Dreaming the prairie back to life
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 slides.
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."
A steady decline
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.
The 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.
"We'll 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 Greff.
Big dreams and metal trees
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 form."
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.
"The dollars just aren't there for the project anymore," says Martin, a project booster.
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 volunteers.
"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).