Fields of Dreams
To help revive his North Dakota hometown, a former high-school principal created giant sculptures to grace a stretch of prairie highway
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."
State officials didn't know what to make of Greff at first. But his persistence seems to have won them over. "I think Gary's determination reflects the character of the state," says North Dakota tourism director Sara Otte Coleman. "You don't see a lot of quitters around here." Coleman's department pro-motes the Enchanted Highway (now its official name), and the state provided a loan to help open an Enchanted Highway Gift Shop, which sells souvenirs on Regent's Main Street.
Greff estimates that the sculptures have cost more than $400,000 in all. The money has come from a wide variety of sources, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Archibald Bush Foundation. Almost all the money goes into the sculptures. Greff says he lives on about $1,500 a year and the free meals he gets from his family. I was skeptical, but as he ran through his budget in the kitchen of his weather-beaten trailer, it turned out, amazingly enough, that he even has a few hundred dollars to spare.
It's easy to dismiss Greff as some Great Plains Don Quixote tilting at junk-metal windmills, except for one thing: people are starting to come. More than 10,000 visitors—some from far away—signed the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop's guest book last year.
The day I visited was way past tourist season, but at every single site, somebody pulled up, usually in an RV. "It's so unexpected," said Judy Rodel of Woodville, Wisconsin. "What humans can do with their time and talent is incredible."
Even some Regent skeptics say it's made a difference. "I'm not a big fan," says James Gion, a local attorney. "I think what God gave us out here ought to be enough. But that said, I have to admit it's working." Connie Wax, former manager of the Dacotah Bank branch in Regent, agrees. "We've seen a great deal of new traffic coming through town. It's amazing how many people come because of the highway."
Not that Regent is reborn. Like so many small Great Plains communities, the short, well-worn Main Street features lots of empty storefronts, and the high school closed a couple of years ago. That got even Greff discouraged. "I was really down for a while," he says, "thinking what am I doing this for? Then I thought, as long as your dream is alive, you've got a chance."
Greff imagines a golf course outside Regent, the fairways lined with hundreds of metal trees like the one he made for his trailer's front yard. He also has plans for a Regent motel, where visitors to the Enchanted Highway could spend the night. A few steps away a "Walk of Enchantment" would lead through murals depicting the history of the Great Plains. He's already begun work on the models. And he's recently bought the local elementary school (the city let him have it for $100), which he hopes to turn into an art school (if he can find the funds) that would attract students from all around the country.
Still, he worries about what will happen when he is gone. Even now, Pheasants on the Prairie needs painting and there's no telling when he can get to it. But give up? No way. "This is going to be the number one tourist attraction in North Dakota someday," Greff says. "I really believe it can happen." When you listen to him, you believe it too. In the meantime, he's working out the details for his giant spider web.
Reed Karaim grew up in North Dakota and writes on the West.