Not long after Willis Herron’s death in 2007, his family drove to Baker to visit the civic landmark and roadside oddity he had built in 1991 and later sold: the World’s Tallest Thermometer. When they got there, recalls daughter LaRae Harguess, the 134-foot-tall structure was showing the wrong temperature, bulbs were burnt out and, most offensive to them, “Bob’s Big Boy” was painted down one side of it, the kind of advertising Herron had vowed never to display when he was the owner. Harguess says her mother, Barbara, who lives in nearby Apple Valley, began to cry when she saw the disrepair her late husband’s creation had fallen into.
“That was probably the hardest thing I ever saw,” Harguess says. “And that day told me: My family has to get on this mission before anything happens to my mom so she can see it lit again and it can honor my dad the way it’s supposed to—honor both of them.”
That mission is almost accomplished. The family reacquired the thermometer in March through foreclosure, along with the vacant restaurant and gift shop at its base, and plans to have it lit up again by early summer. Harguess says her family is spending about $150,000 to get the roadside icon operational, and hired YESCO, the company that originally worked on the thermometer, to restore it.
Former property owner Matt Pike, who had acquired the landmark in 2005, shut it down completely in 2012, saying it cost $8,000 a month to keep powered. He also closed the restaurant nearly a year ago after being ordered by a federal judge to pay more than $40,000 for failing to pay the Bob’s Big Boy franchise fees. With both the restaurant and gift shop vacant, the thermometer became a target for vandals, who stripped some of the wiring from it, and some of Baker’s business leaders openly questioned if the town would be better off without it.
“It was such a dream of my father’s, and the family was sad when he sold it to begin with,” says Harguess, a high school counselor who lives in Oak Hills, about 100 miles from Baker. “And then to watch it fall into such disrepair and watch what it was doing to the town—the economy has, of course, hurt the town, but a nonworking thermometer wasn’t helping matters. Then to read some of the articles about people wanting it torn down, and saying that it was an eyesore—it was just heart wrenching.”
Harguess says her family is going to reopen the gift shop in an attempt to “break even” on keeping the thermometer lit, but intends to sell the restaurant, which probably becomes a lot more attractive to potential buyers with a working World’s Tallest Thermometer towering over it. Harguess then wants to look into ways for the thermometer to run on solar power, appropriate since the structure’s height is a tribute to the 134-degree day in nearby Death Valley on July 10, 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded.
Herron moved his family to Barstow after World War II, and was one of the first businessmen to recognize the commercial potential in Baker, developing restaurants, gas stations and motels. It was after his Bun Boy restaurant burned down in 1990 that he decided to add the thermometer and gift shop alongside his rebuilt eatery. He sold the property in 2003 once his health started to fail, although Harguess says her family always held the title.
No date has been set for the thermometer’s relighting, but the family recently launched WorldsTallestThermometer.com for updates, facts and photos.
“It is our hope that it will never leave our family again,” Harguess says. “Of course, it was built to help his business; it was on our property, it was next to our restaurant. But it was there for the entire town.”