When Gary Greff returned to Regent, N.D., during a respite from teaching, he had no idea his life’s work would change to helping save his hometown. Regent had dropped to 238 people. If something wasn’t done, it could become a ghost town, sharing the same sad fate of hundreds of other high plains hamlets.
But Gary had a dream, to bring people and businesses to his small community. “I’ve always been a dreamer,” 59-year-old Greff says. “When I see something, I always wonder: ‘How could you make it better?’”
His dream was triggered one day when he spotted visitors snapping pictures of a dummy in overalls hoisting a thousand-pound bale over his head. “I thought, ‘If people will drive off the road for that, how many more would come for something grander?’ No big business would come into a small community like this. We had to work with what we had, which was a paved highway, so I figured, ‘I’ll give you a reason to drive down it.’”
Enchanted Highway Is Born
That grander reason is the Enchanted Highway, gigantic folk art sculptures along thirty-two miles of panoramic views of grassland, buttes and bluffs, beginning at I-94, ending on Regent’s main street.
Today that dream is thriving, with seven scrap metal sculptures completed, beginning with Geese in Flight, taller than a 10-story building, wide as a football field, dubbed by The Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s largest scrap-metal sculpture.” Down the road about every three miles, rising into the limitless prairie sky, are Deer Crossing, Grasshopper’s Delight, Fisherman’s Dream, Pheasants on the Prairie, Theodore Roosevelt Rides Again, and (1.5 miles out of Regent) The Tin Family. All are massive, constructed of local materials — oil well tanks and pipes, old farm machinery, scrap metal. Metal wields great significance to those who work the land and depend heavily on machinery. All were assembled with common prairie-folk skills — metal cutting and fabrication, repair, and welding,
The first two sculptures reinvigorated the community, Greff says. Supported financially by city, local civic organizations, and the N.D. Council on the Arts, a local crew of farmers and ranchers spent the winter of 1992 welding and erecting Tin Family. It was first “because family was important in settling our country,” Greff says. Like the other sculptures, Tin Family utilizes local products like barbed wire for the mother‘s hair and grain
augers for her earrings, while the son licks a lollipop — the bottom of a farm fuel tank. “Normal-sized sculptures wouldn’t lure people into my sleepy town,” Greff says, so Tin Pa is 45 feet tall (supported by 16 telephone poles), Tin Ma 44, and Tin Kid 23 feet high. “Some engineering figured what size could be supported.”
Greff received some community help for the second one, Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again. Roosevelt, astride a 51-foot-high sculpture of his favorite horse, said he would not have been president except for his time in North Dakota.
Since Roosevelt, Greff has been pretty much on his own, with each sculpture taking two to four years to complete. “Nobody else could give up that kind of time,” he says.
Without artistic experience, Greff draws on graph paper and expands onto two-foot squares of butcher paper, a blueprint to make the pieces. “If the finished product doesn’t look anything like the plan, I’ll just call it modern art,” he laughs.
He figured he would be finished by 1997. “I was so naïve. It’s 2009 and I’m working on the spider web, no. 8.” Nos. 9 and 10 will be, respectively, a 75-foot-high buffalo and a tribute to Native Americans.
Greff works full-time on Enchanted Highway without an outside job, relying on donations and grants to raise $20,000 needed for each.
High-school students help. Kathy Greff, Gary’s sister-in-law, says her four sons worked on the project, along with area kids. “They’ve learned a lot, responsible job safety, welding, site mowing, and upkeep. Eagle Scout projects have been created for them, building playground equipment and bulletin boards for the sites,” which contain parking lot, picnic tables, information board, and play area.
“They’ve also learned about recycling,” Gary Greff says. “Most of the sculptures first belonged to something else.”
Success Is Tempered
Greff notes few minor setbacks. “I swore I’d measured the shop door accurately, but a pheasant three inches too wide forced me to cut it in half.” The buck’s front leg had to be cut off the buck because telephone poles made the road too narrow. It was rewelded at Deer Crossing. Welding sparks at Fisherman’s Dream started a grass fire. “In town they said we’d had the world’s largest fish fry,” Greff laughs.
Greff’s dream was to bring people into town, and in 2007-08 20,000 visitors signed the guest book at the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop. Postmaster Ervin Binstock says, “On Main Street I see an unbelievable amount of traffic and tour buses coming through”: Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, visitors from every state, plus Africa, Europe, Asia.
New businesses have started up in Regent as well: two gift shops, an RV park, a convenience store, and a B&B, though owner Donald Gion says tourism hasn’t helped his business much. “Lots of traffic comes into town, but people don’t stay. They visit the gift shops; some eat at the café or fill up gas, and move on. We need some kind of evening program, an economic development to keep people here longer.”
Gary Greff is working on that part, too. He bought the school building for a national art school, drew plans for a theme park with a signature huge eagle on a globe, as well as a water park and amphitheater. “They all need funding,” Greff says. “My dream now is to make Enchanted Highway the number-one tourist attraction in North Dakota. I really believe it can happen.”
Julius Honeyman, who donated land for Pheasants on the Prairie, says he can do it. “I think it’s amazing what one guy with a vision and a dream can do if he puts his mind to it.”
Enchanted Highway visitors think so, too. An older fellow recently stopped Gary Greff. With tears in his eyes, he said, “If I had died before I’d seen this, I would have died a poorer man.”