“You couldn’t make this place up if you tried,” said Gayle Nafziger, a teacher from Carlinville, Ill., whom I encountered during my visit. She was on a summer road trip with some friends and the Sip ‘n Dip was one of their planned stops. “It’s like a bucket-list place,” Ms. Nafziger said.
She paused to fish an orange wedge out of her cocktail. Then Ms. Nafziger burst into wild applause as Piano Pat, having finished a rousing version of “Ring of Fire,” made a turn into “Piece of My Heart.”
Ms. Spoonheim, who recently retired from playing the organ at her church, appeared to be having trouble seeing the sheet music through her bifocals. But the crowd sang along with relish anyway: “Take it!”
For reasons that should by now be clear, the Sip ‘n Dip has become a must-visit for fans of Americana run amok — the wacky places where the human spirit gushes to the surface in an unexpected geyser. “These weird, little spots usually have a lot of heart, and I think that’s why people seek them out,” said Kenneth Smith, a founder of Roadside America, a state-by-state compilation of offbeat tourist attractions.
Along with the Sip ‘n Dip, Roadside America lists Montana charms like the Testy Festy, where bikers annually gather to eat fried bull testicles and men participate in a drunken who-has-the-biggest-undercarriage contest. (But there is nothing at all gay about this state. Got it?)
The mermaids were Ms. Johnson-Thares’s idea. By the mid-1990s, the Sip ‘n Dip was in steep decline. Locals still dropped in to hear Piano Pat. But newer motels had opened near the highway, and the O’Haire pool often sat empty, dispiritingly for Sip ‘n Dip patrons. One night in 1996, Ms. Johnson-Thares was sitting in one of the circular booths with her mother, and they started to brainstorm.
“I joked that we should hire some mermaids,” Ms. Johnson-Thares said. “The more drinks we had, the funnier it got.”
The first mermaids made their debut shortly afterward, with tails made from green tablecloths held in place by duct tape. The gimmick was an instant hit, prompting Ms. Johnson-Thares to start sewing more elaborate tails by hand, sometimes incorporating lace.
“It makes them foofier,” she said.
To make the pool look more like a lagoon, she added blue lights and faux seaweed, aquarium-style adornments inspired by a family vacation to Disneyland in California. (In fact, when she got home, Ms. Johnson-Thares wrote a letter to Disney asking for decorations from a submarine ride that had just been closed for refurbishment. “To my shock, the Disney people mailed me a box of their special seaweed,” she said.)
Ms. Johnson-Thares had been telling me all of this as we sat at the bar. As she finished, Piano Pat, perhaps reacting to the light scent of country-fried steak in the air, started warbling her version of “I Love This Bar,” a country song by Toby Keith.
“We got winners, and we got losers,” she sang. “Chain smokers and boozers. It ain’t too far. Come as you are. Mmm-hmm. I love this bar.”
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the surname of a singer known as Piano Pat, who started playing and singing at the Sip ‘n Dip Tiki Lounge in 1978. She is Pat Spoonheim, not Sponheim.