Enchanted Highway, North Dakota: A Folk Arts Odyssey Through The Heart Of The Country

A man’s 30-year quest to save a small town through funky roadside art.

Stop for gargantuan metal sculptures, in the middle of nowhere. | Photo by Laura Grier

Stop for gargantuan metal sculptures, in the middle of nowhere. | Photo by Laura Grier

“Nobody is going to drive 30 miles for normal,” said Gary Greff behind the medieval bar of his enchanted castle. The light of Gothic chandeliers and video poker machines illuminate the long tables of the bar monastery. Looks a bit like someone dropped a gas station casino onto the set of The iron Throne.

But this is not Westeros. This is rural North Dakota.

Greff’s ‘castle’ – once a high school, now a Camelot-themed hotel – is the end of the road on the Enchanted highway, a 34-mile stretch of titanic metal sculptures stretching from the middle of nowhere of I-94 to downtown Regent, a small town of about 130 residents.

A highway trip is a journey into a storybook world of lush green hills, pale blue skies, and 45-foot grasshoppers. The fascinating landscape of North Dakota is often interrupted by something surreal: a family of gigantic steelworker farmers here, a small flock of dinosaur-sized pheasants there. At the end of the road, travelers are greeted by a 50-foot knight fighting a dragon in the parking lot outside the castle.

If the Enchanted Highway was near a large city, it would be infested with visitors. But it’s North Dakota. As such, you will probably have it all. But the Enchanted Highway was not intended as an isolationist attraction; it was meant to save a dying city … whose inhabitants don’t always agree with its creator.

gary graft
Gary Greff and his latest unfinished creation. | Photo by Laura Grier

Regent isn’t exactly a place you would call “welcoming”. You might spot a car or two on Main Street three blocks away. The rest is dust, wind and a general store.

“I saw this town was dying, and I thought ‘Damn these little towns are going to be a thing of the past if somebody doesn’t do something,'” said Greff of his comeback. home in the ’90s after a career as a high school administrator in Montana.

Realizing that many Midwesterners – especially farmers – are exquisite welders, Greff envisioned a highway attracting tourists and tourist dollars, with stunning metal sculptures dedicated to rural North Dakota heritage.

The problem was, Greff was neither a welder nor an artist. So he turned to his neighbors. “I called some farmers and said, ‘Can you help me?’ He said. “I had help from people in town every Sunday night and I finally learned how to be a welder. “

The result was the Tin family, erected two miles north of Regent in ’91. This is a cartoonish collection of coffee cans, wheels, oil barrels and junk made to look like a classic North Dakota farm family. Many more would follow.

pewter family sculptures
Tin Family, the first installation to ride on the Enchanted Highway. | Photo by Laura Grier

contrary to South Dakota crazy about billboards, North Dakota doesn’t advertise much of its roadside attractions. As you drive west on I-94 from Bismarck, you will only see one sign drawing you to the Enchanted Highway: a roadside metal sculpture inviting drivers to view Geese in flight at exit 72.

“They won’t let me put up billboards,” says Greff.

Geese in flight is hard to miss, however, perched on a hill just north of the freeway. Measuring 110 feet tall and 150 feet wide, it was the tallest scrap sculpture in the world when it was completed in 2002.

A few miles to the south, you’ll spot a pair of five-story deer leaping over a fence – they’re made from used oil tanks, with special shading cut into the metal to showcase the flexing muscles of the animals. Further down is Grasshoppers in the field, which has sparked controversy, according to telephone audio, because farmers really hate locusts.

If the Enchanted Highway has a social media star, it’s the The fisherman’s dream, an ode to the scrap metal of lake fishing. Walleye, trout and a sunken boat sit “underwater” at ground level, while a 70-foot rainbow trout crosses the surface of the “lake” above, for the most. great pleasure of a surprised fisherman.

Pheasants in the field next is by far the loudest sculptures on the road as the Dakota winds tear through the gravel sieve that makes up their bodies. Teddy rides again, a 51-foot outline of Teddy Roosevelt, follows, with a stage coach parked in front. From there it is towards the Tin family, then finally in the city center of Regent and the Manly concerts, where interior prairie scenes come to life with the push of a button.

Each sculpture is spaced five to 15 minutes apart. It never really makes sense for a traveler to turn around – just see where this mystery ends.

fish sculptures
The fisherman’s dream | Photo by Laura Grier

Greff’s mission was to get people across to revive Regent’s economy. Sadly, the 8,000 or so people who visited last year dropped a total of about $ 15,000 at her downtown gift shop.

He hopes to make a difference with the Enchanted Castle, a 19-room themed hotel, and a conference center with an upscale steakhouse. Its parking lot is home to the latest addition to the freeway, a still unfinished 50-foot knight battling an equally intimidating dragon. Greff envisions an immersive sculpture park where travelers pay $ 5 per head to see his brand of surreal, oversized folk art.

Don’t expect the Enchanted Castle to be Excalibur on the Prairie. The night I was there, only three of the hotel’s 19 themed rooms were booked. The steakhouse only operates on weekends, as the cost of hiring a waiter would outweigh any potential weekday activity. Even on weekends, says Greff, business is slow.

The Enchanted Castle is not on Airbnb, Booking.com, or most other hotel booking sites. Greff says he just doesn’t have time to lead them. And although many locals helped build the Enchanted Highway, he didn’t find much support to promote it.

“I’ll be honest, the city’s (reaction) is negative,” he says, pouring himself a cranberry vodka. “There’s a little clique that’s running this area, and if you walk on that clique’s toes, someone’s going to say, ‘You can’t do that.’ I’m 32 and brought people here, and now I thought the city was going to get on board but… it’s okay.

pheasant sculptures
Pheasants in the field | Photo by Laura Grier

Greff is now 72 years old, with no obvious successor to his job. He was offered commissions to build sculptures as far away as Germany, but as he is the only one to maintain all of Fort Enchanté, the cost of his absence was too high.

For now, Greff is working inside the Enchanted Castle, pouring drinks and preparing breakfast for his guests and soldering when he has time. He’s still proud of having created what could be America’s most spectacular campaign for art as a landscape, even if it hasn’t saved his city yet.

“Anyone can claim a sculpture here or there,” he says, “but no one else can claim an entire highway. I just want to figure out how to continue.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @ meltrez1.

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