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Dragon puts Vandalia on the map

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By Dave Bell

The fire-breathing dragon, which for the past decade has faithfully kept watch over Kaskaskia Supply & Rental in Vandalia, recently caught the fancy of a national organization that promotes what it describes  as "odd, hilarious and offbeat" tourist attractions.

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Though the dragon is up there with the best of the 9,000 unique sites listed on RoadsideAmerica.com, its popularity still befuddles Walt Barenfanger, owner of the hardware store and the dragon.
"We have a counter on it, and in the past year, more than 2,000 people have purchased a token to make the dragon shoot fire," said Barenfanger. "I guess there are a lot of people in the world who like dragons."
Even though the dragon has created considerable interest, it wasn't always so.
The 35-foot-long beast started out as a whimsical project by Paul Schaub, a welder who formerly worked for Barenfanger. During the slow winter months of 1995, the pair decided to construct it for use in area parades.
Because the silver beast was too tall to slip under some power lines when being transported during those parades, Schaub included a hydraulic system that allows the upper torso to bend earthward.
The fire-breathing apparatus was an add-on.
"Because all mature dragons can breathe fire, we had Rick Eyman of Hicks Gas install a propane burner," Barenfanger said. "It's based on grain dryer technology."
To help pay for the fire-breathing propane, Barenfanger added a coin-operated system similar to those used in car washes. He then had tokens made to operate the system. That kept him from having to leave the store and activate the system every time someone wanted to see the dragon belch fire.
Those tokens are available for $1 at Kaskaskia Supply or at the liquor store across the street from the dragon, which now sits sentinel-like at the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Rock Island Avenue. Both places have brochures to point dragon-loving tourists to other Vandalia attractions.
"Bottom line, it has been a lot of fun," Barenfanger said. "It's only by happenstance that it ended up out by the road, but now it's become a landmark. Everyone knows where the dragon is, so we use it to describe the location of our store. 'Just turn at the dragon,' we tell them. It just seems to strike some people's fancy."
And now that the creature is listed on the website, it's likely the attention will increase.
Also on the website are the Gateway Arch replica at the Travelodge, the Madonna of the Trail statue at the Vandalia Statehouse, and the Indian teepees and life-size buffalo at Driftstone Pueblo near St. Elmo.