Cape icon Big John still standing tall over community
He was decapitated, reportedly kidnapped, endured a 100-day makeover and even wears a mask during these days of COVID-19. Through it all, the iconic 28-foot Cape Coral statue Big John keeps smiling – with two large grocery bags in his arms – in the parking lot that bears his name along Southeast 47th Terrace.
Celebrating his 52-second birthday this year, Big John remains the most recognized face in the city – and he has been through a lot, most notably his disappearance 10 years ago.
In August 2011, all that remained of this city’s 6,000-pound fiberglass legend, was literally a bucket of bolts. He was gone from his parking lot base, nowhere to be found. Many thought thieves had removed him. Even a ransom note was delivered to his owner, Elmer Tabor. Others thought Big John needed some time to himself and wanted to travel the country to find any like-minded, or like-sized fiberglass creatures of commercialism that he could bond with, scheduling visits with the 26-foot UniRoyal Gal in Peoria. Ill., and his brothers in Illinois.
Big John’s disappearance was picked up by national media organizations as this fairy tale adventure played out. Of course, Big John wasn’t kidnapped, and he didn’t magically become human. Big John spent about 100 days getting a full makeover at Auto Galaxy in Cape Coral. He sported a new shirt emblazoned with the American Flag and Declaration of Independence, new blue jeans, and black tennis shoes – instead of white Reeboks – when he was returned to his stand in Big John’s parking lot. That famous smile came to life with new, shiny teeth. Those grocery bags, which had not been seen since the 1990s, were back in place. A community-wide celebration took place upon his return and Big John actually “spoke” for the first time. I had the great honor of being the voice of Big John that day. He talked of his first “adventure” away from home in 42 years and how happy he was to be back.
Before his makeover, Big John had already accumulated quite the history. He was manufactured in Cape Girardeau, Mo., at the request of John Hollinsworth, owner of Big John’s Discount Food supermarket along Cape Coral Parkway and Southeast 47th Terrace. He commissioned Big John from a grocery store friend in Illinois for a truckload of watermelons. The statue was part of Big John’s Supermarkets branding campaign in Florida. On his trip by flatbed truck to Cape Coral, Big John literally lost his head. He was decapitated while traveling under a low highway overpass in Atlanta. The head rolled away, nearly hitting a police car. The truck driver was able to get the head back on the truck and Big John’s journey continued. A “plastic surgeon” was summoned from his birthplace to reattach Big John’s head and up he went.
Big John’s life hit a crossroads after the city was incorporated in 1970. A new sign ordinance threatened to outlaw his existence, but the statue received a written reprieve from the city council to remain as the grocery store’s gatekeeper.
Big John still has family across the country. Three similar statues are in the Illinois cities of Metropolis, Eldorado and Carmi. There are also two in Texas and one in West Virginia, based on 2015 reports. Big John was originally designed by musician and artist Jimmy Boyd.
Last year, Big John donned a new look as the Cape Coral Fire Department meticulously placed a three-foot mask – a human one is only six inches – on the statue as part of the city’s “Mask Up” campaign during the pandemic.
Tom Hayden is a Cape Coral Museum of History board member and a Cape Coral City Council member, representing District 3. He writes a column twice a month on the city’s history for the Cape Coral Breeze.