Drive down any interstate highway in America's heartland these days and you're liable to encounter a new roadside tourist attraction that's whimsical, quirky, even cheesy.
At first, it may seem like all kinds of silliness. But in fact it's serious business. After years of living in a stumbling farm economy, folks across the region are aiming to cultivate a bumper crop of anything - including tourists - to bring in a few bucks.
They're sparking up their Midwestern ingenuity to snare some of the millions of car travelers whizzing through the region - and in doing so they're even, perhaps unintentionally, countering the fast-spreading sameness of strip malls, Wal-Mart, and McDonald's.
*Here in Nebraska, there's the soon-to-open Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, a tribute to early pioneers housed inside a hulking bridge stretched right over Interstate 80.
*In Regent, N.D., there's a series of giant sculptures, including a 30-foot grasshopper, made out of recycled farm equipment.
*And every state worth its Midwestern salt has cornfield mazes, where visitors pay to run like rats through curvy passageways carved into the cornstalks.
"With the economy this way, all of us have had to say, 'How can we broaden our base?' " says David Bernard-Stevens. He's spearheading construction of the $4 million Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, Neb., a 15-story monolith from which visitors can spy the world's biggest and busiest railway switching yard.
Like many Midwestern attractions, it's aiming to combine proximity to major traffic routes - in this case, I-80, the nation's busiest cross-country highway - with some other unique hook. "A lot of people love trains," Mr. Bernard-Stevens says. "And a lot of tour buses [look] for a place to stop along the way to wherever."
Indeed, the Midwest may not have Walt Disney World or the Washington Monument, but it does have the advantage of geography: You've got to go through it to get to a lot of places.
"If we can just get people to pull off the highway and spend a few hours, or even the night, we've got a tourism industry," says Larry Leistritz, an agricultural economist at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
So, as in many things, Midwesterners are just working with what they've got. Take Gary Greff, an ex-schoolteacher who wanted to do something to save his struggling farm town of Regent, N.D. "I looked around and said, 'What have we got to work with?' " he explains. His conclusion: a road that's close to a busy interstate and a lot of farmer-types who are handy with a welding torch. He also noticed travelers pull over to see just about anything big or whimsical.
So, with not a smidgen of artistic background, he began building enormous sculptures. There's the grasshopper whose body is made out of old oil-well tanks. There's a 45-foot tall tin man with tin wife and tin boy. She has a barbed-wire coiffure, and the boy holds a lollipop that was once the bottom of a farm fuel tank.
Now he's working on a metal tableau of geese flying into the sunset. It will be 150 feet wide and 90 feet tall - and, of course, visible from Interstate 90. In fact, Greff aims to turn a stretch of road off I-90 into an "enchanted highway" that leads to "the metal art capital of the world."
Not all the region's attractions are quite as home-grown. The Archway in Nebraska was designed by a team that included former Disney exhibit designers. When the $60 million archway opens in April 2000, visitors will don headphones and walk though an "edu-tainment experience," complete with life-size video images of stampeding buffalo and recorded oral histories of covered-wagon pioneers.
Not everyone's happy with all this regional pandering to tourists. Critics complain, for instance, that the Archway is hokey or that all the tourists it draws will crowd out Kearney's other annual visitors, thousands of rare migrating sandhill cranes.
And some tourist attractions spark trouble. In Iowa, two families are in a quite-public row over how to manage the Field of Dreams, made famous by the movie of the same name.
But there's a history of tourist-grabbing success in the region. Take the two dueling "World's Biggest Ball of Twine" in Cawker City, Kansas, and Darwin, Minn. Or perhaps the Midwest's biggest oddball success story, Wall Drug in Wall, S.D.
It's a mammoth general store in the Badlands that sells everything from alligator boots to gold-plated cowboy figurines. It owes its success to Midwestern hospitality. In 1931 it began catering to weary travelers by offering free ice water. In the summer, 20,000 people a day now stop by to partake of the water - and the quintessential Midwestern quirkiness.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society