Fiberglass Animal Farm
A visit to the Wisconsin factory where advertising sculptures are bred and pastured
It’s a crisp autumn day in the small town of Sparta, Wisconsin, and Darren Schauf is showing off the very unusual tools of his trade: about 600 large fiberglass molds strewn around a five-acre field.
Most of the molds are oversized versions of recognizable shapes — a horse here, a beer bottle there, assorted arms, legs, and faces all over the place. They’re primarily a drab yellowish brown, and most are lying on their sides, making them look dead or discarded. I make a note: “Looks like the molds are moldering.”
But where others might see a big field of junk or scrap, Schauf sees the lifeblood of his business. “This is our agriculture section,” he says proudly. “Pigs, horses, cows. There’s Babe the Blue Ox, who goes with Paul Bunyan. Oh, look, you’re standing on Paul Bunyan’s ax!”
This is FAST Corp. — the acronym stands for Fiberglass Animals, Shapes, and Trademarks — one of the country’s most intriguing and entertaining niche manufacturers. FAST uses these molds to cast large fiberglass statues that have become icons of roadside Americana. If you’ve ever seen a big steer perched atop a steakhouse, a giant soft-serve cone in front of an ice cream stand, or a Bob's Big Boy statue, FAST probably made it. The company also makes slides for water parks (a sub-niche that constitutes about 40 percent of FAST’s business) and occasionally collaborates with artists who need a specialized vendor to execute their large-scale projects, like the 30-foot eyeball FAST made in 2007 for the artist Tony Tasset.
FAST, which currently has two dozen employees, produces close to 1,000 statues a year and typically has about 50 pieces in various stages of production at any given moment. Turnaround time ranges from six to ten weeks. About 10 percent of the company’s projects are custom jobs; the rest are stock designs from the FAST Corp. catalog, which is why all those molds are kept out in the field. If someone orders, say, a giant ear of corn, the appropriate mold will be brought in from the field and the piece will be cast in fiberglass. The molds are too big to put in storage, so they just sit there out in the open, which works out fine. It’s not as though anyone’s going to sneak off with a 15-foot root beer mug.
Although the distribution of the molds in the field may seem random, there’s actually a bit of a system. “We’ll have fish in one area, African animals in another, and so on,” says Schauf, the company’s general manager. “But there are also some things out there that don’t fit in any category, so sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hey, what did we do with that thing?’ and someone will turn to the next guy and say, ‘Yeah, what did we do with that thing?’ Between half a dozen people, we’ll usually find it.”
The mold field has become something of a tourist draw over the years, with curious visitors stopping by for a photo op with Paul Bunyan or Big Boy. The company doesn’t promote this type of thing but also doesn’t discourage it, and guests are generally welcome to roam around as long as they don’t climb on the molds.
There’s a nice full-circle element to this: FAST, which creates roadside attractions, has become a roadside attraction, a parallel that isn’t lost on Schauf. “I’ve definitely thought about that,” he says, strolling past the mold for a giant hamburger. “There’s something very satisfying about it.”
We’ve all seen giant statues at some point — the world’s largest this, a colossal that. What exactly is their appeal? Part of it, to be sure, is the simple truism that large things are impressive. But there’s more to it than that. It’s one thing to be wowed by a very large mountain; it’s another to encounter a very large cow, or banana, or bottle of Tabasco sauce. We can’t change our own size, but we can change the size of these other things and thereby alter ourselves relative to them. There’s something in our brains that finds pop-cultural whimsy and delight in those altered spatial relationships (it works with miniatures, too). That whimsy is at the core of FAST’s appeal.
But while FAST’s products are large and attention-getting, the company itself is one of those enterprises that hover just under the radar of people’s consciousness. You always understood on an intuitive level that someone was making those giant statures, but you probably never thought about who those someones might be, and you almost certainly didn’t imagine their factory being in a small town in rural Wisconsin, surrounded by rolling farmland.
FAST is the third incarnation of a company that began in the 1950s under the name Sculptured Advertising. A few statues from this era are still in use (including a steakhouse steer that was recently returned to FAST for repairs after having been hit by a car). The company then became known as Creative Display, one of whose employees, a designer and artist named Jerry Vettrus, took over the operation and renamed it FAST in 1983. Many of the molds out in the field are his designs.
By 2000, Vettrus was looking to sell. “Jerry had grown the business to a certain point, but he was an artist,” says Schauf. “He kind of ignored a lot of the aspects of running the business. He was more about sculpture and painting.” Vettrus ended up selling FAST to Schauf’s father, a former manufacturing executive. The younger Schauf, who’d been working in market research, came on board in 2007 and now runs FAST’s day-to-day operations, a gig he clearly enjoys. “It’s a lot more fun to build a 20-foot dog than to sit at a desk all day and then write a report,” he says.
And with that, he leads the way to a building where a FAST crew is working on, sure enough, a 20-foot dog — a Dalmatian, to be precise. This is a complicated custom job, because each of the Dalmatian’s spots is actually a window that will be fitted with a light, which necessitated the creation of an internal armature.
Most FAST products are much simpler than the dog. Assuming the mold for a project doesn’t already exist out in the field, the process begins with the creation of a plug or model. Schauf shows me one that’s currently being made for a two-scoop ice cream cone. “The only other double-scoop cone we have is the one we use for a chain called Andy's Frozen Custard,” he explains. “Andy doesn’t technically have an exclusive on that design, but he’s a good customer, so I’m building a new double-scoop cone that we can market to other customers, and I won’t sell Andy’s to anyone else.”
The new ice cream cone plug, like all of FAST’s plugs, is made from expandable urethane foam. “It’s great stuff,” says Schauf. “You spray it on and it expands to, like, 10 times its size. Then you cut it with a filet knife. If you cut off too much, you just spray on some more and do it over. We just use a photo for reference until it looks right.” Once a plug is finished, it’s painted to make it slick. Then it’s coated with fiberglass, which is removed in several pieces, creating the mold. One challenge when sculpting the plug is to minimize undercuts or recessed areas, which will make the mold harder to remove from the plug. The more undercuts there are, the more pieces the mold will end up being. In the case of the two-scoop cone, Schauf says the resulting mold will probably end up being 15 to 20 separate pieces.
Once the mold is made, the plug is discarded (they’re not very recyclable, unfortunately, so they end up in the landfill) and the statue is cast and painted. Then the mold joins the others out in the field. “We don’t throw any of them away,” says Schauf. “Even if I think we’ll probably never use it again, we hold onto it.”
The sluggish American economy has had surprisingly little effect on FAST in recent years, in part because more people have been foregoing lavish vacations in favor of simple road trips or staycations, which has increased the demand for roadside statuary. FAST has also benefited from the growth of agritourism, where the rising popularity of corn mazes, “pick your own pumpkin” patches, and so on has led to more orders from farmers looking to spruce up their properties with a giant chicken or an eight-foot pumpkin hut.
You’d think other players would want to get in on the action, but FAST appears to have the category largely to itself. “We’re not a big company, but we’re the biggest in the industry,” says Schauf. “The other people who do what we do, working with fiberglass, are mostly ‘onesie, twosie’ types in a garage. There are lots of companies now doing 3-D CAD cutting with EPS foam, which they’ll hard-coat with sprayed plastic. It looks really nice, but it’s extremely expensive for large pieces, so they can’t really compete with us for the big stuff.”
“Big stuff,” of course, is a relative notion. Up until now, FAST’s magnum opus has been the 143-foot walk-through muskie that forms the centerpiece of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, located about three hours north of FAST in Hayward, Wisconsin. The muskie is renowned among road-trippers and Americana connoisseurs as a masterpiece of modern kitsch, but the company recently began work on a much larger project: a 30 0-foot-wide eagle that will be showcased on the Red Lake Indian Nation’s new capitol building in northern Minnesota. “The wings will be attached to the building, and the head will be fully three-dimensional and will blend into the breast plate underneath it,” says Schauf, not without a touch of pride.
And when the eagle is done, the mold for it will presumably take its place out in the field, along with all the others. Does Schauf ever worry about running out of room out there?
“Nah,” he says. “I’d say we have another 40 years left.” When I mention that this is how cemeteries measure their land — in terms of how many years they have left before they’re full — Schauf bristles slightly. “I don’t like to think of it as our cemetery or graveyard,” he says. “It’s our mold warehouse.”
Then he adds, “Sometimes we call it the Sparta Zoo. I like that.” Spoken like a true roadside entrepreneur.
All photos by Heather McCabe