Heeding the call of the open road last summer, my husband and I packed up the car and headed east to visit cousins in the Midwest.
We’d sketched out some general expectations for the trip, but weren’t stuck on a rigid schedule – which was a good thing, considering the two flat tires we had to contend with over the course of the trip!
We were interested in taking detours off the interstate to see small town main streets. We were captivated by county courthouse facades and movie theatre marquees, and made it a point to inject money into the economy at kids’ lemonade stands. We kept our eyes peeled for the mountain monograms that local boosters have created on the hillsides that rise up behind towns throughout the Intermountain West. We were keen to pause at a goodly number of roadside markers and viewpoints that detailed local history, geology and other points of pride.
But I was also on the lookout for a particular type of roadside attraction: oversized animal sculptures.
Once we got into the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains states, iconic green Dinos appeared repeatedly – the branding for Sinclair gas stations. But we also spotted giant renditions of horses and cows and buffalo – some displayed in front of businesses, others coming into view along the interstate, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Outside of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, we saw a six-ton concrete prairie dog statue that loomed over a real-life prairie dog town. (After getting home, I was bummed to learn that if we had then headed northeast to Huron, we could have witnessed the world’s largest pheasant statue, too.)
In Kaycee, Wyoming (site of one of our flat tires), we came across a pretty memorial garden with a larger-than-life sculpture of the late Chris LeDoux astride a bucking bronco. LeDoux was a world hall of fame rodeo champion and country music singer-songwriter. The horse looked pretty determined to unseat the champ.
In western Nebraska we saw a giant rooster sculpture fabricated out of scrap metal, and then another one in Wisconsin.
We entered Michigan via the Upper Peninsula, where we saw a rendition of mighty Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe.
A few blocks from our Airbnb in Traverse City, a huge figure of a snarling bear standing upright loomed over the entrance to a store packed with souvenirs and resort wear.
In contrast, a few miles up the road in Elk Rapids, a large swan sculpture presided with dignity in the parking lot for the local chamber of commerce. Talula – that’s the swan’s name – was originally built as a parade float in 1966.
Heading down to southern Michigan, we encountered a large fish sculpture frozen in mid-leap toward the sky at the entrance to downtown Baldwin. The town proudly proclaims that, at 25 feet in height, this is the world’s largest brown trout statue. It was erected to commemorate the first time that fish species had ever been planted in a stream in the U.S., more than a hundred years ago.
But it was in the village of Kaleva, Michigan (population 531) that I came across one of my favorite discoveries of the entire trip. Although this curiosity wasn’t visible from the road, it did boast a modest claim to fame.
We had been on our way to visit a cousin who was celebrating a birthday, and when we spotted a shop called Kaleva Country Flowers we stopped to see if we could pick up a bouquet for her.
Inside, I found owner Norman Mackey who cheerfully agreed to put together a floral arrangement in a matter of minutes and went into the back room to get the job done.
While waiting, I noticed a spherical object, elevated on a pedestal above the clutter on the front counter, and commanding pride of place next to the cash register.
It was a rubber band ball. Layered with crisscrossing bands of pastel blue, yellow and pink, the overall effect was somewhat reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting. A small sign at the base of the pedestal proclaimed in all capital letters that this was the largest rubber band ball – in all of Kaleva.
When Mackey came back upfront, I asked him to tell me more about this impressive object. He told me he’d been in the floral business for nearly 30 years, and he’d always been concerned about the amount of rubber band waste generated every week from the product that came in. Eight or nine years ago, he decided to stop feeling bad and just do something about it. That’s when he started building the rubber band ball, and he’s been adding to it weekly ever since. At last weigh-in, it came close to 25 pounds.
It’s become a fun hobby, he said, and it’s definitely a conversation starter.
“Kids and adults seem to enjoy it and ask questions. Number one question - how'd you get it so round? Second - do you know how many are on it?"
He said some people have threatened to challenge his claim of the largest rubber band ball in town, “But it's not easy to assemble 25 pounds of rubber bands!”
Sometimes he regrets not having started earlier – “it could’ve been two to three times bigger” – but he hopes that when he retires and someone else takes over the shop, they’ll carry on the tradition.
“Like anything, you need to find a starting point and make it fun, not a chore,” he said. “I love talking about the largest rubber band ball in Kaleva.”
Months later, thumbing through my veritable zoo of oversized animal sculpture photos, and looking at my snapshot of Norman Mackey with his painstakingly constructed rubber band ball, I marvel at the creative ways people across America are making their communities unique.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.