As a kid, travel writer Chris Epting loved to watch Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” series that aired on CBS television for 25 years. The award-winning program featured the roving reporter traveling the country’s back roads, interviewing offbeat people in out-of-the-way places.
“I loved how he met people and gave them the opportunity to tell their stories that no one would otherwise tell,” said Epting from his cell phone outside Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Conn. “I have a love of the open road and a love of Americana, and I think pop culture is unappreciated.”
Epting, a New York City transplant who lives in Huntington Beach, has set about increasing the appreciation factor.
He’s written eight books on America’s historical minutiae, the latest of which is “The Birthplace Book” (Stackpole Books; soft cover; $19.95). The book is more than a list of birthplaces of presidents and celebrities; it includes the dates and locations of the origin of things — like the American version of Irish coffee (1952; Buena Vista Café, San Francisco); Kentucky Fried Chicken (1930; 3890 S. State St., Salt Lake City); the cheeseburger (1934; 1801 Newburg Rd., Louisville); and Apple computers (1976; the garage at 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos).
“I’m very fortunate to have turned my hobby into my livelihood,” said Epting, a former ad man. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid — always looking for things about popular culture and turning it into an adventure of finding things that aren’t marked. I love doing the detective work.”
The author has found a fair share of birth places in California, including those of McDonald’s, the motel, the martini, the mai tai and Murphy’s Law.
Hampton Inn & Suites discovered Epting’s books and asked him to help promote the hotel chain’s Save-a-Landmark program, launched in 2000. He’s written much of the Web site’s material (www.hamptonlandmarks.com), which includes both refurbished landmarks as well as others included in Epting’s books.
The Save-a-Landmark, according to the company, is a campaign “dedicated to refurbishing historical, fun and cultural landmarks along our highways.” Employees provide the labor and the company donates the money — more than $2 million so far toward the preservation of these quirky roadside gems.
One recent renovation is the World’s Largest Shoe House in Hallam, Pa. This 25-foot-by-48-foot shoe house was built in 1948 by an eccentric shoe manufacturer and was used as a honeymoon spot. Sixty years of harsh weather nearly did the landmark in, but Hampton employees and money came to the rescue. The company provided $20,000 to refurbish the shoe and give it new soul.
Even if you never visit all the places Epting writes about in his books, the pages are a fascinating read. The author not only lists names and places, but gives us the story of so many things we take for granted. For instance, the concept of the self-serve grocery was born in 1916 in Memphis when the founder of Piggly Wiggly (you know this store if you’ve lived in the East or Midwest) pioneered the idea of shopping baskets and open shelves. And U-Haul was invented in 1945 after Sam Shoen and his wife couldn’t rent a trailer to move from Los Angeles to Portland.
Epting’s advice for traveling? Mix it up.
“Visit the serious and the crazy for balance,” he said. “Crazy frivolous things are a part of pop American culture” — like the Popsicle. In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson of Alameda, Calif., mixed favored soda powder and water with a wooden stick and left it outside overnight. The next morning he realized he’d created something new. In 1933, Epperson applied for a patent for an “Epsicle.” The name was later changed because his kids called it “Pop’s ‘sicle.”
To see a full array of Epting’s books, visit chrisepting.com.
Filed Under: Hit the Road