A Roadside Diversion That Makes Roadside Diversions: It’s a meta wonderland at the FAST moldyard

FAST Corp sculpture mold yard in Sparta, Wisconsin / / Photo by Aaron Job

A lifeless mermaid sits on an anchor in a field just north of Sparta, Wisconsin. Behind her looms a menagerie of bears, cows, fish, pirates, and the 12-foot-tall hindquarters of a sitting dog. His giant head is some feet away, casting a blank stare toward a trunkless elephant.

Travelers on a quiet stretch of highway south of Black River Falls have been diverted to this field for decades. Wandering amongst an unmoving army of faceless figures, the eerie quiet is punctuated by the wind whistling along the grass between them and the faraway screeching of grinders and saws.

This is the headquarters of the FAST Corporation, which stands for Fiberglass Animals Shapes & Trademarks. This field is their moldyard—that is, a yard full of molds for casting fiberglass statues, not a yard full of mold (though some of the older molds have indeed sprouted patches of moss and lichen).

People often call it a “graveyard” and while that’s not the reality, they can be forgiven the comparison. It’s a field with row after row of great gray megaliths, some standing proud and looking newly made, some toppled over, cracked and weathered, all adding up to the aesthetic of some disused monument park in a former Soviet republic.

But a “graveyard” it is not. Every one of these molds could be conscripted back into duty in a heartbeat. This yard is more of a warehouse without walls—it isn’t where these forms go to die, it’s where they wait to be used again, and where road trippers to this part of Wisconsin come to see where several other roadside attractions were born.

A variety of large animal molds lay surrounded by trees at the FAST Corp moldyard / / Photo by Aaron Job

When the interstate highway system was constructed over the middle part of the 20th century, it necessitated a new visual language. How would a road tripper know where to find a meal? Or to sleep or fill their tank? Sure, one can paint a large sign with a few letters. EAT. MOTEL. GAS. But those signs weather, and look shoddy, and don’t convey much information.

So, in the ’60s and ’70s, the first iteration of FAST (then called Sculpted Advertising) began to fabricate large animal statues. “They used to call it the Sparta Zoo,” says Darren Schauf, general manager of FAST, “because they made these huge animals—beef cattle, dairy cows, whatever—then they would rent vans, put a cow on the trailer, and take off across the country and come back when they’d sold it.”

It might seem like a desperate sales strategy, but it worked—after all, these statues are designed to catch your eye, provoke interest, and transmit a message. Take for example a U-pick berry patch: it looks just like every other field along the highway. But with an eight-foot fiberglass berry facing the road, glistening red in the afternoon sun, their business becomes immediately unmistakable.

“It’s a very noisy world out there and standing out is difficult when you’re trying to attract customers to your location,” says Schauf. “But big statues, they’ve proved themselves. We liken it to an advertising campaign: […] if you invest and put a 15-foot cow in front of your parking lot, it serves faithfully year in and year out.”

You’ve no doubt seen a FAST statue somewhere out in the world—along a highway, outside a farm, on a miniature golf course, even in a sculpture garden. Maybe you saw the 85 life-sized statues of Bucky Badger scattered across Madison and its UW campus in 2018, or the 144-foot muskie that adorns the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin. Or perhaps you’ve glanced at just about everything in the waterpark capital of America.

“We littered Wisconsin Dells with our product,” Schauf smiles. “You can’t hardly drive 300 feet without seeing one.” He opens the FAST company catalog to a page full of comical, shiny animals that double as pool features. “The frog slide—there are probably a couple outside right now—they’re all over the place. That’s our number-one bestseller of all time.”

The best selling frog slide waiting in the moldyard of FAST Corp Sparta, Wisconsin / / Photo by Aaron Job

As the years went by, the company branched out from roadside markers to more functional pieces like those slides, and even into the world of fine art. One partnership of note is with artist Tony Tasset, whose multi-colored “mood ball” statues are cast in Sparta. FAST also fabricated Tasset’s “Eye,” a 30-foot-tall recreation of the artist’s own eyeball, which debuted in Chicago before being permanently installed in downtown Dallas.

Foam being carved for creation of a new mold at FAST Corp / / Photo by Aaron Job

To make a fiberglass statue, you first need a mold—another gray soldier that will eventually assume the formation in the yard alongside the rows of dinosaurs, hippos, and Gibson Les Paul guitars. Customers often pick an existing statue out of FAST’s catalog, but about one-fifth of business involves custom creations. Starting work on a new statue means creating a “plug,” or a temporary representation of the finished form. “We use primarily an expandable urethane foam—it’s basically like insulation foam—and use electric chainsaws and fillet knives to carve it,” Schauf explains. “We take that foam plug, put fiberglass over the top of it which makes a mold, and we start the process from there.”

More layers of fiberglass are then laid inside the mold before it’s seamed up and allowed to cure. When the statue emerges from the mold, it bears seams and minor imperfections, which are buffed and ground until it’s smooth and seamless and ready for paint.

Following the casting, the statue is sent to its buyer and the mold takes up residence in the yard, where it’s visited year after year by tour buses full of folks. FAST doesn’t charge an entry fee to the field, only asking that people be careful while walking around (the edges of the molds are in some cases terribly jagged) and keep an eye out for hornets’ nests that may have moved into the dry and sheltered cavern of a dolphin, Clydesdale, or lumberjack.

The moldyard of FAST Corp Sparta, Wisconsin / / Photo by Aaron Job

Taking in this zoo of lifeless animal forms, it’s clear that what makes these figures so effective is their unfussy simplicity. Each creation deftly translates a familiar concept into an even more familiar form. They require no words yet their meaning is clear: pick these berries, buy this cheese, come have fun.

There’s also something authoritative about fiberglass figures when used as marketing pieces. They don’t look natural—they’re bright, polished, and exactly proportional. This perfectly shiny veneer, coupled with fiberglass’ ability to weather the elements and still look pristine, suggests timelessness and imparts that same feeling to the business for which it stands.

And then there’s the likeliest point to all of this: these statues are just kitschy fun. Their negligible functionality is precisely their allure—they exist for awe. Schauf estimates that the rise of social media has bolstered their staying power. Even though FAST predates the Instagram age by decades, their creations seem tailor-made for the medium’s algorithmic predilection for “look what weird shit I’ve just come across.” So the next time you’re driving south of Black River Falls, and you’re craving a few extra “likes,” make sure your phone is charged and head for the moldyard.

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.