IMAGE: LouAnn Adcox/The Fayette County Record — Magilla the Gorilla is a holiday hallmark on a remote stretch of Texas highway.

The approaching holiday season means two things: shopping and travel. While the state's resident college student population generally avoids the former (unless someone else is paying), they embrace the latter and inundate our roadways with fast speeds and liability-only insurance. Why? For the free meals and gifts given to them during awkward family visits in late November and December.

Whether you went to school out of state, across the state or right here in Houston, it's a drill you know all too well. Everyone's guilty of contributing to seasonal traffic, and now that we're out in the real world, we must suffer it. Yet this annual pilgrimage isn't without its perks, especially if your route takes you through La Grange on U.S. Highway 77. 

For four years, I made the drive between Huntsville and Victoria so I could eat something besides ramen and receive the same awful clothes as the previous year. And during each trip out and back, I'd see the same thing: Magilla the Gorilla.

Located off of 77 just south of the Colorado River, Magilla adorns the property line of Jody Mihatsch, a local banker. Mihatsch installed the 6,700-pound concrete behemoth a few years after a 1996 accident blew through his fence and a few trees. Rather than replace the lost trees, the banker bought the gorilla statute in Waco and had it delivered on a flatbed truck.

Named for the popular 1960s cartoon character, the gorilla became something of a local legend. “We get like 60 to 80 notes on him every year,” Mihatsch told the Victoria Advocate in 2007. Having a statue of a nonnative species, let alone any kind of art piece that large, is sure to turn heads in south-central Texas. But Magilla's owners don't stop there.

Depending on the time of year, Mihatsch's interests or outside input, the statue is always dressed in costume. Ghouls and Frankenstein's monster for Halloween. A pilgrim, a Native American or a turkey at Thanksgiving. Frosty, Santa Claus or one of the 12 reindeer during the Christmas season. You name it, Magilla's probably been it.

The added bonus of a gigantic gorilla statute dressed to impress only increased its visibility. That's how I first came to see the beast when, driving back to school after an Easter weekend away, I decided to avoid the interstates and Houston traffic. As soon as I made the turn towards Mihatsch's property line, I saw the bright pink bunny ears and a picnic basket filled with giant, multicolored eggs.

“What the hell is that?” I asked my travel companion. 

She looked up and spotted the statue. “Oh, that's Magilla. Keep your eyes on the road.”

IMAGE: AA Roads — Highway 77 winds through La Grange proper but has a propensity for encouraging speeding from restless drivers.

Sure enough, drivers on both sides of the highway were slowing down to confirm the statue's existence and dissuade themselves of any impending insanity. Since everybody was doing it, passengers and all, my friend's cautionary note proved valid. Yet the gorilla's distraction did something the reduced speed limit signs did not—it got us all to slow down.

 For about 2,000 feet, this stretch of 77 winds this way and that before ultimately curving west across the Colorado River and into La Grange proper. The road is prone to accidents, especially with drivers speedily hopscotching between smaller Texas towns. After all, it's because of a speeding truck that Mihatsch installed Magilla in the first place.

No wonder the gorilla's famous among students. They won't remember the speed limit signs, and they'll definitely try to forget their accrued speeding tickets and warnings about reckless driving, but Magilla? He's a celebrity in their eyes, mainly because they remember him.

He's also a favorite among those of us in the real world, because his presence accomplishes two things: he makes this particular chunk of 77 safer for all drivers on the road, and he brings our collegiate friends and family members home in one piece.

 

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