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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Roadside Colossus

Like the examples of roadside architecture presented in this lesson, large roadside sculptures appeared as a reaction to the popularization of the automobile in the early 20th century. Its main function was to attract the attention of passing cars.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox
Minnesota's first and best-known example of the "roadside colossus," the statuary grouping of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, is historically significant for its role in promoting tourism in the northern part of the state.

Located in a vast woodland and lake region, the city of Bemidji played host to a modest tourist trade as early as the 1890s. After the establishment of rail connections in 1898, promoters began developing lakeshore sites for summer cottages and constructing a variety of tourist hotels and resorts, primarily catering to hunters and anglers. Benefiting from the emergence of automobile travel and a state highway system, the Bemidji tourist industry experienced a boom during the 1920s, but suffered with the rest of the economy during the Great Depression.

In 1936, as a means of stimulating, or "boosting," tourism, a number of civic organizations and businesses decided to sponsor a winter carnival that would promote the city's resources for winter sports. The carnival opened on January 14, 1937. Taking its theme from Bemidji's former prominence as a lumbering center, the celebration focused on the mythical figure of Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack of formidable endurance and skill who had traveled with the folklore of the lumber camps from New England to Minnesota during the mid-19th century.

The carnival unveiled giant statues of Paul and his blue ox, Babe, to serve as mascots for the festivities. Both statues were designed and built by city residents. They became overnight sensations, garnering a full-page spread in Life magazine. Both were placed in a municipal park overlooking the lake and the city's busiest intersection. Although oversized statues have now become fairly common devices for promoting tourism, Bemidji's Paul and Babe were pioneer efforts in the field.

Paul Bunyan is approximately 18 feet high, measuring about five feet across at the base and about three feet from toe to heel. Babe stands about 10 feet tall, measuring about eight feet across the front hoofs and about 23 feet from nose to tail.

Dinosaur Park
Dinosaur Park is one of the most elaborate examples of roadside sculpture in the state of South Dakota and an excellent example of vernacular public art. Mount Rushmore, about 20 miles southwest of Rapid City, became the site of the great carvings of four American presidents who played a major role in westward expansion. That sculpture was first dedicated in 1930, and by 1935, some 200,000 visitors had visited the unfinished monument. These statistics were not lost on the promoters of Rapid City. Tourism was big business, and the chamber of commerce was eager to make the connection between one successful sculpture and another.

The idea of dinosaurs as the subject of a new sculpture came from Dr. C. C. O'Harra, the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and a paleontologist who was fascinated by the prehistoric dinosaur remains he had found in the Badlands of South Dakota. Others also liked the idea. The creation of concrete dinosaurs hit three nerves in the American aesthetic—a sense of the history of the West, an enjoyment of things larger than life, and a secret pleasure in being frightened. Dinosaur Park, located on a prominent hill above the town, was dedicated on May 22, 1936.

All five of the original dinosaurs were built in identical fashion. The frames are composed of two-inch-diameter black iron pipe set in concrete. Around the central frame, body forms consist of a steel skeleton covered with wire mesh to which the concrete skin is applied. Oral tradition has it that the park's dinosaurs originally were gray, but today they are painted vivid green, with touches of pinkish red. Built to authentic size, the measurements of the five dinosaurs are as follows:

    1. Triceratops—27 feet long, 11 feet high, 40-inch horns
    2. Tyrannosaurus Rex—35 feet long, 16 feet high, 4-foot-long head
    3. Brontosaurus—80 feet long and 28 feet high
    4. Stegosaurus—11 feet long and 7 feet high
    5. Trachodon—33 feet long and 17 feet 6 inches high.

The brontosaurus, the largest of the dinosaurs, is visible for many miles and has become a local landmark.

In The Colossus of Roads, art historian Karal Ann Marling explains the appeal of the awesomely large prehistoric animals in this way: "Humor and fakery create situations that appear 'dangerous, horrible or uncanny' and then disperse the sensation of terror with the sudden realization that the whole thing was a hoax."

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why does roadside sculpture tend to be large?

2. Had you already heard of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox? If not, see if your library has more information.

3. Are your own measurements proportionately the same as Paul Bunyan's—that is, are you six times as tall as the length of your foot?

4. Look up "vernacular" in a dictionary and then define the term "vernacular public art."

5. Reread the quotation from Marling. Can you think of anything else that might make people react this way?

Reading 3 was compiled from Jeffrey A. Hess, "Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox" (Beltrami County, Minnesota) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987; and Carolyn Torma, "Dinosaur Park" (Pennington County, South Dakota) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990.

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