The origin of the Enchanted Highway: North Dakota man creates metal sculptures to save small town
REGENT, N.D. — In 1989, Kevin Costner starred in a Hollywood blockbuster titled “Field of Dreams.” In that movie, an Iowa farmer hears a mysterious voice one night in his cornfield saying, "If you build it, he will come." In that same year, a rural North Dakota educator felt a similar urge to build and “they will come.”
Gary Greff, of Regent, concerned with the extinction of smaller rural towns across North Dakota, began a project that continues today and has attracted scores of visitors to his small town.
“I came home one day and was looking at my town and said, ‘you know, this town has gone from a town of 500 people to a town of a hundred,’” Greff said. “I thought if someone doesn’t do something, it’s only a matter of time before we’re gone.”
Many held hope that some major corporation would swoop in and save the town, but Greff knew better.
“Everybody hoped some big factory would come into town. The writing on the wall was there; a big factory isn’t going to come into a town of a hundred people. We don’t have a railroad, we don’t have the population, we don’t have the infrastructure,” he said. “Why would they come to Regent? I said, ‘rather than sit around waiting for someone from the outside to come in and save my town, I need to do something.’”
The unnamed 30-mile corridor of roadway leading to Regent from Interstate 94 was paved in 1989 and set off a lightbulb in Greff’s mind.
“I said, ‘now I have a paved road and should be able to bring people from the interstate to Regent somehow,’” he said. “I didn’t know what to do yet, but I picked up a Dickinson Press newspaper one day and read about a local farmer out of town that built a small sculpture of a man holding a bale of hay. People were driving out to see it, and after I read that article I said, ‘holy shoots, that’s it!’”
Ranchers and farmers of the Midwest are known for being creative, but even more than that, they are known for their welding ability and heaps of old scrap metal.
“I thought, let's use what our locals are good at to our advantage,” Greff said. “In my mind, no one was going to drive 30 miles for normal-sized metal sculptures, but they might for the world’s largest.”
In 1991, the first sculpture was erected along the aptly named Enchanted Highway. Today, the roadside art gallery features some of the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures with seven distinct attractions guiding visitors from the interstate to Regent: The Tin Family (1991), Teddy Rides Again (1993), Pheasants On The Prairie (1996), Grasshoppers In The Field (1999), Geese In Flight (2001), Deer Crossing (2002), Fisherman’s Dream (2006), Spider Webs (on hold), and the currently in construction, Knight and Dragon.
“It’s kind of like raising a kid; there’s good days and bad,” Greff said when asked which sculpture was his personal favorite. “One day you love it and the next you hate it, but they are all unique and have a history and a memory that surround it. I don’t have a favorite because each one is a part of me. Do you love your elbow more than your knee? No.”
Greff conceived the project and began construction on it nearly 30 years ago, but the maintenance of the enormous works of art is costly and has become burdensome. In a gesture that marked the importance of the project to the state, Sen. Rich Wardner introduced an appropriations bill before this year’s Legislature to assist in the funding of maintenance for the roadside gallery into the foreseeable future.
“If they approve it, which we’ll know soon enough, they’ll allocate some funds to get the sites back to their glory days and continue to attract the visitors that come to this part of the state,” Greff said. “It still has to go before the House and the Senate to be approved, but at this point it’s a necessity because I don’t make enough money in my little gift shop to keep it going the way it should be.”
The sculptures gained national attention when, in 2013, the Guiness Book of World Records determined that Geese In Flight was the world’s largest metal sculpture. Standing 110 feet tall, 154 feet wide and weighing in at more than 150,000 pounds, the sculpture resembles Canadian geese flying against a backdrop of sky and prairie.
“Someone came out and looked at the sculpture I was working on, ‘Geese In Flight,’ and said that they believed that it was bigger than the one down in Brazil,” Greff said. “So we looked up the dimensions of the one in Brazil and measured the one I was working on and sure enough it was going to be bigger. I began to keep track of all the dimensions and once it was finally installed, we were in the record books.”
Estimates by the tourism sites say that more than 224,000 unique people have visited the sculptures since its humble beginnings, and like a trail of candy, have led tourists to the town of Regent.
“I’m doing this for the city, for our state,” Greff said. “We’ve got to become the Mount Rushmore of North Dakota for metal art and I’m thinking bigger than what I’m doing. I’m just planting the seed for the state, and hope that the next person that takes over for me will make it even more masterful than what I did.”
Greff added, “If this project dies when I die, then I haven’t accomplished anything.”