The West Files The Thing: Mystery of the Desert

The fourth story in a series on Arizona legends, unsolved mysteries and ghost towns

Photo and Story by Michela Wilson

We’ve all seen the signs as we’re driving through the desolate landscape east of Tucson, counting down the miles until we reach The Thing.

The billboards encourage us to take Exit 322, 17 miles east of Benson, for what’s probably a much-needed break in the middle of nowhere.

The yellow signs stretch 200 miles in either direction of The Thing, according to Carrie Carroll, general store manager. Each carries a bold proclamation, such as “Mystery of the desert,” “Don’t miss it!” and “It’s a wonder!”

Although sometimes the promise of an ice cream at the adjoining Dairy Queen gives me pause, I most often take note of the billboards along I-10 the same way I do the round rocks of Dragoon — just like any other geologic landmark.

The Thing was, and is, the main attraction in a museum of oddities, originally owned and operated by Thomas Binkley Prince, a former lawyer, who opened the roadside attraction in 1950. Carroll says the billboards at one point could be found from California to Chicago along Route 66.

Bowlin Centers bought The Thing in 1963. The museum, which has been housed in three separate sheds for a few decades, is currently under construction. Carroll said the content of the museum will stay the same, but it will be dusted off and housed in a single, enclosed space. The store and Dairy Queen will be remodeled as well. All construction is expected to be done by May 2018.

In the meantime, The Thing itself has been moved inside the store and is free to view. Carroll says she doesn’t expect the usual entrance fee to change after construction is complete, which is $1 for adults, 75 cents for ages 6-18 and free for kids 5 and younger.

Warning: Read no further if you want The Thing to remain a complete mystery.

Where does The Thing come from? One dominant theory of its origins is that it is a creation of Homer Tate. He was the owner of Tate’s Curiosity Shop in Phoenix and was known for creating papier-mâché shrunken heads, mermaids and mummified goat-men in the 1940s. He brought his creations to life using animal skin, hair and bones.

Incidentally, Tate’s creations are somewhat collectors’ pieces now. Peabody Museum at Harvard University has one and one was bought on the antique show “American Pickers.”

The Thing is open daily. The address is 2631 Johnson Road in Benson.

Or you could just follow the signs.

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