originally published December 14, 2012
In researching ideas for my daily grind, I meander through numerous small towns, unincorporated communities, French communes and Polish Voivodeships, seldom ever finding one worth writing about. But something slowed me down in the village of Birnamwood, Wisconsin, population 818. It was this sentence:
“Birnamwood was home to the world’s largest fiberglass badger.”
That’s it? No further detail? What do you mean, ‘was’? Who killed the giant badger?
I had to investigate.
There it is, 40 feet tall, perched overtop of the Badger County Gift Store in 1982. The giant log was the overhanging shelter above the local gas station. People would come for miles around to… well, probably just to get gas. But the giant badger would be there, looking out at them with its cold, dead eyes. Welcoming them to Birnamwood, whether they wanted to be there or not.
In the late 1990s things went sour for the badger. The gas station closed and the gift shop was transformed into the Northern Exposure Gentleman’s Club. Where once signs beckoned to passing motorists with promises of “Diesel” and “Premium Unleaded”, now those signs boasted “Hot Girls” and “Ladies Get In Free”. The badger’s body was mysteriously removed, the giant log enclosed and turned into a private garage, and now the badger’s head and claws look helplessly to passers-by from a mound of dirt, silently weeping for the less-stripper-ish days of yore.
I drove through Wisconsin twice last year, and never stopped to pay my respects to the enormous badger-head. There was a lot we missed in our travels – the phenomenon of the American roadside attraction is like nothing else in the world.
Mostly it’s just large versions of stuff.
Like the giant six-pack of beer at La Crosse. These are actually storage tanks, built as part of the G. Heileman Brewery over 40 years ago. The shape made sense as a perfect ad space, and was painted accordingly. It was dubbed ‘The World’s Largest Six-Pack’, which was true – these were literally filled with beer.
The brewery closed down in the late 1990’s, and the cans were painted over, but fear not – a new brewery has moved in and slathered their own brand overtop. The new guys also make soda, energy drinks and tea, so it’s a crap-shoot as to whether the cans actually contain beer at any time, but they still make for a fine photo op, if you aren’t headed anywhere in a hurry.
That’s kind of the running trend here. When we went through Wisconsin we were on a mission, in the midst of a 3-day drive from Edmonton through Chicago to Toronto and back. There just wasn’t time to pause and enjoy the weirdness along the way. Weirdness like this:
At the logging museum in Rhinelander you can check out a stuffed Hodag on display. This creature, a resurrection of the spirit of dead lumber oxen, was a 200-pound beast who roamed the woods around Rhinelander. In 1896, Eugene Shepard captured the thing by knocking it out with a sponge soaked in chloroform, tied to the end of a pole. Such is the kind of legend that small-town folk used to believe before the cynical Internet killed all our dreams of furry, horned lizard-things.
The Hodag is a big part of Rhinelander’s identity – they’ve got at least six statues and billboards of the thing scattered around the town. Everyone needs a hook, I suppose.
If you wander over to Manitowoc you can see a brass ring embedded in the middle of a street, marking the spot where the lone verified chunk of the Sputnik IV satellite crashed to earth on September 6, 1962. It was one glob of metal, weighing about 20 pounds. NASA came and verified it, then made two replicas. One is on display at the local Rahr-West Art Museum.
The original was taken by the Soviets, and probably tossed in a scrap heap somewhere. But if your road trip has enough spare time that you can drive out of your way to see a plaque indicating that something really cool happened on that spot fifty years ago, then Rhinelander must become a notch on your itinerary.
Over near Lake Nebagamon, a guy named James Frank Kotera (he calls himself JFK so out of respect I’ll do the same) operates the local Highland Dump. He has also constructed what he estimates to be the largest ball of twine on the planet, at least by weight.
He started work on it in 1979. The thing now ways around 20,000 pounds. A sign on JFK’s property asserts: “I AM THE GREATEST LIVING SMARTEST DUMP MAN YOU EVER SAW.” I’m not sure if that claim has ever been disputed, and I certainly hope it doesn’t lead to a controversy on this site.
I just report the twine-person news, I don’t make it up.
I admit, I’ve been somewhat condescending about some of these attractions. I probably wouldn’t deviate my course to visit any of them so far. But I served myself a big sloppy regret sandwich as soon as I saw this one:
In the truly American-named burg of North Freedom, Dr. Evernor (actually scrap and salvage artist Tom Every, but if the dude wants a heroic-sounding alter-ego, who am I to argue?) has concocted a garden of funky delights.
This is the 320-ton Forevertron, a device with which one could perpetuate oneself “through the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam inside a glass ball inside a copper egg.” Right on.
Dr. Evernor’s schtick is steam-punk sci-fi art, and having scoped out some photos of his collection, I’d say this is as much a Wisconsin must-see as Lambeau Field or the Shotz Brewery where Laverne & Shirley worked (which, I assume, exists). He’s got a disintegration chamber, he has gun turrets from the hull of some weird-ass spaceship, and something called Celestial Listening Ears.
These are sculptures you can sit in, fuelled by an astounding imagination and… holy shit, look at this things:
This is part of the ‘Bird Band’, 70 giant string or percussion instruments, part music-making device, part-Transformer. Dr. Evernor doesn’t plan these things out on paper first – he just grabs his materials and digs in.
If you do head to North Freedom, make sure the good Doctor is there to guide you around – his sculptures don’t have signs beside them, and it sounds like half the experience will be hearing his explanation of each device.
Sure as hell beats a giant strip-club badger head.