Main Street

In the bluff countryside of Sparta, Wis., the hills roll, the barns are red, and Holsteins graze in the shadow of 11-foot-high pumpkins and 15-foot-long walleyes. Here, behind an auto-body joint, is a landscape that David Lynch and Pee-wee Herman couldn't have dreamed up together. Welcome to FAST Corp.'s country kitschen.

Sparta is the bicycling capital of America, but Jerry Vettrus thinks the tourism bureau is missing a trick by not marketing the town as "fiberglass-animal capital of America" too. Vettrus has a point: FAST (it stands for fiberglass animals, shapes, and trademarks) is the nation's premier manufacturer of fiberglass roadside figures. Sparta first welcomed the distinctive colossi when sign business Sculptured Advertising set up shop here in the 1950s. The company also concocted giant cows for display at dairies.

In 1975, a few years after the business fizzled, a former employee and two other locals started Creative Display -- best known for its burger-hoisting Big Boys -- in a second Sparta location. Vettrus, now 56, served as general manager and artist there for seven years; when it too went out of business, in 1983, he opened FAST at a third Sparta location. FAST currently resides just outside Sparta's borders. (In 2000, Vettrus sold the 17-employee company to another local, Jim Schauf, but continues at FAST as an artist.)

WILD THINGS: Jerry Vettrus and Jim Schauf keep the nation stocked with big game.

As signage regulations became more restrictive, Vettrus moved to change the focus of FAST's product line. "People would say, 'That statue is nice, but what does it do?" he explains. Today 80% of the $1-million company's customers are from the water- and amusement-park industries, and one of FAST's big sellers is a hot-pink water-slide frog.

Not all of FAST's handiwork is larger than life, but it's easy to feel downright Lilliputian while wandering the grounds. Dozens of painted behemoths lounge on the front lawn. Sections of some 650 molds used to make the figures lie scattered in a forlorn "mold field." Here's the carcass of a giant steer, waiting to be resurrected by a call from a barbecue chain. There's the armless torso of a gladiator mascot. And rising from the tall grass? The soft-serve swirls of a Wilt Chamberlain-size ice-cream cone.

It's a strangely democratic universe. In the land of FAST's fantastical titans, not even the 21-foot-tall one-eyed pirate is king.


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