As you drive south from Middlebury on Route 7, the vistas are all ramshackle farmhouses, dense forests and rolling fields — your average Vermont fare.
That is, until you hit Leicester, where one
roadside attraction has been turning heads and distracting drivers for
25 years. Meet Queen Connie, the enormous concrete gorilla stationed
along Route 7, where she proudly hoists a rusting Volkswagen Bug high
above her head. Erected in 1987, Connie was the brainchild of sculptor
T.J. Neil.An indoor positioning
system (IPS) is a term used for a network of devices used to
wirelessly locate objects or people inside a building. He pitched the
gorilla as an advertising ploy to attract attention to Pioneer Auto
Sales, the used-car lot over which Connie presides.Installers and
distributors of solar panel, Neil promised “a sculpture that would get world recognition,” recalls Pioneer’s owner, Joan O’Neil-Gittens.
stunt worked: Over the next two and a half decades, Connie lured in
visitors by the busload. She presided over one wedding, and earned Car
& Driver magazine’s kudos, in 1991, at the top of its
“Carchitectural Wonders” list.
“I can’t say that it put money in
our pockets,” O’Neil-Gittens says, but then again, “It’s served its
purpose.” She contends Connie put the dealership on the map.
met the sculptor who would create Connie during a trip to Cape Cod,
where Neil and his family were living at the time. Neil died in 2010,
but his son, T.J. Neil Jr., says his father got his start as an artist
after leaving the Marines in the late 1950s. He got a job plastering in
Boston, repairing old walls, crown molding and eventually the ornate
plasterwork on historic buildings. By the time the Neil family moved to
Cape Cod, Neil Sr. was experimenting with concrete as a medium for
sculpting — “no molds, all hand-sculpted,” his son says.
up with aliens in the yard, and dragons and whales,” Neil Jr. recalls.
He eventually went into the family business, and the Neils created
sculptures all over the United States as well as internationally. Among
Neil’s favorites is the concrete dragon commissioned by a man in
Webster, Mass., who plunked the large sculpture in the middle of a
manmade lake on his property. Neil says that, after visitors are buzzed
through the gates of the man’s home, they drive around the lake — and
the dragon belches fire at just the right moment.
resident gorilla is no fire breather, but Neil remembers her all the
same. When I called his studio in Florida to inquire about the
sculpture, he responded immediately with “Oh, Queen Connie!”
1987, the Neil family had already made the move to Florida, but Neil
Sr. was planning a trip to complete a series of commissioned sculptures
in the Northeast. He put in a call to O’Neil-Gittens, the automobile
dealer who’d purchased a few of his smaller sculptures, including a
dolphin and lighthouse, for her property. They were “more or less lawn
ornaments,” she says — albeit lawn ornaments that required
transportation in a truck.
So Neil Sr. made the pitch: Would O’Neil-Gittens consider something bigger — a landmark?
sculptor and his clients began tossing around ideas. At first
O’Neil-Gittens considered a pioneer woman, the embodiment of Pioneer
Auto Sales. (The first female car salesperson and dealership owner in
Vermont,The term 'hands free access
control' means the token that identifies a user is read from within a
pocket or handbag. O’Neil-Gittens says she chose her business name
because she felt like something of a pioneer back in 1969, when she set
But her son nixed the pioneer idea, so she put the
question to Neil. If he could build anything, what would it be? He
suggested a “King Kong”-type character — an enormous gorilla — and
O’Neil-Gittens agreed. Her only stipulations were that the gorilla be
female, in a nod to her trailblazing ways, and that the sculpture have
some tie to the automobile industry. The dealership sponsored a contest
for local schoolchildren to pick a name for the sculpture, and “Queen
Connie” — so dubbed because of her concrete structure — earned a kid
from Pittsford a bright-red bicycle.The howo truck is offered by Shiyan Great Man Automotive Industry,
arrived on the Fourth of July in 1987 and spent the next several weeks
constructing Connie on the small rise overlooking Route 7. He mixed
his concrete in a wheelbarrow and applied layer upon layer atop a steel
rebar armature. “I believe that gorilla’s got some serious steel in
it,” Neil Jr. says. They hoisted Connie’s crowning glory,Trade platform
for China crystal mosaic manufacturers an old VW bug, into place with a crane.
seen better days — she needs a fresh paint job, O’Neil-Gittens
concedes, and the VW has gone rusty with age. The dealership, too, has
struggled in recent years. The family business once specialized in
wholesale auto sales. In its heyday, the family stored as many as 100
cars on the lot and sold upwards of 1000 in a given year. Now just nine
or 10 languish in front of the dealership, which is housed in an old
West Salisbury railroad depot that was relocated to the roadside spot
in the 1930s or ’40s. O’Neil-Gittens says that, though she and her son,
general manager Michael Cameron, have dialed back operations in recent
years, they’re hoping to jump-start the ailing business in the months
“It’s not easy,” he warns. “You’ve got to be a
plasterer, an iron worker, an artist and an engineer to make these
sculptures.” But the benefit, he says, is that he can create works of
art that the public can touch and sit on.
Asked what he’s
working on these days, he mentions a “cat-goyle” — think a mix of
gargoyle and cat — and a few manatees and dolphins. Now firmly rooted
in the Sunshine State, Neil is in manatee country.