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This story starts with Ozzy Osbourne. If you’re skeptical that the Prince of Darkness could somehow lead me on a multi-state search for larger than life president heads, I respect your inherent doubt, but promise it is true.
Season 1, Episode 8 of Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour finds the two foul-mouthed British men standing in a field in Virginia, surrounded by concrete heads, each the size of a small shed. I don’t know who at the History Channel (and then A&E) thought that filming father and son duo Ozzy and Jack Osbourne driving an RV across the US would make good TV, but, somehow, they were right.
Watching everyday people react to Ozzy wandering around their small town in his black trench coat is entertaining on its own, but the true value of the show are the interesting and amazing sites around the US they visited that are worth adding to any road trip itinerary. (Although the president heads are my favorite, there are others I would also love to see.)
Before we delve any deeper into this story, we should probably cover one very important fact. Hi, my name is Dylan and I am obsessed with the presidents. (Unfortunately I’ve found this later in life, so I missed the point where Ellen DeGeneres would have found this cute and invited me on her show…) Now, I’m just stuck reciting facts at people with varying interest levels and yelling answers at Jeopardy when I get lucky enough to watch one with a presidential category.
(If you’re wondering if this obsession automatically makes me an apologist, have no fear. Owning slaves is a sin that must be discussed when talking about ten of our first twelve presidents. Indigenous removal may start with Jackson and continue with Van Buren, but they are nowhere near the only ones to perpetrate crimes against native peoples. Violence towards women. The list goes on and we shouldn’t shy away from that.)
Watching Ozzy and Jack in Virginia was the first time I’d heard of the abandoned president heads, but I quickly learned that there are (roughly) three sets that exist across the country. What originally began as a quest to see the VA ones, eventually turned into a multiyear adventure to see them all.
After seeing Mount Rushmore, sculptor David Adickes’ decided that he wanted to make his own monument of sorts to the presidents. Two planned parks (one in South Dakota and one in Virginia) eventually went bankrupt and the heads either scattered or were left to slowly decay. There’s a third (better kept) set in Texas outside of Adickes’ studio.
Sculptor and designer David Adickes’ studio is in Houston, so this is ground zero for head production and development. (Which is why you can see the full sized Obama head here but not anywhere else…) Considering how big these heads are, the studio is nowhere near as big as you’d think. Instead of feeling like a wide open space, it more felt like an overcrowded cabinet, with just a glimpse of the treasures potentially hidden in the next row.
Some internet sleuthing yielded differing answers as to what statues are still inside the chain link fence and what may have been moved. The unofficial Facebook page also does not list any hours, although it does appear to still be open. We visited in 2016 and happened to get lucky with a day that it was open. (I wish I could be more specific on visiting details, but they don’t seem to be available…)
If nothing else, a trip to Houston isn’t complete without at least driving by. The studio yard is fenced in, but completely accessible from the road and the statues, both president and nonpresident, are visible.
Note: A news article from August 2019 outlines plans to create a museum and permanent home for the 44 heads in Huntsville, TX as a lasting legacy dedicate to their sculptor and, as of 2020, it seems that plans are moving forward.
Finding the heads in South Dakota is tricky. (And not just because googling ‘President Heads South Dakota’ will get you a much more famous set of heads…) Their original location was an attraction called Presidents Park in Lead, South Dakota. As far as I can tell, some of them are still there and it may be accessible? (Similar to the Houston studio – Internet results are not clear on which ones remain and how difficult they are to visit. Regardless of their state, I am not condoning trespassing or doing anything either illegal/dangerous.)
If you still want to feel like you’ve completed the trifecta, but don’t have the time or gumption to potentially go off-roading, you can use my loophole. While some of them may still be in Lead, some have definitely been moved elsewhere. Outside of the failed park, the largest cluster (aka three) are located near the road outside of an RV park in Hermosa, SD. Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush (#43) are admittedly a weird pairing, but nevertheless, I say it counts as seeing the South Dakota branch of the president heads.
Originally, this was both the most complete set and also the most difficult set to visit. Kept on private property, any google results about this place included terms like ‘no trespassing’ and ‘strongly enforced’. (There is also a large sign to the same effect at the end of the dirt driveway.) When I first heard about their residency in Virginia in 2016, I couldn’t figure out a way to visit that didn’t involve trespassing. Enter photographer and storyteller John Plashal who recently took the heads from off limits to sometimes accessible.
Now (with a ticket to one of John’s increasingly popular events) you, too, can walk amongst the heads and not have to worry about getting arrested. For most of 2019, he offered two basic types of events – a walking tour or a photography experience. (Refer to John’s event page if you are interested in future events, or the other range of tours and classes he offers.)
Enough background information, now let’s get to the fun stuff. How was seeing the Virginia set up close and personal?
Alex and I both attended the October 12th, 2019 photography and light painting* workshop. One great feature of the class is that there are two ticket opens – one for photographers and one for observers. Observer tickets allow for photos and exploration before nightfall, but not participation in the light painting workshop. Photographer tickets obviously allow for both.
(*Light painting is basically a photography technique that involves using a moving light source and a long exposure to create different effects.)
Classes run from 5 PM – 11 PM, so make sure you eat beforehand and are ready for a long night. (Water and porta potties are provided in case you are worried about having to totally rough it for that long…) Getting to the heads is a quick walk down a flat dirt road, but walking in between them and getting up on some of the surrounding outcroppings for an aerial shot are all done better in long pants and sneakers.
I would also recommend a long sleeved shirt or jacket both for chilly nights and to help ward off the mosquitoes. (And, yes, you should also throw bug spray in your bag.) John also suggested bringing chairs of some sort, especially for those not participating in the light painting. (Let me speak from experience and say that you should bring a chair for everyone in your group.)
When I first arrived, I was so intimidated by all the photographers with their fancy looking equipment and discussion of their years of experience. Thankfully the first part of the class is free time to independently shoot, so I was able to warm up and (eventually) forget about my original imposter syndrome. While you certainly don’t need the fanciest or most expensive equipment, there are some things that you can’t shoot without.
Equipment You Need:
A Camera (duh) that photographs well at night and a wide angle lens (Don’t know if you camera does well at night? Either Google it or, my personal preference, take it outside and test it!)
Tripod (An essential for night photography or long exposures)
More than you gear, I think the most important thing you can bring with you is comfort using it. Before the class, was I still a little intimidated by my wide angle lens that I had to manually focus? Absolutely. But I went out multiple times before the class and just practiced focusing and shooting. My photos from those sessions are barely worth the space on my hard drive, but my goal wasn’t photographic excellence, it was just to get more familiar.
If you read through the entire event description, you’ll also see a stipulation that you be able to change your camera settings quickly. Cue a huge cartoon style ‘gulp’. While you do need some familiarity with your camera (especially for the light painting portion), let me help to assuage your fears.
Consider your own answers to the following questions:
Can you comfortably shoot in Manual and change basic settings such as aperture, ISO, shutter speed?
Can you competently focus your lens, specifically at night? (With a focus light provided)
Can you shoot in Bulb Mode? – Which really just boils down to having a shutter release cable or knowing how to work around that. (I did not have a release cable and did fine. I just had to manually hold the button down.)
If you can do those things, I promise that you can handle this. (I understand and respect why they want to set an expectation of independently shooting, as this is a workshop, not a Camera 101 class. However, I would hate to see someone not participate because they misjudged the necessary skill level.)
Jimmy Powell, who does the light painting, knows what he’s doing and will help guide you through, especially in the beginning. While the workshop doesn’t have much downtime, there’s plenty of time to make adjustments between setups. I adjusted my settings based on Jimmy’s original recommendations and didn’t change them once throughout.
With the state of the heads seeming to be in flux, now is the time to head out and explore. Even with how popular John’s tours are, the Virginia ones are probably the easiest to see if you are on the East Coast. (Although I’m not sure how long his tours will continue as some sources are saying the heads are in the process of being sold, but then others say they are staying put.)
That being said, if the museum in Huntsville, TX is built, then there will be a permanent home for at least one set and we can all sleep a little sounder at night. (Just me…?)