They may be hokey, but they stand as landmarks and as symbols of identity. They may not be things of beauty, but we defend them as a point of honor. They are: the big things.
I’m using the Australian term, because we in America haven’t come up with a better one to describe the phenomenon-giant statues, roadside monstrosities, the world’s largest this or that.
Australia has heaps of them, some of which I have visited: the Big Pineapple, at Woombye, in Queensland; the Big Banana, at Coffs Harbour, in New South Wales; the Big Prawn, at Ballina, New South Wales; and the Big Merino, in Goulburn, New South Wales. Australians think of big things as their own thing, but it is, rather, an international phenomenon.
Across the Tasman, in New Zealand, I’ve made ritual visits to lots of big things-most recently the Big Carrot, in Ohakune, and quite possibly my favorite, the Big Gumboot, in Taihape. The giant gumboot-gumboot, that is, a high rubber boot worn by the district’s dairy farmers-is actually quite a striking piece of offbeat art fashioned by a chap named Jeff Thomson. He works in corrugated sheet metal, and his gumboot is in a class way above the usual sort of fiberglass-cast big thing.
A scholar who has studied big things across Canada argues that they express a distinctively Canadian approach to the genre that is more sober and communitarian than the American. He insists that whereas Americans make big things for crass, commercial reasons, Canadians make them as expressions of community identity. He is, of course, being silly in that way of so many Canadian writers who think it necessary always to distinguish themselves, however artificially, from anything American.
The best book about big things in America is that by Karal Ann Marling, The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol along the American Highway. The book focuses on Minnesota, a state that possesses a fine repertoire of big things.
The more you study on these things, the more you come to realize that, yes, they can be a little silly, and yes, some of them are less than pleasing aesthetically, but overall, they do express people’s sense of place and identification with community pretty well. That’s why I’ve started assigning my bright students at North Dakota State University to look into big things along the highways of the northern plains.
We’re just getting started, but we’ve begun posting images and information at the website of the Center for Heritage Renewal-that’s heritagerenewal.org. The photo of the air-sacks of the World’s Largest Prairie Chicken, Rothsey, taken by Adam Wolfe, is just stunning. Tom Kramer brings us images of one of that great North Dakota landmark, the Chieftain, in Carrington. And Casie Hawkinson informs us about a big thing of which I previously knew nothing, the World’s Largest Hamburger, in Rutland.
I’ve written recently about Earl Bunyan, the cowboy monument in New Town, North Dakota. Thanks to my students, I’ll soon be posting information about the World’s Largest Catfish, the Wahpper, in Wahpeton; the World’s Largest Buffalo, in Jamestown; Salem Sue, in New Salem; and others perhaps less familiar to you. And to tell you the truth, I haven’t yet even seen Rusty the Turtle, in Turtle Lake, but I’ll get around to him. I doubt he’s going anywhere soon.