Randy Groff of Eden Prairie recently took his mother to what he calls "a place in between a museum and a Twilight Zone."

"There's a feeling I get when I come here that's hard to describe," Groff said of the Lakeville destination. "It inspires my imagination and it just feels magical."

Many don't know the story behind the Lakeville "antique junk yard," Hot Sam's Antiques and Theatrical Rentals. It was originally built to give the owner's mother a happy place to be, but the 10-acre outdoor museum of sorts has evolved into an "antique theme park," as owner Bobbie "Jake" Hood calls it.

The well-manicured lot carries large antiques and oddities, painted and turned into sculptures, along with pieces Hood built from old scrap metal — most 17 to 25 feet tall. A Disney-inspired mechanical shark, rocket ship and guitar can be seen from I-35W and are the business' only form of advertising besides word-of-mouth. Sunflowers 25 feet tall line the trails. Businesses often drop off large items — such a huge Caribou Coffee cup that used to sit on a building, placed next to Popeye and Olive in an old car that Hood built.

A log cabin sits on the property filled to the brim with smaller antiques — "everything from the priceless to the tasteless" as shop helper Kathy Sakry, Hood's girlfriend of 19 years, said.

"My biggest chore here is to not make this look like a junk yard," Hood, 67, said, while he sat in an antique car turned into Nemo, the fish from the movie Finding Nemo. The car had been set to be crushed at a junk yard before it was rescued.

But it's apparent that it's not only a place to buy or rent antiques, but a sanctuary for people to find inspiration. A rooster and hens run loose on the property near an International Wall of Wisdom that posts quotes from Disney and others. Hood's favorite: "Life is a journey. The destination is not the reward. It's the adventure."

'They are in awe'

Hot Sam's has gained popularity as a place where professional photographers shoot clients against the eclectic props. People tour the lot like they would at a museum, and local groups, schools and residents rent out the pieces for theatrical productions or parties. "My mission is to give people a smile," Hood said. "There's a saying that people are more attractive when they smile."

Everything is for sale, and negotiations can hinge on whether Hood likes a buyer's attitude. "A lot of people don't know the story behind this place. They are in question as to what is going on here," Hood said. "They've never been to a place like this, they've never had the occasion to walk the grounds of anything that is like this. They are in awe."

The story is that Hood, after returning from the Vietnam War, built the lot as a peaceful retreat for his mother, Gladys Hood, who was caring for her brain-damaged husband, her elderly mother and an ailing dog. She died two years ago after running the business with her son since 1976.

"Ma really liked this place, and I did everything I could to build a world around her that she enjoyed," Hood said. "She was dynamic — so full of life. It seemed like my duty in life was to make her life better than ever before. Every moment I had, all the strength that was in me, I devoted to that."

After her death, Hood had to find a larger purpose. "After Ma passed, I sort of lost my mission in life, and it was difficult to pick up the ball and run with it," Hood said. "It was hard to get my enthusiasm back in order. So … I leaned on all the imagination that was in me to create a place where people could come and feel absolutely comfortable, where they had no obligation but to enjoy themselves in her honor."

'A little game'

Hood calls himself a junk man who could part with anything on the property. "A junk man can't fall in love with anything," he said. "Because his business will be taken up with his love affair."

He swears by using only old things — whatever he can find. "It's a little game I play with myself," he said. He's a third-generation junk man — Gladys was the daughter of an Armenian junk collector who emigrated to Detroit after escaping the Armenian genocide by the Turks in the 1920s. She went along with her father, and later took her son to find junk, but her husband did not approve. "When we would come through the door with junk, he would say, 'Now where did you get all that stuff, Hot Sam's?' Which was a derogatory term to tell her she just bought a bunch of crap that's not worth anything," Hood said. The two named the business Hot Sam's as an homage to that phrase.

The business started in Burnsville in 1976. When Burnsville Center was built, the city "sent us a nice letter saying we no longer complied with the exterior appearance of Burnsville," Hood said with a laugh. "It's their polite way of telling you to get out. … But it was a blessing in disguise because we wouldn't have searched this out." The business moved to Lakeville in 1986, and credits being along the interstate with luring curious people in.

"It's never the same place twice," said customer Claire Henningsgaard, 20, of Rosemount, who recently found a Victorian choker in the log cabin.

Hood's painter friend, Barry Bolton, is the volunteer resident artist who inspires him. They share ideas to push their limits. "I like making sure I can do it," Bolton said as he painted a 1943 World War II command car, for which he built mock machine guns. "I want to find out what I'm capable of."

Hood doesn't have kids, and what will happen to the business when he's gone is "a little beyond me," he said.

Gladys' ashes are sprinkled under a weeping willow on the property. "When you come up the drive, she always wanted to see you smiling," Sakry said. "We try to make sure we give people that same smile."

Customers Kate Peterson, 52, of Farmington, and her 27-year-old daughter Lindsay Collins have fond memories of Gladys, who made them feel like family. "[Hood] has the eyes, smile and kindness of his mother," Peterson said. "They are really continuing the legacy. Gladys would be proud."

The business, which doesn't have a website and doesn't advertise, is located at 22820 Pillsbury Av., Lakeville. The phone number is 952-469-5922.

Liala Helal • 952-746-3286