Gary Greff has never been afraid to dream big. The Regent, N.D., native arrived in Traill County in the early 1970s intent on learning more about coaching from one of the state’s biggest names in high school basketball: Hillsboro’s Ed Beyer.
Nearly a half-century later – and long after he left his position as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Hillsboro Elementary School – Greff’s ambition continues to loom large in western North Dakota.
For more than three decades, Greff has been creating giant scrap metal sculptures that have become must-see tourist stops on a stretch of road known as the Enchanted Highway. The 72-year-old educator-turned-sculptor put Regent on the national map and earned the small town of 200 people a mention in “Guinness World Records.”
“When you first start out, people think you’re a little crazy,” Greff said with a laugh Wednesday.
“But once they see you finish seven sculptures they start to think you’re a little more reputable.”
Greff didn’t set out planning to make a name for himself as a scrap metal sculptor. He started in education.
Greff had been working at a school in Alexandria, N.D., a small town in McKenzie County, when he accepted a job offer to teach fifth- and sixth-graders in Hillsboro.
He wanted to serve as an assistant coach under Beyer, Hillsboro’s Hall of Fame coach, who led the Burros boys basketball teams to state titles in 1973, 1974, 1977 and 1981.
“I always wanted to take a team to state and I thought I could learn from Ed,” he said.
Greff finished up his first season under Beyer before being offered a head coaching gig in Lakota, N.D.
“I asked him whether I should take it and he said ‘You won’t know how you’ll do until you get your feet wet,’” Greff recalled Beyer saying. “So I took the job in Lakota.”
School officials in Lakota wanted Greff to lead the school to the state tournament, but his clubs came up short despite reaching regionals four years in a row.
“We always ended up against Hillsboro – which was like ‘oh shoot,’” Greff said.
He moved on from Lakota, picked up a master’s degree in administration and served as a principal at schools in South Dakota and Montana before returning to his hometown of Regent.
The small town about 50 miles southeast of Dickinson was dying and Greff knew he had to help.
That’s when he got the idea to create massive scrap metal structures along the farm-to-market road from Gladstone, just south of Interstate 94, heading south toward Regent.
There was only one problem. Greff didn’t know how to weld.
“I had never laid a bead of weld until I started all this,” Greff said. “I never wanted to – never planned on it in my life.”
Greff made up for lost time the past 32 years.
His started making his first metal sculpture “Tin Family” in 1989. The three-piece sculpture includes a 42-foot-tall dad, 41-foot mom and 23-foot son made from old fuel tanks and oil drums.
He followed that creation with “Teddy Rides Again,” which features a silhouette of Teddy Roosevelt beside a stage coach and horses; “Pheasants on the Prairie,” which boasts a 70-foot-long rooster and a few accompanying chicks; and “Fisherman’s Dream,” which has a 70-foot-tall jumping trout.
Since then, he’s sprinkled in a 45-foot giant grasshopper and a 70-foot buck and 50-foot doe as well.
More recently, he wrapped up “Geese in Flight,” a 110-foot-tall sculpture that weights 78.8 tons, earning the piece a spot in the world record books.
These days, he can be found welding six to seven hours a day building a 47-foot-tall knight and a 45-foot-tall fire-breathing dragon whose eyes will light up when finished.
Greff said he’d eventually like to find someone to take over his work – and convince state officials to help finance the 32-mile-long artistic showcase.
For now, he’s working diligently to finish his medieval masterpiece, which will sit in front of the Enchanted Castle Hotel and Tavern, becoming his only sculpture inside the city of Regent.
“I’m hoping to get the dragon covered this summer but I don’t know if that will happen,” Greff said. “It isn’t going to get done if I don’t keep at it. So I have to keep welding.”
The Banner shone a spotlight on four former Hillsboro teachers who left the area a week ago. In addition to Greff, here are updates on two more ex-Hillsboro educators and one from Central Valley who now calls a tiny island off the western coast of Alaska his home.
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