Roadside-attraction showdown: The Big Apple

“You’re going to include the Big Apple, right?” you demanded. Well, here it is: Colborne’s giant fruit
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Aug 25, 2021
The Big Apple is located just off Highway 401 near Colborne. (Courtesy of Northumberland Tourism)



Maybe you’ve already been to Niagara Falls or up to the top of the CN Tower. But have you made a pit stop near a giant goose? Or snapped a selfie next to a giant wheel of cheese?

Those are just a couple of the roadside attractions on offer in towns and cities across Ontario, which have devised unusual and eye-catching ways of setting their communities apart.

If you’re looking for summertime fun close to home, you can hit the road and check out these local legends. If you’re looking for summertime fun even closer to home, you can check in with over the next two months — each week, we’ll be bringing you profiles of the weirdest, wackiest, and largest objects gracing Ontario’s roadways.

At the end of August, you’ll get the chance to pick your favourites when we open up the voting brackets. So travel Ontario with us, and get ready for a showdown.

Check out the other contestants here.

In 1976, George Boycott and his family moved more than 15,000 kilometres — from Australia to Colborne — to chase a dream. Inspired by the Big Pineapple, a gigantic replica of the spiky fruit in Queensland, and such iconic theme parks as Walt Disney World, Boycott set out to build both a theme park and his own ginormous fruit, one that would resonate with Ontarians. That’s the story of how, nearly a decade later, in 1987, the Big Apple came to open just off Highway 401 near Colborne.

two people in front of a giant apple with a smiley face
The Big Apple opened in 1987. (Courtesy of Northumberland Tourism)

Boycott had sold six pizza shops he owned in Australia to fund the nearly 11-metre tall McIntosh apple replica, as well as the accompanying restaurant and family-friendly attractions, but those funds quickly ran out, he told the CBC in a 1988 broadcast. He tapped a government loan and then approached a local farmer-turned-trucker businessman, Doug Rutherford, who got behind the mission, saying: “This is apple country, and we need to promote it.” 

Thirty-four years later, the Big Apple, whose real name is Mr. Applehead, still turns heads as drivers zip between Toronto and Kingston on Highway 401. It’s a place where they can turn off for a bathroom break, a slice of apple pie, a tour of the petting zoo, and, of course, a selfie with the giant fruit. 

“It’s pretty significant as far as route tours — pre-COVID, there would be buses upon buses of [tour group] visitors,” says Eileen Lum, the tourism manager for Northumberland County. “They’ve got a road named after them: Big Apple Drive. How many attractions have an exit off the 401 that is named after them?”

Every autumn throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, apples could be seen packed into railway cars near Colborne’s rail station waiting to be shipped to cities across North America, Eileen Argyris explains in her history of the region, How Firm a Foundation. In 1951, apple orchards spanned more than 4,300 acres in Northumberland County, though that number dwindled over the next three decades. Since 2011, however, the apple industry in the county has grown 4.4 per cent

Mr. Applehead has gone through some changes of his own: In 2013, for example, a face was drawn on him. And last year, he was given a mask. “Social media went crazy. Facebook went crazy. People have been pulling off the 401,” Sylvia Nagy, the Big Apple’s general manager, told CTV News last summer, referring to the mask, which was meant to show support for mandatory mask policies and front-line workers. 

Lum says that “90 per cent, if not more” of the people she talks to say that they’ve stopped in at the Big Apple before; some went as children with their parents and now take their own kids. Big Apple visitors should also take the five-minute drive to check out downtown Colborne, Lum suggests, pointing out that several new businesses have popped up during the pandemic.

giant red apple wearing a yellow mask
Mr. Applehead was outfitted with a mask for the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Northumberland Tourism)

Speaking to the CBC back in 1988, Boycott — who would go on to enter local politics — noted that the Big Apple’s mini-golf and animal farm was still yet to be built but that the place would get finished. As the camera panned to Boycott’s Mickey Mouse watch, he said with a smile: “You should never say never; it’ll be there. If I have to drive the backhoe myself, it’ll be there.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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