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The Big Fish near Bena shows Thursday why its unique features continue to draw tourists to stop along U.S. Highway 2 for a photograph. The site, built in 1958 as a roadside ice cream and hamburger stand, was listed Thursday by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota as one of its 2009 10 Most Endangered Historical Places. Brad Swenson/Bemidji Pioneer

'Big Fish' on endangered places list

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BENA, Minn. -- This big fish made an endangered species list Thursday, but not the one reserved for bald eagles and snail darters.

Rather, The Big Fish, former roadside attraction near here, made the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places List, announced Thursday in Minneapolis.

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"Minnesota is blessed with a number of colossal roadside attractions, from Paul Bunyan statues to giant loons, yet it is our fascination with fish that often garners the biggest concrete, fiberglass or wood specimens," the Alliance said.

The latest addition to the Alliance's list is The Big Fish, which it says is "the superlative example of Minnesota's biggest aquatic life form, the muskie."

About 35 miles east of Bemidji, the popular example of roadside Americana was originally called the Big Muskie Drive-In. The Big Fish lies in the shadow of Lake Winnibigoshish on the Leech Lake Reservation.

Most fans of Chevy Chase's "National Lampoon's Vacation" film will remember the opening credits where vacation postcards are flashed across the big screen. Postcards of both Paul and Babe at the Lake Bemidji water-front and of The Big Fish are shown.

Each year, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota provides its list of 10 historic places that are most endangered by demolition, neglect or public policy.

"Unfortunately, The Big Fish has fallen into disrepair and the wood frame is in danger of rotting," the Alliance notes. "Guidance and help are needed so this venerable folk art structure can be preserved for future lovers of roadside America."

An inspection Thursday showed spots on the shell exposed tar paper, and the structure badly in need of a paint job. The entrance "mouth" edges are crumbling.

The 65-foot-long, 15-foot-wide Big Fish was built in 1958 as an ice cream and hamburger stand, the Alliance said. It was composed of wood and roofing materials by sculptor Wayne Kumpla.

"The former food stand is now a storage shed located next to the Big Fish Supper Club, a seasonal restaurant," it said. "Tourists frequently stop along Highway 2 for photo opportunities with The Big Fish, including posing inside the fish's walk-in mouth.

The site has been featured on a number of blogs and at least three books on roadside attractions, the Alliance said. Charles Kuralt called it his favorite building in the United States.

In addition to announcing its list Thursday in Minneapolis, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota plans press events May 12 in St. Cloud and May 21 in Bemidji.

The remaining nine sites on this year's list are:

  • Chaska Athletic Park, Chaska.
  • Palace Hotel, Crookston.
  • Dassel Co-op Dairy Association Creamery Building, Dassel.
  • St. Louis County Jail, Duluth.
  • Rock Island Swing Bridge, Inver Grove Heights.
  • Foley-Brower-Bohmer House, St. Cloud.
  • Schmidt Brewery, St. Paul.
  • Distressed urban neighborhoods, statewide.
  • Historic wood windows, statewide.

This year's list includes three properties in the metro area, five in rural Minnesota and two categorical state-wide listings. Of the 132 historic places listed during the Alliance's annual listings, two-thirds have been saved in part through the awareness generated by their listing, it said.

The Alliance has a double mission this year, as it seeks support to continue an historic preservation tax credit now under scrutiny by a legislative tax conference committee. The Senate's tax bill continues the credit, the House bill does not.

Minnesota would become the 31st state to provide incentives for preservation of historic structures through the use of a state historic preservation tax credit.

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