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Photos: The World's Tallest Thermometer, Restored To Its Former Glory, Reopens This Week
Rising up over the spattering of restaurants and gas stations in Baker, CA is a 134-foot-tall thermometer which, for the past several years, has either been shut off, broken or wrong. But on July 10, the family of the man who dreamed it up will be turning it back on.
Baker is an odd place. Situated right off the 15, it's a natural place to stop if you're making the drive across the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It's home to one long street—Baker Blvd.— that contains numerous drive-thrus, the Mad Greek restaurant, a general store and Alien Fresh Jerky. Most everyone wandering around this area is just passing through; only 735 people call Baker home.
In recent times, much of Baker has fallen into disrepair. The Royal Hawaiian Motel is like something straight out of a horror film, with 'Welcome to Hell' painted in gold on an abandoned wall; another room contains the corpse of a young coyote.
Of course, Baker wasn't always like that. Back in 1992 when the thermometer glowed for the first time, it stood tall next to an operational restaurant and motel, both called Bun Boy.
Businessman Willis Herron owned three restaurants, two motels, several gas stations and the Country Store. Two of his properties were the Bun Boy Restaurant and the Bun Boy Motel. He wanted to create some kind of iconic landmark to draw people off the highway and into Baker, something to compete with the casinos across the state line.
Herron's daughter, LaRae Harguess, recalled Herron and her mother, Barbara, telling her and her siblings about teepees and dinosaurs and other roadside attractions. Herron's idea for Baker's landmark was a thermometer that commemorated the highest recorded temperature in the world.
On July 10, 1913, Death Valley reached 134 degrees Fahrenheit. That remains the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet. It's a two hour drive from Baker to Death Valley, reachable by taking Highway 127. Baker is the last town before Death Valley, thus, the thermometer reads: 'Baker, CA. Gateway to Death Valley.'
Herron worked with Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) out of Utah, the same company that helped light up the Las Vegas strip with neon. Harguess says her original thermometer cost $700,000, and was completed in October of 1991, but that didn't go so well. "A freak storm went through Baker and very, very strong winds blew the thermometer down," she said. "That was obviously very devastating for our family, but my dad said, 'we're putting it back up!'"
It took Herron a year, but he did it. On Oct. 9, 1992, he hosted 'The Great Turn On,' in which the thermometer was finally lit.
For several years, travelers stopped to take their photo with the thermometer, which brought money to the local businesses. It recorded its own highest temperature in August of 1995, logging a sweltering 127 degrees Fahrenheit.
As Herron got older, he decided to sell off his pieces of Baker, not wanting his wife to have to worry about any of it. In May of 2003, he sold the thermometer to Baker businessman Larry Dabour. In May of 2006, the thermometer was sold to Matt Pike.
Some changes were made along the way: while the original thermometer had huge, 90 watt incandescent red lightbulbs, new owners consulted with YESCO for a cheaper option and decided to replace the bulbs with white lightbulbs that would shine through red panels. Letters were painted on the sign advertising the restaurant, something Herron never wanted.
In 2012, five years after Herron died at the age of 82, Pike decided that keeping the thermometer lit was too costly, saying he was paying $8,000 a month in electrical bills. Plus, the thermometer was often wrong about what the temperature actually was, and Baker's economy wasn't doing particularly well.
It was after the thermometer had gone dark that Harguess and her mother visited Baker again. They were surprised to see that people were still stopping and taking their photos with the landmark, even though it was in disrepair.
"I think that's what broke my mom's heart the most," Harguess said. "Seeing it in its condition and still seeing people stop—that's what really made her want to get it back and get it fixed."
In 2013, the thermometer and its gift shop went up for sale. Pike was in trouble for not paying franchise fees on the Bob's Big Boy Restaurant he was operating. Harguess says her family was able to get the thermometer back through a foreclosure on March 10, 2014.
Reacquiring the thermometer was one thing, but making it work is another. After years of "no maintenance whatsoever," it took a lot of work and $150,000 (entirely footed by her mother) to restore it to its original glory.
"Somebody along the way took the computer system out," Harguess said, "and the doors were broken. [We had to] clean, repaint, redo the computer system [and] change the lightbulbs out." She said she and her family took shifts camping by the thermometer 24/7 to ensure no further damage.
Harguess said her family also reunited with YESCO in relighting the sign. For now, they'll be putting in LED lightbulbs and keeping the red panels, but eventually hope to take down the panels and install red LED lightbulbs, like the original thermometer. And further down the line, she said she wants to start using solar power.
All in all, however, Harguess feels like this will all be worth it, both restoring the thermometer her father imagined and hopefully, the town of Baker. They've managed to acquire other properties formerly owned by her father, and they've been able to sell the restaurant to new owners. She said they hope to soon get other properties sold, reopened and providing jobs for Baker residents. "Things are happening in Baker," Harguess said, pointing also to the Luis Ramallo, owner of Alien Fresh Jerky, who's just been approved to open a three-story, spaceship-themed hotel.
Harguess says she's excited to meet him. "He kind of reminds me of the kind of business mind that my dad had," she said.
The thermometer's reopened gift shop, which will be called TEMP134, will sell souvenirs and books about the history of the desert. One interesting souvenir will be an original lightbulb mounted onto a plaque that can be used as a paperweight. Each is numbered and signed by Barbara Herron.
The 'soft lighting' will take place this Thursday, July 10 at 3:30 p.m. to commemorate the 101st anniversary of that 134 degree day in Death Valley. On Oct. 22, the family will host a grand opening, dedicating the thermometer back to Willis Herron on the 22nd anniversary of its original lighting in 1992.