Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 7 | Spring 2024

Anatomy of the Beaver Nugget

Story and photos by Harrison Knight

“Man’s temples typify his concepts.”
– Frederick F. Cook

Greg Grose’s face is extraordinarily serious for a man in a beaver suit. The beaver’s two beady eyes rest on the top of Greg’s head; its two buck teeth fall just above Greg’s eyes. Greg Grose’s very serious face is in the mouth of the suit, speaking for it and through it, and on his chest there’s a reproduction of the same Beaver that he’s wearing, a cartoon creature in a baseball cap that leans much more Mickey Mouse than real-life dam-building semi-aquatic rodent. There’s a relatively full parking lot in the far background of the scene, but the gas pumps that fill the space between there and Greg Grose seem mostly empty. A woman getting out of a Dodge Caravan watches Greg with amusement; a man in blue jeans walks behind him on the sidewalk. Neither of them seem particularly surprised by what’s happening. Greg Grose is singing a song about Buc-ee’s, a chain of gas station-convenience stores that’s cultivated mythic status in the American Southeast by asking: What if a convenience store was big enough to feel like a department store? What if a gas station was big enough to feel like a hangar at a regional airport? What if you managed to do all of the above in large part because of a mascot so compelling that Greg Grose would wear a onesie imitating it and sing a song celebrating the whole spectacle? He sings specifically about Buc-ee’s coming to Athens, Georgia back in November of 2022, another extension from its founding in Clute, Texas. A news station from Huntsville, Alabama — five hours away from Athens — calls Greg’s song an original, but it’s pretty clearly using the melody of “Folsom Prison Blues’’ by Johnny Cash, a song about resenting the rich, disappointing your mom, and shooting a man in Reno, just to watch him die. The news clip excerpt of Greg Grose’s song is only one verse, and it’s about Buc-ee’s, not crime, but the two intersect on the level of the cautionary tale:

Y’all come down to Athens
This Buc-ee’s about to open
Y’all gon find some food and all kinds of stuff
Which you don’t need
But you’ll buy it anyway

Not every Buc-ee’s location has a theme song, but every Buc-ee’s location does have a press run. Local news outlets take up the arrival of a Buc-ee’s like it’s a visit from the governor or the token hometown celebrity. A Waco, TX news outlet says that a new Buc-ee’s in Hillsboro, TX was scheduled to open on April 1st 2024, in part to be open for “The Great American Eclipse” on April 8th and to capitalize on the thousands expected in the town of eight thousand; the plan failed—“supply chain issues.” An Orlando newspaper, before revealing that there might be another Buc-ee’s coming to the area, advises you to “hold on to your Beaver Nuggets.” The Beaver Nugget, despite its implied parallel with the chicken nugget made of real chicken, is just puffed corn covered in caramel—and Buc-ee’s signature snack. The Knoxville News: “The Sevierville Buc-ee’s is finally open!” Plus, a guide with everything to know about the gas station, which is much more than insert your card, remove the pump, select the fuel grade. In 2023, news outlets around the southeast started to report that a new Buc-ee’s, the biggest one yet, would arrive in Ocala, Florida in 2025. Ocala: forty-five minutes south of Gainesville, ninety minutes northwest of Orlando, and about the same time northeast of Tampa. Sixty-four thousand people in the center of a peninsula and a gas station for them all to be proud of.

Friday night in Ocala: formerly meaningless, now a phrase that somehow makes sense. When I’m home I go downtown just to see what’s happening, because it’s miraculous that things are happening. I lived in Ocala for eighteen years, but in all that time I can’t remember noticing as much change as I have in the four years since I left. I think it began with the hotel on the square. A mixed-use Hilton that stands a little bit higher than most of downtown, suggesting the presence of the business trip or even the tourist who’s interested in staying in Ocala, not just somewhere on the side of the interstate. It replaced the grassy lot across from the square, a generally under-utilized space but very crucially used every holiday season as the location of Ocala’s Christmas tree, which has since been moved across the street, into the square proper. Then there was the closure of the massive Persian rug store and its replacement by Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop, a chain candy store based in Pennsylvania that sells heavily-saturated childhood nostalgia alongside self-consciously naughty gifts, like a coffee mug that reads, “Bitch Please, I’m from Ocala.” On their website there’s no indication that Grandpa Joe is or ever was a real person.

And then, of course, there is Friday night. A proliferation of bars, restaurants, and bar- restaurants around downtown has created something resembling a nightlife in what bitter young people sometimes call “Slowcala.”

Take, for instance, “Bank Street,” which is on Fort King Street.

Now kick,
Now kick,
Now kick,
Now kick.

Bank Street is an open-air space with all the food and drink on the perimeter, designed to be something like the ideal back porch.

I went there once with high school friends and thought it was a good place to watch your middle school teacher do the cupid shuffle next to your elementary school crush, who has a strangely similar way of now kick, now kick, now kick, now kick. A few blocks down there’s “Black Sheep,” teeming with the fraternal (but not Greek-lettered) spirit of high school varsity sports and the oscillating pulse of Ocala’s soundtrack: from earnest, feel-good pop-country to bassy Southern trap music and back again, ad infinitum.

As each new bar and restaurant opens, it becomes increasingly less clear whether the yuppies of Ocala were hiding in affordable homeownership in anticipation of their moment, or if they’ve arrived simultaneously with their stomping grounds. In any case, there’s a place charging ten dollars cover on the corner of Broadway and Magnolia; I can’t tell if it’s empty or just “filling up.”

Not every place in Ocala is new; to be honest, most of them still aren’t.

A few blocks down from the Black Sheep, Bank Street, and all the rest, there’s a store called the White Elephant where a mint-green three-car garage has been filled with wood furniture, estate sale art, and dusty basement technology since before I can remember. Everything collapses in the stacks and shelves of the White Elephant: genealogy, geography, politics, decades of Ocala history. It’s the kind of place that’ll be open one Tuesday and closed the next; a place where maybe a quarter of the objects scattered about have a set price. In most cases, you’ll have to track down the owner—we’ll call her Katie—and see what she thinks a memory costs today. I stop by the White Elephant at least once each time I’m back home. After a few years of seasonal visits, Katie has started to recognize me; she insists that they can ship to Chicago, but still I tend to stick to objects that fit in carry-ons. I haven’t worked up the courage to tell her that the reason I don’t need her to ship to Chicago is that there’s an antique store there, an even bigger one, called the Brown Elephant. On one trip Katie says she’s getting concerned about the parking situation around her store, where paid meters have started popping up by the street spots and small lots nearby. I’ve always parked in the little field behind the store; I don’t expect the imaginary lot to go paid anytime soon.

“They’re trying to turn us into Orlando,” she says.

In 1963, Walt Disney made a trip to central Florida in the early days of research for the second Disney location, what would eventually become Disney World. There were two towns in central Florida being scouted: Orlando and Ocala. Disney’s grandparents had just moved out of Paisley, Florida, a town on the outskirts of the Ocala National Forest, and he still had some other relatives in the area; he was familiar with the city, and there was a 25,000-acre plot nearby that seemed like just the right starting point. Disney liked Ocala, and it seemed like a Disney World there was a real possibility. The international landmark, the billions of dollars in tourism, the thousands of jobs in the area, the exponent added at the end of “Disney” that is other parks: Universal, SeaWorld, even the Holy Land Experience. It was all possible. But there was an Interstate 4 extension being built in Orlando, and a highway connection to the Florida Turnpike already there; Ocala only had U.S. highway 301. Walt Disney was a planner—he wouldn’t build a world that no one could get to, so Orlando it was, and Orlando it is. James Clark, a history professor and author of “Orlando, Florida: A Brief History,” is convinced that Walt Disney would have never visited Orlando if John F. Kennedy had been shot one day earlier. He would’ve flown back to California suddenly, Orlando would have never been a real option, and Ocala would have been Disney World.

In 1893, the World’s Fair of Chicago came to a close. It was titled the Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in North America, and Chicago’s attempt at proving to the world that they had moved beyond the fire that destroyed them twenty years prior. This was the time when a World’s Fair could be everything for a city. Just a year before the Chicago fair began, Paris had hosted the Exposition Universelle, their own ode to performative innovation that is likely best remembered for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. In the run-up to the Chicago World’s Fair, the planning committee was looking for an architect to design the structural touchstone of the exposition, a beautiful, shocking, undeniable new piece of the city—Chicago’s own Eiffel Tower. And they almost got it. Literally. Among the options for an architect was Gustave Eiffel, hot off his Parisian success, who offered to rebuild the tower in Chicago and make it even grander than the original. But the committee wasn’t satisfied by the idea of an international star crossing the pond with a glorified replica of an already-classic European masterpiece and calling it Chicago. They wanted an American architect, someone with a homegrown idea of Columbus’s New World, so they chose someone who might be as American as you can get: George Washington Ferris. He built the Ferris Wheel, debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair and today replicated at every town fair fundraiser around the country. The Ferris wheel became a name for a category rather than the name of an icon, while the Eiffel Tower is still decidedly the only Eiffel Tower. Any mimicry, like that in Las Vegas, is pure simulation. You can’t just put anything anywhere.

Today, in the northern suburbs of Chicago about an hour away from where the Ferris wheel once stood, there’s a ghost called Bucky, and it’s hiding in a chain of gas stations called Casey’s. Bucky’s, not Buc-ee’s, was once its own chain of stations, the homophonic midwestern companion of Buc-ee’s that seems to have disappeared. The locations are all still there on Google Maps, but in reality Bucky is gone, each one either flattened into a vacant lot or morphed into a Casey’s. The employee at the Lake Zurich Casey’s said that she thought the store used to be Bucky’s but didn’t seem to remember when that was the case. She wasn’t there for the change. No gas station or convenience store is actually like Buc-ee’s, but Casey’s gets closer than most. Not in terms of size—the Casey’s locations I stopped by were very regular-sized shops—but Casey’s leans into their brand more than a regular 7/11 or Circle K. They don’t have a mascot like Buc-ee the Beaver, but even without one the corporate branding of a person’s name is still the construction of a personality. Casey’s may not have something like the Beaver Nugget, but they do have their own line of chips, candy, pastries, and even some household supplies—I tried their hard pretzels and honey-roasted peanuts, for research. I imagine that at some point all of these products were marked with a Bucky’s name and logo; I can’t say for certain that the demise of Bucky’s was forced by the encroaching pressure of Buc-ee’s, but the switch feels like more than just coincidence. I asked the employee at Casey’s if she knew about Buc-ee’s, the big gas station in the south, and she said she didn’t. I said that they were huge, that some of them have over a hundred gas pumps, and she said holy crap.

On a drive into Ocala, most of the signs that greet you will say something like “Ocala, Florida: The Horse Capital of the World.” This was an accepted title for as long as I lived in the city, but the gravity of its claim only became apparent when I moved to Chicago. Using a superlative title to identify your unknown hometown to a stranger invites disagreement, when the qualifier “of the World” suggests that, even if you don’t care about horses, the horse capital of the world is probably somewhere you’ve heard of. What about wherever the Kentucky Derby is? Good point. That’s actually in Louisville—nearby Lexington, Kentucky tries to claim the title sometimes, but Ocala is the legal holder of it.

Besides, Ocala trains a lot of the horses that race in the Derby, and, actually, we have the highest number of horses in any U.S. county. Do you do anything with horses? No. Do you know anyone with horses? No, but my mom does. I’m a weak representative of our hometown claim to fame, and here I am working out what could soon be our claim to fame. The Novelty Gas Station Capital of the World.

“They make so much stuff. They have those beaver nuggets, they have all kinds of barbecue they make…It’s basically like the Shangri-La of service stations when you go into a Buc-ee’s.” The Shangri-La of service stations: a utopian escape from reality here on Earth.

The adoption of a fictional place set in the Tibetan mountains, precisely an escape from reality in its remoteness as much as its actual being, for a promotional line about a gas station. The source of the Shangri-La myth is James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, but today different people make different claims to discovering and even possessing Shangri-La. It could be a Muli monastery in the Sichuan Province. It could also be about 150 miles north of there. It is literally nowhere, since it is fictional, but it is also literally in the Yunnan province of China, where a county ten-thousand feet in the air is called Shangri-La. It adopted the name in 2001.

“They make so much stuff,” Governor Ron DeSantis says in a press conference announcing the plans for the Buc-ee’s in Ocala, Florida. It isn’t really normal to have a gubernatorial press conference about a gas station, but, as you know by now, this Buc-ee’s isn’t just another gas station: it’s a landmark, and it has contingencies. The construction of Buc-ee’s is coinciding with the construction of a new Interstate-75 interchange near Ocala. The two are a combo deal for the state, an infrastructure project with a corporate sponsorship to bring attention to a mostly inconspicuous part of Central Florida, especially if you don’t care about horses.

Marion County’s permission for the construction of the interchange comes with a requirement for a “Community Aesthetic Feature.”The Community Aesthetic Feature will not be Buc-ee’s, but it might as well be. In 2022, Archie “Beaver” Aplin, the founder of Buc-ee’s, donated one hundred thousand dollars to “Friends of Ron DeSantis.”He said, “We’ve known that 75 would be a great interstate for a long time,” they’d just been looking for the right opportunity.

The spot in Ocala, with the exchange being built and the political alliance of DeSantis, looked perfect. The lack of interstate that repelled Walt Disney decades ago is being resolved, and with it comes our own new theme park.

“It’s basically like the Shangri-La of gas stations.”

DeSantis’s red, white, and blue suit is camouflage against the American flag behind him, but they’re both only a backdrop to the red, yellow, and brown color scheme of the Buc-ee’s merchandise in front of him. As DeSantis invokes a fictional Tibetan paradise, he tosses bags of the famed Beaver Nuggets into the press conference crowd with the awkward brand of manufactured glee that has become distinctive of his political personality. DeSantis promises some kind of idyllic escape from the world on the side of the highway, but what he’s doing is much closer to bringing the whole world to Ocala. The controlling, increasingly threatening global flow of oil. The corporate masterpiece wooing you into a committed relationship with an artificial brand that can have no commitment to you. Not that it hasn’t all been there, of course it has, but now it’s syntax will be succinct, polished — a summary, not a book, and a pithy one at that. All-in-one. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, bathroom, gas, Wifi, snack, alcohol, the brand, the theme park, hats, plushies, keychains, cigarettes, outlets, supermarket, convenience store, service station, Shangri-La. The Beaver Nugget, not made of beaver. The service worker relationship. The indeterminate distance established by the placement of gas pumps, where your neighbor is someone within reach but so decidedly a stranger that conversation feels impossible or, worse, inappropriate. Exit through the gift shop, say goodbye to paradise, return to reality on its real scale, not in its microcosm.

Almost anyone that’s driven through Texas or the southeast United States knows Buc-ee the Beaver, even if they’ve never stepped inside a Buc-ee’s. The face can appear anywhere, usually against a simple black and red billboard with only a little bit of text adorning the logo. “Home of the beaver nuggets.” “Top two reasons to stop at Buc-ee’s: #1 and #2.” “OMG! LOL… It’s a beaver.” Most famously, distances: “42 miles” on the “two reasons” billboard. “Only 262 miles to Buc-ee’s: You can hold it,” says another. As the distances increase, the slogans fall away. One store on the Pennsylvania turnpike shows only the Buc-ee the Beaver logo and “537 miles.” A friend of mine spotted Buc-ee the Beaver while driving through Wisconsin: 559 miles. At the most extreme there’s a billboard that’s supposedly in northern Florida, likely referring to a Buc-ee’s back in Texas: 797 miles. 797 miles north of Ocala, Florida can just about take you to Louisville, Kentucky. 797 miles west will put you somewhere between Lafayette and Houston. 797 miles south, you can almost hit Jamaica. Any sign placed 797 miles east of Ocala will be deep in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. The biggest Buc-ee’s ever is coming to Ocala in 2025, but it won’t just be there, on the side of the interstate, next to the Community Aesthetic Feature that the city agreed to. It will be 42, 262, 537, 599, and 797 miles away, telling someone that they can hold it, that using the number-one rated bathroom in the country will be worth the wait. It will be in Chicago, where this was written, where I am. It will be in the parking lots of Casey’s, the burial site of Bucky the Dog, unbeknownst to anyone else there. It will not be in Orlando, even if it could’ve been. The Buc-ee’s in Ocala will be the Horse Capital of the World, will be the Novelty Gas Station Capital of the World, will be the Hometown Claim to Fame Capital of the World. 3445 words later, this is its theme song.