Supersized Heritage: The Unshakeable Allure and Uncertain Future of Canada’s Big Roadside Objects

As travelers cruise east from Edmonton on Alberta’s four-lane Yellowhead Highway, they soon have a monumental decision to make – whether to keep driving or turn off to behold Mundare’s giant attraction.

The small Alberta farming town of Mundare (population 852) is a fascinating place with a century-long history of Ukrainian settlement, a large Basilian Fathers museum, an elaborate and beautiful Ukrainian Catholic grotto constructed by volunteers during the 1930s, and a charming main street of Art Deco vernacular buildings. But most visitors breeze past all of these and head straight to the north end of downtown to marvel at Canada’s largest sausage – a U-shaped Ukrainian Kielbasa towering red, improbable, and mouth-watering against a blue prairie sky. Erected in 2001 and weighing in at 12,000 pounds, the robust fiberglass statue cost about $120,000 to create, can withstand 160 km winds, and is stewarded by its own non-profit foundation.

The giant Ukrainian Kielbasa in Mundare, Alberta, sets visitor tastebuds ablaze.

When I visited Mundare several years ago, I stood awestruck on the metal viewing platform in the “saddle” of the upturned sausage link, marveling at the 42-foot fiberglass behemoth and baffled by the smell of garlic in the air. I quickly realized that the aroma was wafting over from Stawnichy’s Meat Processing, the 60-year-old deli and sausage plant across the street and the town’s most famous business. Stepping back to take it all in, I wondered what had prompted this gargantuan expression of local pride, and what would happen to this well-loved structure in the coming years?

Quirky and eccentric though they often are, the “big things” that pepper towns and cities across Canada have inexorably wormed their way into local identity. Whether they ever become “heritage” in an official sense, or receive heritage designation, is probably beside the point. But why shouldn’t they receive the “heritage” blessing? Currently, even Canada’s most famous big objects – like the nickel in Sudbury, ON (1964) or the Pysanky in Vegreville, AB (1975) – have no heritage status or protection. While many of these place-makers may have begun as Chamber of Commerce marketing gimmicks, most have won over the hearts of locals and travelers alike, and the heritage conservation community may need to consider widening its gaze and embracing these larger-than-life pop culture and folk art icons.

As heritage places, however, the fate of the Goose in Wawa, Ontario opens up thorny questions about the conservation treatment of big objects and “authenticity.” The first Wawa Goose, for example, was built of flimsy plaster in 1960, replaced in 1963 by a steel version that soon began to corrode and was in turn replaced by a bronze version in 2017, said to be virtually indestructible. While the steel head of the 1963 goose will be saved, the remainder of the body was purportedly melted down into souvenirs. Does the heritage value of Wawa’s Goose lie in the form and context and not in the material itself? This may be a conversation best left for a National Trust conference seminar room…

The origin of big objects really began in California in the 1920s with the development of eye-catching often zany commercial buildings. Responding to car culture and the need for attention-getting scale, US Route 66 commissioned in 1926 saw the addition of these giant objects as tourist attractions. The US National Trust for Historic Preservation is now working to save Route 66 icons in the United States, and the State of California is inventorying and saving these rapidly disappearing sites.

The 20-storey Saamiss Tee-Pee towers over the Trans-Canada Highway in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

As Canadians (hopefully) throw off the COVID-19 lockdown shackles this summer and hit the open road, they will no doubt feel the irresistible magnetic pull of Canada’s wealth of big things. Here are some worth hitting the brakes for:

  • Saamiss Tee Pee (Medicine Hat, AB) – Originally part of the 1988 Calgary Olympics, this 20 storey tee-pee now looms over the Trans-Canada highway, as a municipal tribute to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The teepee is decorated with 10 large, circular interpretive panels painted by First Nations and Métis artists depicting subjects such as Treaty 7 and the Blackfoot Confederacy.
  • Perogy on a Fork (Glendon, AB) – The village of Glendon’s 27 foot perogy on a fork (a tribute to the Ukrainian community) has been drawing visitors since 1991. Thankfully a nearby café serves edible versions complete with fried onions and sour cream!
  • Mac the Moose (Moose Jaw, SK) – This colossus is once again the world’s tallest at 10.36 metres after being fitted with a new rack of horns, narrowly edging out the upstart rival Norwegian town of Stor-Elvdal’s chrome moose (10.1 metres).
  • Giant Mosquito (Kormano, MB) – Erected in the tiny Interlake village of Kormano, this huge and fearsome all-steel mosquito designed by sculptor Marlene Hourd has a 4.6 metre wingspan, and slowly spins.
  • Sunflower Easel (Altona, MB) – This southern Manitoba Mennonite community is both the Sunflower Capital of Canada and a cultural mecca. In 1998 artist Cameron Cross created an enormous tribute in the form of a 76 foot easel with a Van Gogh Sunflowers painting perched on top.
  • Jumbo the Elephant (St. Thomas, ON) – Erected in 1985, this life-sized representation of the world famous circus elephant Jumbo commemorates his death in 1885 in St. Thomas after being hit by a train.
  • World’s Largest Axe (Nackawic, NB) – With an axe-head 7 metres wide, this stupendous axe stands 15 metres tall and weighs over 55 tons. A tribute to the area’s logging history, it was designed and built in 1991 in nearby Woodstock.
  • World’s Largest Fiddle (Sydney, NS) – This fiddle and bow on the Sydney waterfront reach 60 feet! Constructed in 2005, it celebrates the folk music and traditions of the province’s Celtic community.
  • Giant Squid (Glovers Harbour, NL) – Built in 2001, this life-sized concrete and steel squid commemorates a giant squid that washed ashore in 1878.

Are there big things you are passionate about? Share pictures of your favourites on social media and tag us, @nationaltrustca, so we can see!