JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Physically, sculptor Elmer Petersen and his crew built the World's Largest Buffalo 60 years ago this summer. What they also created is a symbol that became synonymous with Jamestown, according to Serle Swedlund, executive director of Jamestown Tourism.
"This buffalo brought Jamestown an identity long before marketing and branding were concepts," he said. "It is less about what it creates than how it is adopted in the community."
Jamestown celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1957. Some money was left over after the expenses of that event and community leaders started thinking about a monument or roadside attraction.
Harold Newman and Reese Hawkins, according to the oral histories of those events, did some research and found that Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox at Brainerd, Minn., was among the most photographed attractions in the region.
The goal in Jamestown then became to build something bigger and better than the legendary Minnesota lumberjack and his colorful companion.
Details were debated such as location. Some seemed to want the sculpture near the Jamestown Reservoir, constructed just a few years earlier, while others wanted it near the new interstate highway. The first segment of Interstate 94, 12 miles between Jamestown and Valley City, was completed in 1958 as the debate on the location of the sculpture was going on.
They also got in touch with Elmer Petersen, an art professor at Jamestown College now known as the University of Jamestown to design and construct the sculpture.
The 91-year-old Petersen continues to live in Wisconsin and was actively creating sculptures as recently as 2016.
Petersen told The Jamestown Sun for a 2016 article that some art professors criticized his buffalo statue as a work of "taxidermy." It remains his largest work. He is also the creator of the metal eagle sculpture on the Memorial Building in Jamestown and the bronze statue of Dr. Anne Carlsen at the Anne Carlsen Center.
Newman contracted with Petersen for the construction for a reported $8,500. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $75,000 today and would still be a bargain, Swedlund said.
"it kept Jamestown on the map in a way it would have never could have done otherwise," he said. "No other community has created an identity like Jamestown as the Buffalo City."
And the World's Largest Buffalo is nearly three times as tall as Babe the Blue Ox.
The buffalo identity has also been adopted by businesses in the community, according to Emily Bivens, executive director of the Jamestown Area Chamber of Commerce.
"The brand has stood up well in time," she said. "A lot of local businesses have incorporated it into their titles and images, and that reinforces it."
The World's Largest Buffalo was one of the first major roadside attractions in North Dakota but didn't stay static," Swedlund said.
Over the years, the Frontier Village was added followed by a live herd of bison, the National Buffalo Museum and finally with albino bison within the herd. A naming contest gave the statue the name Dakota Thunder in 2010.
"The herd and the museum give it more weight than just a roadside attraction," Swedlund said. "Creating a roadside stop was the best they could do in the 1960s."
Jamestown embraced the buffalo image as a title for its summer festival as early as 1961. Another edition of that continuing celebration is slated for this weekend in Jamestown. Visitors to the World's Largest Buffalo who use Snapchat can also use a special filter for pictures there this month, Swedlund said.
Swedlund said there are some cracks and other issues with the statue. He estimates it carries 10 or more layers of paint that have worn thin over the back of the statue. Finding people with expertise in repairing the statue has been difficult, but the search is continuing.
While the physical statue may show the effects of time, the symbolism and image of the buffalo remain strong.
"The spirit that it was built in is much more powerful than we realize," Swedlund said. "Back 60 years ago, those people chose an icon related to the American spirit."
Bivens said it is one of the things that sets Jamestown apart.
"It is a long-standing brand for our community that would be impossible to re-create," she said. "It is how Jamestown is known."