- Liz Publika
See the World's Largest Metal Sculpture, Ride the Enchanted Highway, Sleep in a Medieval Castle
You’re driving in a rural part of Midwestern America. There’s nothing really there, except some crops and birds. Suddenly, in the distance, you see a towering piece of… God knows what. As you get closer, you begin to suspect it’s some kind of sculpture, but are baffled by its ridiculous size. Soon the whole thing comes into perspective and you realize it’s not just a sculpture, it’s an entire scene unfolding in front of your eyes. You stop to take a picture, so you can share it with your friends.
Regent, a small town tucked into the southwestern corner of rural North Dakota, lost one-quarter of its population by 1990, leaving just 268 residents to keep it from dying out. Although Gary Greff, like many others, left the town to seek out career opportunities, he returned at the age of 40, with a plan to revive it and make it into a tourist attraction. It involved a series of giant sculptures that would grace a long stretch of prairie highway (Interstate 94) that passerbys normally paid no attention to.
He tried to get others on-board with the idea. "Our goal is to change Regent into the metal art capital of the world," argued Greff as he was attempting to persuade his neighbors to contribute to the cause. "If nobody tries, we are a community that's going to be extinct. I'm one person who will not let that happen." His first sculpture was going to be “The Tin Family,” which was inspired by a human figure constructed out of metal cans and a round hay bale that he drove past in North Dakota. The people weren’t sold.
But, the skepticism didn’t last. They knew Greff was right and slowly came around to the idea, ultimately raising $8,000 for the aspiring sculptor. With time, some of the locals even got involved with the project, contributing supplies as well as their time and effort, like helping Greff weld the metal family together. It wasn’t easy. The scale of the work was huge — the father's baseball cap alone rivaled the size of a Volkswagen Bug — but it was getting done, and Greff’s vision was slowly beginning to take form.
It eventually materialized into the Enchanted Highway, a 30-mile ribbon of two-lane asphalt that currently serves as the installation site for seven, out of the intended eleven, massive works of art. And even though Greff had never taken an art class in his life, he was convinced that learning a new skill was an ageless endeavor and that he could succeed with a little self-education and maximum effort. While he encountered his fair number of naysayers, he kept working, and does so to this day.
Each sculpture varies in style, as Greff believes this makes the works more interesting. All, however, honor or celebrate some aspect of North Dakota. The most impressive of these is “Geese in Flight,” which was completed in August of 2001 and holds the Guinness World Record for being the “largest scrap-metal sculpture” of its kind. Resembling Canadian geese flying against a backdrop of sky and prairie, the work stands at 110 ft, is 154 ft wide, and weighs a hefty 157,659 lb.
It’s a truly colossal piece of art. Think of a structure that’s taller than a ten-story building and is nearly the width of a football field. It cost $50,000 just to get it installed, and most of that money went toward a large construction crane. Clearly, the cost of this work alone exceeded Greff’s $8000 starter budget. But there are other massive works — like "Deer Crossing,” "Grasshoppers in the Field," "Pheasants on the Prairie," "Teddy Rides Again," and "Fisherman's Dream" — that were completed by the artist, too.
He has plans for four more, with the next one being a giant spider web. But, Greff is now in his 70s. And he’s busy taking care of the properties that host the sculptures he’s finished to date; he alone landscapes the sites, mows the lawn, and maintains the works themselves. The initial wave support he received had waned as the project stretched on. "I was so naive," reflects Greff. "I thought everyone would say, ‘Yes, we have to save Regent,' and they'd all get on board and it would just get done."
According to his calculations, the sculptures have cost more than $400,000 in all. To fund the project, Greff has to rely on a number of sources, including donations as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Archibald Bush Foundation. But Greff remains hopeful and determined to do what he can. Regent has not been revitalized as he had hoped, but it is getting more traffic than it had in many years. More than 10,000 visitors signed the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop's guest book last year.
If you’re wondering where these visitors stayed, Greff had thought of this, too. Purchasing his old high school, the artist and his brother transformed it into a 19-room, medieval-inspired Enchanted Castle Hotel — the only one in Regent. “Novices at castle construction, [they] built theirs by looking at photographs. It has a working drawbridge and 2-D battlements, with lots of brick, suits of armor indoors, and medieval touches in each of its 23 former classrooms, now mini-suites.”
"This is going to be the number one tourist attraction in North Dakota someday," Greff says. "I really believe it can happen." He imagines a beautiful golf course sprawling outside of Regent, a "Walk of Enchantment" that features murals depicting the history of the Great Plains, and — possibly — some kind of metal theme park. And he is working on raising funds for an art school that he plans to start in a recently-bought elementary school (the city let him have it for $100).
It’s hard not to admire the sheer grit and determination of Gary Greff. He’s been working to make his vision a reality for over three decades and shows no sign of letting up. From working the counter of the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop to creating models of his ideas for the town of Regent to meticulously working on his latest sculpture, he has an impressive amount of willpower, heart, and optimism — and with a little bit of extra scrap metal, that’s all he needs to keep going.
Note* All images of the sculptures along the Enchanted Highway are the property of North Dakota Tourism