Not long ago, National Public Radio did a piece about a free spirit who has created a mobile desktop publishing office and taken his show on the road. In the tradition of John Steinbeck and his faithful companion, Charley, this gentleman is traveling across the country, meeting folks and printing their stories.
Being a savvy fellow, he’s realized he can’t compete with the high-quality community magazines or ritzy marketing publications produced for most urban attractions. He sticks to rural tales. What keeps his business rolling, literally, are pieces about unique Mom & Pop operations, greasy spoons and, of course, that quintessential small-town economic development tool, The Big Attraction.
Back in the good ol’ days, everyone had to keep up with the Joneses, whoever they were, with their ludicrously plain surname, suburban home with a white picket fence, two-and-a-half kids and a dog in the backyard.
The Joneses were reaping the benefits of stability and prosperity. They had two weeks a year to kill and cash to spend, so they took grand vacations to brag about over the picket fence or around the office coffee pot. They piled into their American-made, boat-sized autos and hit the newly created Interstate highway system, stopping at newly created national parks during the day and staying at urban-center motor inns at night.
All that lovely cash was flowing right past rural America like an underpaid bus driver skipping stops. Bold action was in order. Enterprising business owners and chamber of commerce leaders pondered and pondered. Finally, an idea took shape.
The Big Attraction was born.
Americans like big things. To draw them off the Interstate, the town fathers knew, it would take the biggest darn…whatever…that could possibly be tied – historically, geographically or by any other long stretch of the imagination – to their quiet burghs.
They went to work.
Big Attractions constructed of materials from concrete to fiberglass rose from the rolling hills and majestic prairies like so many Phoenixes from the desert. There are myriad examples of this ingenious initiative right in our own back yard.
In Jamestown, N.D., the largest buffalo in the world towers over the prairie. On any given summer day, flustered parents try to explain to five-year-olds the reasons for the enormous genitals dangling between the beast’s hindquarters.
An enormous Paul Bunyan sits in an amusement center in Brainerd, Minn. Kiddies can crawl up on his lap for a snapshot. Out in the parking lot stands his trusty blue ox. Forests might falter, but the legend lives on, Babe.
In Huron, S.D., the world’s largest rooster pheasant stands atop a restaurant. According to the Huron Chamber of Commerce, the eatery is privately owned, but the rooster belongs to the entire city.
In New Salem, N.D., the gateway between milking country and rugged west, stands the world’s largest Holstein.
In Pelican Rapids, Minn., a huge pelican would be wading the shores of the Pelican River, if only it could walk.
On the edge of Bottineau, N.D., at the foot of the sloping Turtle Mountains in a expansive valley carved thousands of years ago by slow-moving glaciers, is an incredible achievement conceived, presumably, to draw winter sports enthusiasts. Right next to a field where golden wheat sways in the breeze, a huge, bright green and yellow fiberglass turtle wearing a crash helmet straddles a massive fiberglass snowmobile. It can be seen for miles and miles, but doesn’t detract from the natural scenery at all.
Just down the road near Dunseith, N.D., there’s an iron turtle on all fours built of old tire rims painted green.
In Frazee, Minn., gobbles the world’s largest turkey.
The “Enchanted Highway” in western North Dakota trumps them all. This 33-mile stretch of road between Gladstone and Regent features 10 colossal sculptures, like a 70-foot-tall rooster pheasant with a hen and three chicks.
The suits knew what they were doing, all right. They realized the value of the spectacle. No one was going to pull the wool of the world’s largest sheep over their eyes, nosireee.
And now, one uniquely American enterprise is giving rise to another. The Big Attraction is fodder for the mobile magazine.
As he’s already learned, our traveling publisher is better off finding food for thought out amongst us country folk, where we say farming is everyone’s bread and butter, where The Big Attraction stands tall, and where we can still chuckle at ourselves.
I extend you a hearty invitation to the Dakotas and Minnesota, modern-day Steinbeck. We’ll treat you right and show you all the sights. Besides, if we have another bad crop, we’re going to need all the free publicity we can get for our economic development initiatives.
Originally published in the High Plains Reader on Dec. 3, 1998