WILLIAMSBURG — Every state has its own roadside oddity that most people living there have either never seen or don’t even know of its existence.
When you mention Presidents Park to long-time Williamsburg residents, they’ll most likely respond with “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”
Presidents Park was the ten-acre, open-air museum that was home to 15 to 20 foot tall busts of the first 43 U.S. presidents.
Now the ghostly, giant heads sit on a private Croaker property, where folks from all over the world come to gawk at, take photos of, and engage in presidential trivia games.
Around eight weekends throughout the year, photographers John Plashal and Fred Schneider lead tours of the heads in a program called “The Ruins of Presidents Park.”
The general public is able to have up close and personal access to the 42 busts (Fun fact: Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms), and explore their new location.
“It’s Mount Rushmore meets Easter Island,” Plashal said. “It’s got the history of Mount Rushmore and the mystery of Easter Island. It’s an oddity of a place because they are decaying. That’s the allure for most people.”
The heads were conceived and created by Houston-based artist, David Adickes, who was inspired after a visit to Mount Rushmore and wanted to make heads that visitors could actually see up close.
Williamsburg entrepreneur, Everette “Haley” Newman, wanted to open an outdoor park that would educate the public on American history, and worked with Adickes to bring the park to life.
After some controversy and a brief layover in the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, the park opened in 2004 near Water Country USA, but it was not the attraction that Newman hoped for.
Its strange location and high admission price caused it to struggle, and its quirkiness received mixed reactions from the public.
While the heads were the main attraction of the park, there was more to see in thered brick museum building that the heads were situated behind. Guests could look at reproductions of the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns, there was an oval office reproduction that was used as a set for “Saturday Night Live,” and there was the contents of the defunct Annapolis, Md.-based Presidential Pet Museum.
The park was eventually put up for sale in 2007 but did not receive any offers, and it permanently closed in 2010.
While the building remains standing at 211 Water Country Pkwy. in York County, it is now an office space for Enterprise Holdings.
Howard Hankins, a local contractor, was asked to destroy the heads after the park’s closure, but decided to save them and move them up the road to his private property in Croaker.
After taking some time to wrestle with what to do with the busts, Hankins has partnered with Plashal and Schneider to lead tours on the property. Both photographers have noted seeing faces from ages 8-80.
“We get a pretty steady crowd,” Plashal said. “A bizarre and unique place like this attracts many different types of demographic.”
The tours have been going strong since they began in 2019 .
While these tours had to come to a halt in 2020 due to COVID-19, they resumed about eight months ago, along with a special nighttime educational photography workshop that Plashal and Schneider also lead.
With capacity restrictions during the height of COVID-19, the tours were limited with more special distancing guidelines. However, as limitations have been lifted in Virginia, the day time tours can now take up to 40 or 50 people in each slot.
An abandonment photographer on the side who captures the forbidden, inaccessible, and mysterious places, these tours are Plashal’s passion.
His favorite part?
“Fred and I are huge dog fans and so many of these people come with their dogs,” he said. “My favorite part of it is to see these awesome breeds of dogs. There’s a little miniature Obama statue that we call ‘Baby Obama’ and the dogs always get in the picture with it.”
The park could not afford what Adickes needed to create a bust of President Barack Obama when he was inaugurated in 2009, so the miniature Obama was a late addition to the statues.
Plashal also enjoys seeing children take part in the presidential trivia contests that they run.
While he would love to lead field trips, it is not something that can be done now as the property is an industrial recycling workplace with equipment running all day long that would need to be shut down for them to run that type of event.
Nighttime workshops are a separate program, only limited to eight photographers. It is specifically designed for photographers with advanced skills.
As for the future of the busts, Plashal said that remains up in the air. For right now they are remaining in Croaker until further notice.
Rain or shine, the tours run about eight weekends a year, with tours coming up this Father’s Day weekend and Independence Day weekend.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Plashal said. “The people that know about it the most are the ones from out of state. It’s interesting how little locals know about it.”
While they do sometimes take walk-ups, Plashal strongly encourages guests to order tickets online.
For more information, visit the events page online.