Monday, March 21, 2016

HEY JOE – A Rather Unusual Roadside Memorial

People mourn, grieve, remember, and memorialize the dead in countless ways. I can respect that. Recently, I happened upon a rather unusual rural memorial to the dearly departed. Rural roadside memorials have an advantage over urban memorials in the matter of sheer real estate. In the city, you’re pretty much contained to a telephone pole with a few bouquets of flowers placed around it. Out in the country, you can go large.

Author Ed Snyder (photo by Susan Argiro Spitz)
This week, we visit a memorial gorilla in south Jersey. Not just any gorilla, but a 25-foot high Fiberglas statue of a gorilla. Here's a photo of me (taken by my friend Susan Argiro Spitz) standing in front of the primate, just for size reference - I am six feet, two inches tall. When you see the name, "Mighty Joe," you might think of the King Kong-style giant gorilla, "Mighty Joe Young," star of the silver screen (1949). However, this is a memorial to a different Mighty Joe. The text on the gorilla's sign speaks for itself, a sad reminder of a lost son. I have transcribed the sign's text below.
My name is Mighty Joe
I have been placed here by the Valenzano family as a memorial
And to pay tribute to their son Joseph who now lives in the kingdom of heaven.
Joe was a big part of this family business and he was also a body builder
and won many awards. He was called “MIGHTY JOE” at times by
his family and friends. Joe was not only mighty in his appearance
but also in courage, spirit and love of family.
Joe is truly missed by his family and friends, but not forgotten,
And he is always in their thoughts and prayers.
My job is to look up to heaven from time to time and say
“HEY JOE WE WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU” and to welcome you to our family business.
God bless you all and thanks for coming to see me.
Mighty Joe

The son may not have been more that eighteen when he died (by the look of the photo at the bottom of the sign) of a brain tumor in 1999. The family, who owns “Mighty Joe’s” gas station, grill, and deli on Route 206 in Shamong, New Jersey, purchased the gorilla from a South Jersey amusement park that closed. According to the good folks at

"Mighty Joe was previously located in Wildwood, NJ. He was installed at the Islander Raceway and Amusement Park where he was known as George the Gorilla. Today, a sign covers the two holes in his chest that had slides projecting from them."

Larry Valenzano, Mighty Joe's father, purchased the gorilla around 2003, had it restored, and installed it at the family business to serve as a mascot and memorial. Larry had seen the derelict gorilla in the broken down amusement park many times during trips to Wildwood and he said it always reminded him of his bodybuilder son. According to

"My wife thought I was crazy," Larry said. "She told me, 'That guy's not gonna sell you that gorilla. You're out of your mind. What makes you think he would sell that to you?'" But the guy did sell Larry the gorilla, bypassing 15 higher bidders. "'I don't need the money,'" Larry remembered him saying at the time. "'And the reason you want it is more important.'"

Mighty Joe’s actual address, should you want to meet him, is 1231 US Hwy 206, Shamong, New Jersey. Our kind friends at give these specific directions: “Mighty Joe's Gas, Grill & Deli. On the west side of US Hwy 206, a little over four miles south of Hwy 70, and about a half-mile south of Tuckerton Rd."

The giant gorilla just appears out of nowhere as you're flying south on 206 through the Jersey Pine Barrens. Like so many of New Jersey’s roadside attractions, all of a sudden its just THERE! – and its up to you to decide whether you want to hit the brakes and investigate!