Gary Greff was driving across western North Dakota when he came upon a human figure fashioned out of metal and a round hay bale. As he watched a family stop to take a picture of the figure, he saw his future. Having recently left his job as a high-school principal, Greff had returned to his hometown of Regent, a struggling community of some 200 souls tucked into the southwestern corner of North Dakota, to figure out what to do next. Now, he knew.
He pictured giant metal statues every few miles along the road leading from Interstate 94 to Regent, turning a 30-mile ribbon of two-lane asphalt into what he envisioned as an "enchanted highway." He imagined the landscape of brown buttes and treeless pastures becoming home to the nation's ultimate roadside attraction, drawing thousands of tourists and saving Regent from a slow economic death. Greff had never taken an art class or so much as welded a joint. It didn't matter; he went to work. Some 18 years later, the most amazing thing about his story is how close he's come to making his vision a reality.
West of the Missouri, North Dakota becomes a sea of grassland. Trees are rare, towns rarer. The 2000 census identified six North Dakota counties that had lost at least 20 percent of their population during the previous decade. Hettinger County, home to Regent, was one of those, with about 2,700 people spread over more than a thousand square miles.
Greff and I had agreed to meet at Geese in Flight, a 110-foot-tall metal statue just off the Interstate. The day was cold and wet. As I headed up the driveway that leads to the huge sculpture, I noticed a line of small metal geese, all pointing the way.
Greff drove up shortly. Now age 58, he's a wiry man with a weathered face, a slightly uncertain smile and the sturdy handshake of someone used to manual labor. "Yaah, this is the one in the Guinness World Records book," he said a few minutes later. The sculpture looks large enough from the Interstate, but its true size—taller than a ten-story building, nearly the width of a football field—overwhelms you as you get close. The Guinness book calls it the world's "largest scrap-metal sculpture." It's built out of the stuff Greff uses for almost all of his pieces: old oil-well tanks ($400 each) that he runs over with a forklift to flatten, oil-well pipe and other scrap metal.
For nearly two decades, living on almost no income and with little help, he has created sculptures and multiple-part tableaux at six sites leased to him for a dollar by supportive landowners. Other farmers have lent him a flatbed truck and a small crane. Sometimes friends chip in for the big moments, raising the statues and setting them in place. (Installing Geese in Flight cost $50,000, most of it for a large construction crane.)
Greff and I drove about three miles down the highway, stopping next at Deer Crossing—two deer leaping over a fence—the buck 75 feet tall and 60 feet long. Greff looks uncomfortable when I talk about his work as art—"I guess I have to say I am an artist," he finally agrees. In 1999, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked him to bid on making a statue at their headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, and in 2003, he was invited to Kaiserslautern, Germany, to do a proposal for a sculpture in the town center. Neither project came to anything—he says both clients were a bit taken aback when he told them how much his work costs in materials and time—but that was OK by him.
From Deer Crossing, Greff and I drove down the road to Grasshoppers in the Field, Pheasants on the Prairie, Teddy Rides Again and The Tin Family. He has finished six works and is putting the finishing touches on a seventh, Fisherman's Dream. Each site is landscaped and has a parking lot, picnic tables and an information board. Most include something children can play on: Teddy Rides Again has a handmade stagecoach; Grasshoppers in the Field, a jungle gym.
He plans four more sculptures. The next will be a giant spider web, and he wants to create a tribute to Native Americans. But he's not sure after that. He first thought the project would take two years. "I was so naive," he says. "I thought everyone would say, ‘Yes, we have to save Regent,' and they'd all get on board and it would just get done."
In fact, there was an initial wave of support. But fatigue set in as the project stretched on. "I think most people here are generally supportive," says Margee Lee Witte, a humor columnist at the local paper, The Herald. "But they're like people everywhere; they wait to see what happens, then jump on the bandwagon."