Save Minnesota's Big Fish
By Ashley Nanco | Online Only | July 9, 2009
In the center of Minnesota's muskie fishing region, the state's biggest fish is floating to the top. The Big Fish, a popular roadside landmark in the small town of Bena, is crumbling.
Fashioned from wood and painted tar paper, the 65-foot long, 15-foot wide fish, a muskie, was built in 1958 as a hamburger and ice cream stand by sculptor Wayne Kumpla. Tourists still stop to take pictures at the Big Fish, where one can stand inside the fish's mouth.
"There are people in and out of there every day. Pictures are taken every 35 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Bena native Donovan Haaland, who owns the Big Fish and the adjacent Big Fish Supper Club, along with rentable cabins nearby. He has lived behind the Big Fish for much of his life and worked there as a dishwasher when he was eight. But Haaland doesn't have the money to repair the fish.
"The wood is slowly deteriorating. It's just falling apart, bottom line. It needs a total restoration," Haaland says.
In May the Big Fish appeared on the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota's annual list of the state's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Erin Hanafin Berg, a field representative for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, says, "It's folk art as much as it is roadside architecture. You can see the hand labor put into it, and it adds value."
Today the fish, used as a storage shed for the nearby restaurant, is suffering from water damage and deterioration to its wood and tar paper frame. Its jaws and mouth are in worse condition, Haaland says, because tourists often steal the teeth as souvenirs.
"The jaws finally fell off from people jerking and pulling on them," Haaland says. "Ripping stuff off of a 50-year-old building is like me beating a grandmother up. It's something that I love and always grew up next to. I get a little offended when people [damage it]."
Haaland says that he asked a friend to rebuild the Fish, but "couldn't get anywhere because you go to bed at night, and something else would be gone again in the morning." A complete restoration of the Big Fish would cost an estimated $55,000 to $60,000. Haaland would like to reopen the Big Fish as a gift shop, but unfortunately, cannot afford it.
The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota is confident the Fish can be fixed, Berg says. "It's a manageable project, something a grassroots effort can accomplish."
The community says the Big Fish is its main attraction. Renee Geving, director of the local Cass County Museum, says, "We don't have much up here, so places like that are important. It's been featured in so many travel guides, and I think, as far as tourists, it's probably the only reason that people go to Bena, period."
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