Into the Heartland by Carolyn Kraus

Into the Heartland

Carolyn Kraus

At a truck stop twenty miles south of Hayward, Wisconsin, the sign read “Big Food.” It was a no-frills concept. The chef’s salad, browning under a couple of layers of Handi-Wrap on the counter, arrived with the cheese melted over it like a helmet. The fries filled a greasy half-bushel basket, and the coconut cream pie came in a great viscous slab.

An hour later, I drove up to the All Seasons Motel near downtown Hayward and asked directions to the “Giant Walk-Thru Muskie,” one of Northern Wisconsin’s most spectacular sights, according to my dog-eared tourist map.

“That fish, that fish!” moaned a desk clerk with “Martha” embroidered in red on her uniform. “All I ever hear about is that fish! This town has a five-minute parade on Veteran’s Day, but when it comes to the fish, they get dressed up and march around for five hours. That fish,” she concluded, “is bull.”

Leaving Martha framed, hands on hips, in the doorway, I retreated to my car, drove on for a few blocks, and realized there was no need for directions. Gape-mouthed and snaggle-toothed, and half a block long, the world’s biggest fish rose above the tree line and fixed me with a three-foot yellow eye. Low-hanging clouds formed an ominous backdrop. The creature appeared to be frozen in its last gasp.

Townspeople, gathered at a flea market in its shadow, held divided opinions of their local landmark. “Not only do we have the world’s biggest fish here,” a gentleman in suspenders bragged, “it’s also the world’s third biggest statue, after Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty.” But there was also the elderly woman who said huffily that she hadn’t given the fish a good look since it first came wheeling up the road in 1978, sliced for easier transport into eighty-five-foot fillets.

I paid the cashier five dollars and walked under a billboard that read “National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.” Above small buildings displaying antique fishing gear and popeyed, stuffed specimens, the main event loomed like a nightmare centerpiece. The giant muskie was 145 feet long, striped green and yellow, and kind of lacquered over to give it a wet look.

The voice of Billy Joel singing “Just the Way You Are” emanated from a gill arch as I climbed four flights of stairs through the creature’s steel-girded innards. Rows of fishermen were trapped inside, grinning from yellowed photos in trophy cases. Their faces looked tough and leathery and taxidermic.

Here on September 23, 1983 at four p.m., according to an enshrined news clipping, the Douglas Cummings of Menomonie were married on the observation platform formed by the fish’s gaping maw that, a brochure advertises, “accommodates about 20 persons and reveals a wonderful panoramic view of Lake Hayward.” Earlier in the day, the couple had gone fishing and come back empty-handed, whereupon a friend had quipped, “That’s OK, Doug, you’ll have your big catch at four o’clock this afternoon.”

I stood, gazing down the dim corridor, and tried to imagine the wedding procession. Big food gurgled in my stomach. Rain beat on the fiberglass scales, streaming down the jagged teeth.

In a snack bar on the grounds sat Bob Kutz, elderly founder of the Hall of Fame and originator of the giant fish concept. Munching bratwurst and occasionally glancing out the window at a twelve-foot fin, he described the “intimidation and tears, the blood and the sweat” that went into making his longtime dream come true. The idea took hold in his mind in the sixties. “I put $25,000 bucks into it and proceeded to educate the public,” he recalled. He tried for a government grant: “Too ostentatious, too pretentious,” wrote the grant committee. So he knocked on doors for more than a decade and raised the seed money, a dollar at a time.

“The town thought I was nuts,” Kutz continued. “They called it “Kutz’s Folly.'” The controversy raged on for fifteen years in editorials and letters to the Sawyer County Record and Hayward Republican. It dominated city council meetings. “They said better Kutz should collect money for the school system,” said Kutz as he shook his head ruefully. “Or, he could raise money for a park, for the church, for the VFW.”

But when he had collected the funds, the city council backed down. Kutz located a “well-formed” musky specimen as a model, had it stuffed, and sent it to the abandoned pickle factory in Sparta, Wisconsin, that then housed the F.A.S.T. Corporation (“We make anything”).

When the fish arrived in Hayward in 1978, its four sections were quickly hoisted into place for the dedication. Bouquets of roses were slapped over spots where the sides didn’t meet. “Nothing else was here at the time,” Kutz recalled, gesturing to the expanse of flower beds, benches, and ponds, “only the raw fish.”

Half the town turned out for the ceremony. There were speeches, drum rolls, trumpet fanfares, gun salutes, skydivers, and a prayer offered jointly by a congregational minister and a Chippewa spiritual advisor named Jimmy Mustache.

“Controversy Over, Fish a Reality!” read the day’s headline.

The fish’s sculptor, Dave Oswald, a swarthy, cigar-smoking realist who also fashioned the world’s biggest cow and the world’s biggest turkey, does not consider his creation fine art. “But,” he allows, “that fish is built to last. It’s anchored with 500 tons of steel and concrete. I’m gonna come back in a thousand years and the sucker’ll still be there.”

About the Author

Carolyn Kraus teaches narrative at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Threepenny Review, The Best Travel Writing 2011, Lowestoft Chronicle, and widely elsewhere. She is a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee and a Grand Prize winner in the Solas Travel Writing Awards.