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Return of the Desert Wayfinder: World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker, CA

The world's tallest thermometer is back in service, and it's more than monumental roadside vernacular. It's a family heirloom. The family missed it. The town missed it. Travelers along Interstate 15 missed it.

At 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 10, the 5,000 new LED bulbs were lit and the 134-foot tower's thermometer reading started the climb, stopping at 102 degrees.

It wasn't 134 degrees, the highest temperature recorded in Death Valley, but enough to make it a special day for the family of the late Willis Herron, who passed away in 2007. He loved the town of Baker, the gateway to Death Valley, a spot to stop along Interstate 15 many know when traveling between Las Vegas and all points west.

People from the surrounding High Desert cities joined the ceremony, led by Herron's wife, Barbara, and daughter, LaRae Harguess. Even Herron's grandchildren were among the 100 or so glad to see the road marker make its return.

LaRae Harguess at the base of the The World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker CA

"It was a great day to turn it on," LaRae Harguess said, daughter of Herron, and now project manager. "My original goal was Memorial Day, but we just got it back in March so it was too lofty a goal."

When Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO), who created the original sign and worked on the restoration, said the sign would be ready by July 4, Harguess looked up Death Valley records and saw that the 101 anniversary of the 134-degree high was a few days after the Fourth of July. "Whoa, it has to be July 10," she recalls saying. "It was meant to be."

It was the family patriarch who dreamt of having something that would pull people off the road. "My dad built this to get people off the freeway and get into town," said Harguess. It was first built in 1991, in time for lighting in December, but Thanksgiving Day desert winds toppled it. "Dad wasn't going to be stopped," she said. "He built it again and it was lit in October of 92."

As he got older, Herron began selling off his property and businesses in town, including the former Bun Boy next door to the thermometer. "It kept changing hands, the other people didn't have the dream," said Harguess. "So it didn't work out."

Sculpture of a pan with eggs frying, at the base of the thermometer

The 134-foot heat gauge began to be neglected and grew a reputation of giving the wrong temperature, or not give one at all. The lights went out when the last owner wasn't able to afford it. But people were still taking photos next to the tower, said Harguess, as her mother saw one day when visiting the tower. "Mom was devastated how terrible it looked. One day she walked up to people taking photos and said 'I promise you if we ever get it back, it will go back on.'"

Hargues began monitoring online what people were saying about the thermometer, babysitting from afar. Then in March 2014 the family got it back in foreclosure.

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It cost $150,000 to restore, which came out of family savings, Hargues said, in the gift shop that sells t-shirts and old bulbs mounted on wood, with a numbered Certificate of Authenticity and the tagline "The Big Fix 2014."

"We're just hoping to make enough to keep the thermometer on," said Harguess. Then she looked outside the gift shop window, where you can see a small sculpture of a pan with eggs frying, and the base of the tower where neon flickers at dusk to highlight the tower's three sides during the night. She had a wide victorious smile; the same one father must have had when he first switched on the beacon of Baker.

Into the night, The World's Biggest Thermometer hovers at 100 degrees

The Grand Opening of "The World's Biggest Thermometer" and formal dedication to Willis Herron will held October 11, 2014, in Baker California.

Photos: Ed Fuentes

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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