Mike Hall climbed into his bright orange, 25-ton excavator at first light Thursday.
He had a roadside icon to destroy.
Hall, a 59-year-old supervisor for a demolition company, doesn't get sentimental about his job. Here is a guy who helped level the Tides Hotel in North Redington Beach, where Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and the Beach Boys stayed. Nothing drives home the transitory nature of existence like knocking down things for a living.
But he was a little surprised by this assignment. Magnum Demolition of Wimauma had been hired to uproot "Airstream Ranch," a display of eight silver travel-trailers that had been sticking out of the ground in a grassy field along Interstate 4 for a decade. Like so many motorists, Hall had driven by it many times.
"I thought it'd be here forever," he said.
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Frank Bates wasn't sure the display would last 10 days, never mind 10 years.
Bates owned an RV dealership just east of the site and decided to erect the display to honor the 75th anniversary of Airstream campers, a line of RVs known for their shiny aluminum surface and retro toaster shape. He was inspired by "Cadillac Ranch," an art installation in Amarillo, Texas, where 10 brightly painted cars are buried nose-first in a field along Interstate 40.
"It was a whimsical thing for me to do at the time," Bates, who lives and owns an RV store in Venice, recalled Thursday.
He got the trailers from a junk yard in Spring Hill and got his crew started one day in January 2007.
"All of a sudden we had helicopters over us and traffic was slowing down," Bates said. "I told them to get them in the ground quick."
With thousands of cars rushing by each day, many of them filled with tourists traveling between Tampa and theme parks in Orlando, the display quickly became a tourist site. But a fight with county officials would drag out for three years. Hillsborough County Code Enforcement eventually ruled the display violated zoning and sign restrictions and rules against debris and proper storage.
Bates was fined $100 a day after refusing to remove the campers from the ground. He was ultimately victorious in 2010 when a panel of judges found the installation to be legal and reversed his fines. The county decided not to appeal.
Bates and his wife, Dorothy, sold Bates RV and the Airstream Ranch property to RV One Superstores in 2013, and the dealership is now called Tampa RV. The new owners left "Airstream Ranch" alone — for a while.
But like so many Florida landmarks, it's being brought down in the name of progress.
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Matt Strollo is proud of his family's company.
Along with the Dover site, RV One Superstores has five stores in Orlando, New York and Iowa. It enjoyed revenue growth even through the recession, said Strollo, vice president of business development.
Now it's time to grow. Construction will begin soon on a 17,000-square-foot Airstream dealership that will rise where Airstream Ranch is now. The footprint and location of the modern, angular building made saving the display impossible, Strollo said.
The new dealership will feature a museum in honor of Airstream founder Wally Byam and a giant electronic screen called the "Airstream Experience."
When news of the "Airstream Ranch" spread, hundreds lamented the loss of the familiar display. A story posted on the Tampa Bay Times' Facebook page had been shared more than 1,000 times and garnered more than 300 comments, many of them sharing memories of how the display delighted fidgety children and parents alike.
"I think they should turn the frowns upside down and be excited about what's going to come just on the horizon," Strollo said. "A brand-new dealership for people to enjoy, instead of just taking pictures as passers-by of broken-down Airstreams."
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Hall, the excavator operator for Magnum Demolition in Wimauma, got started late Wednesday. The trailers were easy to push over with the excavator's clawed bucket and crush like Coke cans.
By lunchtime Thursday, all that remained were one toppled trailer and piles of twisted aluminum and debris — a sink, an oven, several tires. Hall said some of the trailers' chassis and pieces of the aluminum shell might be sold for the scrap, but nothing else could be saved.
Bates said he was sorry to hear that his display had been leveled. But he said it's fitting that an Airstream dealership will rise from the site, and he hoped "Airstream Ranch" would get a mention in the new museum.
He was also was pleased to hear about the online outpouring from people who will miss the display.
"I think that's very nice," he said. "I'm touched that I did something that touched that many people."
Times researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.