The Origin of Roadside Species
What would possess a man to spend 39 years winding twine into a 12-foot ball? The neighbors sure wondered, and probably pitied the collector who dedicated his life to string—that is, until hundreds of visitors started pulling into town to marvel at Francis Johnson’s ball after it turned up in the Guinness Book of Records.
The twine ball in Darwin became part of the town’s identity, a local festival was named after it, and now the unanswered question of what possessed the old Swede seems immaterial. Darwin, population 298, has overcome its tiny size and maintained a vibrant center even as other small towns have vanished, thanks to the twine ball and the visitors it attracts.
Tourist bureaus drool over the idea of a roadside attraction, but the most successful oddball sites are seldom devised by a committee. The oldest—Bemidji’s and Brainerd’s Paul Bunyans, for example—date back more than 50 years and have become town symbols, while statues erected in the 1970s and ’80s require proper aging and the outrage of teenage vandalism to evoke heartfelt pride.
The best of Minnesota’s approximately 100 roadside attractions are mostly the result of practical jokes or a burning desire by an obsessed individual to create a giant monument to prove that “I was here.” This is not normal behavior, and Minnesota is full of it—thank heavens. Why raise statues to some self-important governor or town founder when you can create your own idol like Menahga did with St. Urho, who chased the grasshoppers from Finland? Both Richard Mattson, then manager of Ketola’s Department Store in Virginia, and Bemidji State University professor Sulo Havumaki claim the honor of concocting the fishy tale of this mythical messiah.
These are the imaginative attractions that blossom in the minds of small-town Minnesota. Where else would you find Butch Dahl and his buddies, who built a giant muskie and opened a drive-in restaurant inside the belly of the beast? Fashioned from bent boards and tar paper, the “Big Fish” has become a symbol of Bena.
Towns that haven’t spawned someone capable of creating a colossally dubious statue can always turn to FAST (Fiberglass, Animals, Statues & Trademarks) of Sparta, Wisconsin. Begun as Sculptured Advertising of Minneapolis and later Creative Displays, FAST satisfies small towns’ desires to invent tourist-luring attractions. Prices for a roadside behemoth begin at a couple thousand dollars for a small one to $1,000 per foot for Blue Earth’s half-man, half-peapod Jolly Green Giant. FAST has created at least 20 of Minnesota’s big statues, including Crosby’s sea serpent, Remer’s eagle, and Black Duck’s newer black duck. Just grab a price list and order a giant fiberglass figure for your front yard, and soon the RVs will pull up to your door to shoot a photo. Better yet, ignore the neighbors’ smirks and spend the rest of your life wrapping twine.
Eric Dregni is the author of Minnesota Marvels: Roadside Attractions in the Land of Lakes and most recently Midwest Marvels: Roadside Attractions Across Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin.