The Enchanted Highway is an altogether American experience. It consists of a series of metal sculptures along a 32-mile stretch of road in North Dakota. In a larger sense, it is a testament to progress, one man’s determination, and a vision tailor-made to a community.
The man is Gary Greff. He returned to his hometown of Regent, North Dakota, in 1989 to find a town and community withering on the vine. He also had a chance encounter with a small metal sculpture made by a local farmer. Greff, a former teacher and principal, set to work on building a scrap metal sculpture of his own despite having no welding experience. And this sculpture was super-sized, a farming family of three towering over miles of rust-colored fields.
Titled “World’s Largest Tin Family” and finished in 1991, it was the first of many Greff envisioned dotting the modest road between Gladstone, which nestles against Interstate 94, and Regent, which had a population of 266 in 1990. With the sculptures, he reasoned, would come tourists. The towns would build businesses to cater to the tourists. And Regent and Gladstone, among others, would become destination towns rather than forgotten blips on the North Dakota map.
Every three years or so another followed: “Teddy Rides Again” (1993), “Pheasants on the Prairie” (1996), “Grasshoppers in the Field” (1999), “Geese in Flight” (2001), “Deer Crossing” (2002), and “Fisherman’s Dream” (2006). The next that was to be installed, “Spider’s Web,” was held up by land rights issue, so Greff turned his attention to creating a knight and dragon sculpture to be placed in front of his Enchanted Castle, a hotel in Regent that serves as a resting stop at the end-point of the highway.
The sculptures are expensive, and Greff relies mostly on tourists’ donations and gift shop purchases to fund the project. The humble and down-to-earth artist still has to find time to create new works in between managing an RV park and taking care of the existing sculptures, the gift shop, and the hotel.
Every sculpture is intentional, not just whims of fancy. “World’s Largest Tin Family” represents the farmers of his community; “Teddy Rides Again” is a nod to North Dakota’s influence on our 26th President; “Pheasants on the Prairie,” “Grasshoppers in the Field,” “Deer Crossing,” and “Geese in Flight” all portray creatures which define the region; and “Fisherman’s Dream” takes place on a prairie pond (yes, fishing does take place in North Dakota—according to the state’s tourism website it has particularly fine waters for walleye).
Another part of the series is “The Whirlygig,” a conglomerate of people in a house who perform animations at the push of a button, located outside the gift shop.
The Enchanted Highway draws tourists from around the globe, and despite features in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, People, and others, the much-needed extra source of funding is still lacking. Regent’s population peaked in 1990 at 268; it has since fallen to 157. The downtown strip is sparse, consisting of little more than the gift shop, a food co-op, a Sinclair gas station, and a saloon.
The struggle to keep the project alive and well has been documented in recent years in local papers. An article in The Dickinson Press suggests Greff may even need to tear down some of the fabled structures to save money. Certain pieces have fallen to the ground or are in need of a new paint job.
Yet there’s no doubt concerning Greff’s commitment to the project, and just how much it all means to him. It’s his baby, right down to the Enchanted Highway cap he wears. When I am lucky enough to meet him in person, he is stands outside his home along with two other men. He gives me a hearty handshake and asks me where I’m from. I have to tell him just how impressed I am.
“It wasn’t high on the list of things to do in my life,” Greff jokes. “You never know what direction it’s going to go. I came back home, saw that the town was dying, and the next thing you know I go, ‘Well, let’s start this.’
“We were a farming community, and all the farms got bigger and bigger and bigger and we had less and less people on the farms, and less kids and the school closed, so pretty quick…you ain’t got the people no more. So either gonna die or you’re going to do something different. Every town wants a big factory…well a town of 100 ain’t gonna get a factory. I saw that the road from Interstate to here was paved that same year. I said, ‘Now I got a paved road. Now I should be able to get people from point A to point B some way.’
“Then a local farmer out of town made a small man holding a bale up, out of metal. And then it dawned on me. That’s what the ranchers and farmers in the Midwest are good at, they’re good at welding. We can use it to our advantage. But no one’s going to stop for normal. But they might stop for the world’s largest. And that’s how it all started. I started welding and 28 years later I’m still welding.”
The conversation shifted to the matter of the need for state funding—and the difficulty of leading an ordinary life while maintaining an extraordinary creation. Polarizing thoughts came to mind: these majestic creations need to be preserved and deserve state funding and protection; and western North Dakota is so remote it is hard to imagine anything here becoming a true tourist destination.
“There’s people that still come out and say that they really enjoy the sculptures,” Greff told The Dickinson Press. “I think, ‘Well, it must mean something to somebody’…I’ve put a lot of sweat and work and a lot of everything into this. Until they bury me, I’m going to keep working on this project and other projects that I might have. I’ve got a lot of things I’m up dreaming about at night that I want to see done.”
Note: This post was originally written in September 2017. It has been updated but may be missing some current information.