You’ll know it when you get here. Look for the 14-foot pheasant, nine-foot Santa Claus, eight-foot strawberry, 10-foot frog slide and 14-foot Holstein heifer.
These are the tipoffs that you’ve arrived at Fiberglass Animals, Shapes & Trademarks (FAST) in Sparta, Wis. The company’s five-acre “mold field” holds 600 or so husks used to create fiberglass statues. Stroll this dreamscape scrap yard at your leisure. Stop by the nine-foot Paul Bunyan, chuckle over the life-size Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (garden hoe in hand). Plus, make arrangements in advance for a no-charge tour of the barns where a staff of 24 designs and fabricates seamless giants and other attention-getters.
The glossy, 48-page FAST catalogue lists hundreds of creations, including children’s slides, 15-foot ice cream cones, 14-foot pineapples, 20-foot elephants and 30-foot Abraham Lincolns. The largest project in recent years was an eagle with a 300-foot wingspan, crafted for Red Lake Nation College in northern Minnesota.
Need a holiday gift for that has-everything relative?
“A six-foot frog slide goes for about $12,000,” FAST general manager Darren Schauf says matter-of-factly. “A nine-foot standing bear is $8,000, and a 10-foot one is about $12,000.”
Sparta, in west-central Wisconsin, has a population of about 10,000. Its most famous native is astronaut Deke Slayton — a statue of whom is Item No. 8,084 in the FAST catalogue. Its high school team, no surprise, is the Spartans. (The fiberglass Greek warrior outside the school is from a FAST mold — now Item No. 8059 in the catalogue).
Heading northwest from Chicago or Milwaukee, Sparta is a tad north of where Interstate 90 splits west toward La Crosse and I-94 continues to the Twin Cities. The town is in the pine country near the Army’s Fort McCoy and Fort McCoy Barrens State Natural Area. FAST is just off Highway 21, northeast of where it becomes Sparta’s main thoroughfare.
More important for FAST’s origins, Sparta is an hour northwest of Wisconsin Dells, an Upper Midwest tourist magnet since the 1850s. According to the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, oversize signs for roadside attractions date at least to the now-closed Storybook Gardens in the 1950s.
FAST began in Sparta in the late 1960s under a different name and was responsible for the 145-foot walk-through muskie at the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis. Jerry Vettrus acquired the firm and renamed it FAST in 1983. He was a designer, and when he tired of the paperwork aspects of the company, he sold it in 2000 to Sparta businessman Jim Schauf, Darren’s father.
The company relocated several times over the years. It is hard to miss its current location, at County Highway Q and State Highway 21.
This is how the sculptures are created: A desired-size model is made from expanding urethane foam. The model is then sprayed with fiberglass that hardens into reusable molds of two or more parts. The insides of the molds are fitted with flanges and sprayed with fiberglass. Pried from the molds, the shaped and hardened fiberglass linings — one-fourth to three-eighths of an inch thick — are hooked together. Seams are filled and sanded. The hollow fiberglass product is then painted.
Nothing new here. This process is akin to the lost-wax casting technique that dates to the Middle East in 3700 B.C. and that has been used to create metal statuary around the world.
The process used in Sparta is modern-day slick. But is a seven-foot fiberglass rooster or eight-foot Dracula statue art?
Fiberglass is a newer art medium; its ability to handle bad weather makes it desirable for durable outdoor public art. FAST created the 85 statues of University of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger, painted by individual artists on arrival in Madison and recently on display there.
The lifelike 30-foot “Eye” that FAST created for artist Tony Tasset was on display in Pritzker Park in Chicago’s Loop in 2010; when the show ended, it was returned to Sparta for temporary storage and since 2013 has been on outdoor exhibition in Dallas.
FAST created the sculpture, modeled after Tasset’s own eye, from 17 fiberglass pieces. The virtually seam-free technical artistry of FAST designers, fabricators and painters is amazing.
In some ways, Tasset’s “Eye” was a less complicated job than, say, the herd of cows ordered by an agritourism firm in Glen, N.H. Each heifer holds a tank that distributes water through the statue’s rubber udders. When staged with white backgrounds, it looks as though the cows are issuing milk.
Outside the Sparta shop recently, a crew was readying a shipment bound for the Florida Panhandle — life-size, bright red stallions to be delivered to the RED HORSE Air Force heavy-engineering squadron headquarters at Hurlburt Field.
Mid-March weather was easing snow and ice patches into the muddy grass on the grounds, allowing a stroll among molds, castoff and pending fiberglass projects. Surrealistic scenes abounded.
A life-size minuteman, musket in hand, was faceup, not far from prone “Wizard of Oz” characters. A friendly green dragon, 15 feet long and 7½ feet high, stared at a four-foot human tooth. A mermaid on a treasure chest made eye contact with a cartoon dinosaur. A herd of unpainted white cows grazed beneath an 11-foot lumberjack (back for a paint tuneup from Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty in Wisconsin Dells). An assembled mold of a grizzly stood shoulder to shoulder with one of a nine-foot dog.
Darren Schauf, 53, takes the visual mayhem in stride. It’s a business. He says his main market segments are “water parks, agritourism and roadside attractions. A new market is cemetery statues.”
He has no sales staff. Most business is generated from past dealings in his hyper-specialized industry, and from trade shows. Early spring, he notes, is a busy time for water-park orders that need to be delivered before May.
Schauf says FAST doesn’t track the number of visitors who come through. Red Bull shot an ad there, and FAST was featured twice on the A&E series “Shipping Wars.”
Schauf, a Navy veteran, has a degree in finance and worked as a research consultant in Madison before returning to Sparta to lead the family business.
When he was a kid, he says, his family would visit Wisconsin Dells. But his favorite memories there are of Fort Dells — a now-defunct frontier-themed attraction — and Wisconsin Deer Park, a petting zoo.
Schauf is an avid bowhunter. He has no fiberglass statues outside his home. But the trophy head of a nine-point buck is mounted on a wall behind his office desk.
Bordsen is a travel writer based in Charlotte. His website is bordsentravel.com.
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FAST (Fiberglass Animals, Shapes & Trademarks)
14177 County Highway Q,
Informal tours offer a step-by-step look at the statue-making process, before or after which visitors can walk the grounds at leisure, seeing molds as well as discarded, in-the-works and ready-to-ship pieces. Tours are free, but reservations are required. During business hours, visitors can explore the “mold field” without reservations.