Even though the second-highest point in North Dakota lies just a few miles from the dwindling town of Regent, you probably wouldn't know that if you saw it. At 3,468 feet, Black Butte rises from rolling wheat fields like a bump under a rug.
But to Gary Greff it looks like the ideal
spot for a water slide. Tourists, he says, like water
He's eyeing a spot for a golf course,
too, and he hopes for a hotel and convenience store. The town will
need all of these things, he says, when it becomes one of the
biggest tourist destinations on the Great Plains. But before
Regent, pop. 250, can become a tourist mecca in southwestern North
Dakota, Greff needs to lure travelers from Interstate 94. He has a
plan for that, too.
It's called the "Enchanted
Highway," a series of giant metal sculptures strung out along a
30-mile-long blacktop road linking Regent with Interstate 94 to the
north. Four of the 10 planned sculptures are already standing. The
tin family - a mom, dad and son constructed of old fuel tanks -
juts 50 feet above the prairie. There's a giant statue of Theodore
Roosevelt in his Rough Rider days, called "Teddy Rides Again." The
monster pheasant family is just down the road, and the most recent
addition is an installation called "Grasshopper's Delight."
At 40 feet, "There's no grasshopper bigger than
this one," Greff tells me.
"I believe I'm going
to be creating history in North Dakota. Once we get the whole
project completed, we're going to get national attention," says
Greff, a 49-year-old bachelor who grew up on a nearby ranch. "I
believe in my community and I believe in my state. I had to figure
out a way to promote it."
Making a living has never been
easy on these rolling plains. On the map, Regent is a couple of
degrees west of the 100th parallel, and it lies in the corner of
North Dakota prairie that in good years turns a lush green, but
more often is a bone-dry brown.
Still, Regent was
once a real wheat-farming town. A couple of decades ago, 500 people
lived here, and you could buy a new pair of Levi's or Red Wing
boots on Main Street. On Saturday nights, dancers waltzed across
the wooden floor of the downtown dance hall. After it closed, an
out-of-state telemarketing company moved into the old place and
brought with it a few jobs for farm wives. But it was a shady
outfit and didn't last long.
Wheat farming still
gives this place its foundation, but it's crumbling. "We used to
have a railroad right through town here," says Terry Hartman, who
helps run the town's cooperative grain elevator. "They pulled that
out in the "80s."
Hartman, 44, is chief of the
town's volunteer fire department, which has also come on hard
times. Its 1986 Chevy ambulance has logged 130,000 miles, and he
doesn't know how much longer it can ferry the town's mostly elderly
population 50 miles to the nearest hospital, in Dickinson. Even
with a $25,000 grant, the volunteer department can't afford a
second-hand, $50,000 ambulance.
"You can only
have so many fund raisers," Hartman says.
town's K-12 school has 112 students, down from 165 in the early
1980s, and Superintendent Duane Martin admits the next decline is
only three or four years away. The school can no longer field its
own basketball team. Still, he's hopeful.
get through this. That's pretty much the feeling of the entire
community," Martin says. "That's what keeps us going."
That, and the enthusiasm of Gary
Big dreams and metal
Greff is just one of a long line of folks
who have dreamed up roadside attractions to create an economy on
the Great Plains. Some, such as Nebraska's Carhenge and South
Dakota's Wall Drug, are legendary. Greff believes the Enchanted
Highway will join them.
"They may have the Black
Hills, but when I get this project done, people will drive a long
ways to see this," he says.
Greff quit a 15-year
teaching career to pursue his dream and now he gets by on earnings
from seasonal farm work, $400 a year in fuel assistance from the
state and free beef from a brother who ranches.
Before he went to work, he brought sketches of
his dream to an art professor at North Dakota State University in
Fargo. Greff asked, simply, "Is this art to you?"
He was told, "This is folk art in its greatest
Locals rallied around the cause, raising
about $40,000. But with hard times on the plains - low wheat and
livestock prices - some say the money for Greff's roadside
attraction has already dried up.
just aren't there for the project anymore," says Martin, a project
Greff is undeterred. He's enlisted the
help of more than 50 welders in the area. When the town's school
dropped welding from its curriculum recently, Greff organized his
own welding classes to train more student
"My goal is to make us the metal
capital of the world. I would love to see a golf course - each
fairway with metal trees of different colors. It will be beautiful.
You'll never golf anywhere like it in the world. I hate to sound
like a dreamer, but I am a dreamer. I'm just hoping someone else
sees what I see."
You can contact Greff
at: Box 184, Regent, ND 58650 (701/563-4530).