In the Mojave Desert town that sits idyllically on the route connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas, an unusual spectacle raises a figurative eyebrow. Towering over the Mad Greek Café and innumerable gas stations, what is introduced to awe-inspired tourists as the “world’s tallest thermometer” is, in reality, a three-sided digital sign which reflects the readings of a real, albeit very diminutive, thermometer hidden within it.
This towering digital beacon, visible from dozens of miles off, does not hold the record for being the tallest freestanding digital sign either. That bragging right goes to a giant digital sign standing at a whopping 366 feet in Las Vegas, nearly three times the size of Baker’s thermometer sign.
Making our way back to Baker, in 1956 a young man by the name of Willis Herron invested his dreams in a new venture, becoming the co-owner of a quaint restaurant on Baker Boulevard— the Bun Boy. This place fast became a local favorite for its fresh strawberry pie and ultra-thin pancakes. Unfortunately, the Bun Boy was claimed by a devastating kitchen fire in 1990.
Undeterred, Herron leveraged the insurance payout to not only rebuild his restaurant but add a unique and identifiable feature that would outlive all crude jokes inspired by its name. Thus, in an area acknowledged for two distinctive features – being a rest stop and its intense heat – Herron capitalized on the latter, yielding to a new vision. He spent $700K to commission YESCO, a Salt Lake City-based signage company, to create an awe-inspiring sign embellished with 5,000 incandescent light bulbs and standing at 134 feet. Not simply an arbitrary number, the 134 feet symbolically marked the highest official temperature ever recorded on Earth in neighboring Death Valley on July 10, 1913.
However, adversity intervened and before it was officially switched on, a fierce 70 mph windstorm snapped Herron’s ambitious sign in half, leaving a trashed gift shop in its wake. Thereafter, it was reinforced with 125 cubic yards of concrete poured into its steel core and was finally inaugurated on October 9, 1992.
Fast forward eight years, a not-so-healthy Herron sold off his novelty thermometer and Bun Boy to a Burger King franchisee, who five years later, sold it off to local businessman, Matt Pike. Pike repurposed the Bun Boy into a Bob’s Big Boy and in an effort to cut down exorbitant energy bills of $8K a month, he switched off the oversized thermometer.
However, nostalgic and disappointed tourists continued to stop to take pictures of the now darkened digital sign, prompting Herron’s widow to promise its purchase and revival.
Though a heady asking price of $1.75 million initially derailed her intentions, intervention in the form of both a foreclosure and court order facilitated the resurrection of Herron’s grand vision. Two years later, Barbara, at an event attended by the entire population of Baker, turned on the gigantic thermometer, now replaced with energy-efficient LED lights.
Following Barbara Herron’s death in 2022, her children inherited the iconic backlight of Baker.
Lastly, addressing a widespread assumption, despite Death Valley’s temperature not anticipated to exceed 134 degrees Fahrenheit, the sign’s highest display is not limited to this. Contrary to this popular myth, it has been confirmed that it can show up to 139 degrees Fahrenheit. However, higher readings would warrant extensive overhauls and replacement of its digital display system, which the heirs currently have no plans for.