Endangered Bena roadside attraction undergoing rebirth
The Big Fish in Bena, listed in May as one of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places, has a new lease on life.
With a $10,000 donation from former Bena resident Gary Kirt, Big Fish owners Paul and Linda Reimer are rehabilitating the famous roadside attraction.
The 65-foot-long, 15-foot-wide Big Fish was built in 1958 as an ice cream and hamburger stand, according to the Alliance. It was composed of wood and roofing materials by sculptor Wayne Kumpla.
"It's kind of got a weird pop culture feel to it," said Michael Deering, an associate in Kirt's business, Bell Mortgage in Minneapolis. "It's so Minnesota. It just is."
Paul Reimer said Kirt's donation allowed them to buy the materials to rehab the Big Fish, and they are doing the work with the help of Randy Seitz of Bemidji, a family member.
"We had to do something," Reimer said. "The whole center portion of the fish was caving in. One more winter and it would have been on the ground ... likely washed ashore for good. We just about have the outside done."
He said they started work on the building seven weeks ago and expects to be ready to repaint the skin its authentic muskie hide colors by the end of the week. He said the skin will be made of an ice and water shield covered by 90-pound rolled roofing.
"It had to be rolled roofing because that's the only thing we found we could paint," he said. "We're putting brand new teeth in it and everything."
Reimers said he doesn't know when the Big Fish closed as an eatery, but it remained a roadside attraction with passers-by stopping to take each other's photos standing in the walk-in muskie mouth under the fangs. Reimers said he is replacing the broken teeth with pointy cedar posts.
"We've been getting comments every day from local folks seeing the progress on the fish," Reimer said. "People are constantly saying, 'Thank you for getting this done.'"
"This is going to hopefully make it last another 50-100 years," said Deering in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Reimers said they are remodeling the Big Fish Supper Club next door to the Big Fish itself and both attractions should be open before winter.
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. Paul and Babe at the Lake Bemidji waterfront and of the Big Fish both make cameo appearances. Charles Kuralt also featured the Big Fish in his "On the Road" series. He called it his favorite building in the United States, according to the Alliance.
Now, the attraction has its own Facebook page at Fans of the Big Fish - Bena Minnesota online at www.facebook.com. As of Tuesday afternoon the page had 333 friends. Fans can also follow the progress of Big Fish rehabilitation at www.bellmortgage.com