hankins claimed to be talking to the authorities about a site in Colonial Williamsburg for his President’s Park. However, no progress seems to have been made to date. Meanwhile, in 2019, a scandal shook Croaker when a bust of Barack Obama went missing, removing the park’s only reference to America’s 44th president.
As Plashal told ABC News in 2019, “The park went bankrupt while President Obama was in office, so there’s not a full size bust of him, only a miniature sculpture.” There is however, a financial explanation for this. The guide went on, “Before they go full scale, they create a miniature, and if [the park likes] it, then [they] go full scale. Obama had a miniature one and he was ready to go full scale, but the park folded.”
During one of Plashal’s tours, however, the miniature, two-foot bust of Obama disappeared. Upset, Hankins made a public appeal for information, a decision that surprisingly resulted in a concrete lead. After arranging a drop-off in a predetermined location, the thief returned the statue to its rightful owners.
Hankins told news outlet AP in 2019, “[The thief] didn’t know what [the bust] meant to everybody.That it was for everybody and not just for him.” Getting Obama back, though, had an uplifting effect on the contractor. He went on. “There is hope for people in this country. It’s amazing that somebody actually did return him. Here we go. Let’s unite. Maybe the whole world can do this.”
Now, the bust of Obama remains under lock and key, only brought out for special events such as Memorial Day. On these occasions, visitors seize the opportunity to take selfies with the former president, many of which make their way onto social media. And in this way, the reputation of Hankins’ land as one of Virginia’s oddest tourist attractions continues to grow.
Although the ultimate fate of Hankins’ collection remains uncertain, Croaker isn’t the only place where curious visitors can see Adickes’ giant presidential busts. Apparently, two additional parks in Texas and South Dakota also house the artist’s work. And while both of these locations are also closed to the public, intrepid explorers can still catch a glimpse of the strange, decaying heads.