Welcome to Grahamland
Hubert Graham’s yard-full of fiberglass art is about to become Columbus County’s newest roadside attraction.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Ethan Sigmon
On Highway 74 East just outside of Delco, there’s a house set back from the road with a pond nearby. That might sound ordinary enough, but in the yard is a collection of fiberglass figures ranging from life-size horses to people of monstrous proportions, some painted realistically, others bright blue or solid red.
This is no ordinary yard. This is Grahamland.
For the longest time, there was no sign to welcome curious visitors. There was only the Big Woman.
The Big Woman stands at the edge of the pond, flanked by a pair of blindingly white stallions reared up on their back legs. The trio stands frozen in place as if cast from some spell. Once, there were pegasi, one standing at the pond’s edge, the other hung from a tall pine as if in mid-flight. It spit water from its mouth like some fever-dream fountain.
Now, though, there is a sign. “Grahamland,” it says. “Amusement Theme Park Fiberglass Art.” The “welcome” comes right from the owner, Hubert Graham. When you pull into the driveway, he comes out of his workshop and greets you with a wide smile. His eyes shine, he sticks out his hand and he says. “Welcome to Grahamland” and laughs. And you laugh, too, because Hubert Graham’s energy and laugh are infectious.
How It Starts
“Back in 1994, we had a break in,” says Graham. “My wife and I, we both worked in Wilmington and we came home at the end of the day to find all this mess and all this stuff gone. We were devastated.”
At the time, Graham’s home couldn’t be seen from Highway 74. More than 100 trees stood between the house and the road, and if you drove by quick, you might just miss the mailbox and driveway. But someone didn’t; in fact, they used the obscured view to their advantage and took their time in the house.
“My wife said to me, ‘We need to do something outside. We need to open it up,’” he says. “She was right, we were too s
ecluded even though we’re right off the highway, so I did what had to be done and started clearing trees.”
Clearing those trees gave him a wide yard and unobstructed highway view. The yard felt naked, though, and soon Graham decided to build a giant lighthouse, a replica of one of the seven that stand along North Carolina’s coast. The initial build was wood, but he wanted something more substantial. That’s when a friend suggested sheet metal.
“I had the sheet metal cut, then I put it together here in my yard,” Graham says. “Pretty soon people started asking about it — ‘Can I get one?’ ‘When you gonna build me one?’ — so I just started taking orders. But then we had a hail storm and it really beat up that lighthouse good.”
Graham looked for another material and found it in fiberglass. It’s hard, light, strong, easy to repair and, in many ways, easier to work with than steel. He apprenticed himself under a Wilmington-area fiberglass worker and learned the ropes. He made molds of thin fiberglass, and then learned how to transfer the mold to build one he could use to make infinite replicas of an object. He learned about resins and different fiber characteristics. He learned to gel and wax and “pull” molds. And he began to fall in love, earnestly and truly in love, with fiberglass.
The Mother Lode
“When I first started, I was working for the power company, then that dried up,” Graham says. “Since I knew fiberglass and I had a good bit of supervisory experience, I applied at a boat company and went to work there, making hulls and whatnot and managing a team of folks.”
In 2007 that job dried up too.
“My boss asked me one day if I would buy their leftover fiberglass and resin, said he’d make me a real deal on it,” Graham says. “I had no idea if I could afford it, but I said I’d be interested to see what they wanted to get rid of. It was a 48,000-square-foot building with 200,000 bats of fiberglass and 700,000 gallons of resin. I didn’t think I could take it, but they only wanted to get rid of it all, so I bought it for a dollar.”
One dollar spent and Graham had hit the mother lode. He had more raw material than he could use in a lifetime of working by himself.
“I’d bought fifty molds from the guy who taught me to do ’glass work, so I bought the rest of his molds too,” he says. “Then I hired on a couple of gals I’d worked with at the boat shop, and they set to making these molds, trying to work through the material and have something to show.”
They certainly built something to show. Lighthouses in several sizes filled the yard. Then it was animals — horses, stallions, cows, bulls, roosters. Then it was parts for a giant woman, the Big Woman that’s become the center of Grahamland.
Can’t Go It Alone
Graham’s wife passed away in 2006. She never got to see the vision they’d shared come to fruition, she never got to see the light in his eyes when he talks about Grahamland and shows off the amusement park in progress to curious travelers. But Graham’s memories of her motivate him to finish.
While he was building boats, Graham met Betty Dolce, a painter, and they hit it off. She was infected with his enthusiasm for Grahamland and came with him when the boat business left town.
“I love it,” she says. “How it makes me feel when I work on it or when I hear him talk about it. When I see that transformation from materials to product— that moment we have a horse or a Big Woman — wow, that’s powerful.”
Together, they’ve worked to make Grahamland a reality. There have been interruptions, but those interruptions are more like business opportunities. They repair damaged fiberglass on boats and trucks and the like. They fix things for carnival rides. They built a baker’s dozen of flamingoes for South of the Border and a giant alligator head for a Florida Gators fan. They built several zebras that a client displays in a barn. They have fiberglass art in 39 states and countless museums. But all of that is done just to advance Grahamland.
UNCW professor Dave Monahan took his daughter on a road trip one day and discovered Hubert Graham’s house. As they were driving past, his daughter insisted on stopping, so he did a U-turn and pulled into Graham’s driveway.
“I’m a filmmaker,” Dave said.
“This is Grahamland,” Graham said back.
As Graham showed them his growing collection of animals, Monahan and his daughter, Iris, had an idea for a documentary that captures the joy Graham gets and gives through his fiberglass art.
They started shooting right away. That was a decade ago, give or take, and shooting is still ongoing. Graham lights up at the mention of Monahan and his wife and daughters.
“Good people. Great people,” he says. “Every semester, a few more film students come out and shoot. Dave’s out here too, getting updates, putting the story of this place together.”
Monahan and his legion of Independent Study film majors are working on the story of Grahamland. The struggles and joys of it, and the journey of Hubert and Dolce (she’s responsible for painting all the creations), in and out of Grahamland.
What the Future Holds
Soon, there will be a logical stopping point for Monahan’s documentary: the opening of Grahamland as an actual attraction, not just a roadside sight. Graham and Dolce are working to complete another 100 animals or so by Easter so they can open to the public on that spring weekend. They’re building a miniature golf course (it’s almost done); they’re close to putting up a third Big Woman, this one an Indian princess to go with the beach ball gal and the cowgirl; and they need to build a trio of teepees to scale with the women (the teepees will be enormous).
All of this takes money, though, and Graham is looking to Kickstarter, GoFundMe and other crowd-sourced funding sites to pay for some of Grahamland’s necessary infrastructure.
“I know that once we’re open, we’ll be a hit,” he says. “And I hope that some of the folks who have stopped by over the years, or pulled over and taken a picture, or just honked when they drove by, I hope those folks who got a little joy from what I’ve done here can help out and be part of what makes this place really special.”
“I hope those folks who got a little joy from what I’ve done here can help out and be part of what makes this place really special.”
Want to Go?
Stop by Grahamland at 24605 Andrew Jackson Highway East, just outside of Delco. The Grand Opening is slated for Easter weekend (April 4 and 5, 2015), and Graham would love to see you there.
Want to Help?
Pay a visit to the Grahamland Facebook page at
www.facebook.com/Grahamland.NC and follow the links out to their funding pages, where you can be part of the group that helps fund this curious little attraction.