PEQUOT LAKES, Minn.-"Find the Bobber ... You're there!"
Who knew that 30 years ago this summer, what appeared to be an off-the-cuff idea to paint the Pequot Lakes water tower as a landmark would become the city's lasting claim to fame?
Today, "the world's largest fishing bobber," also known as "Paul Bunyan's fishing bobber," sits 125 feet in the air in Bobber Park in this central Minnesota community of 2,000 people, along with Paul Bunyan's lumberjack chair and Babe, the Blue Ox.
Today, two large metal bobber sculptures adorn the new Highway 371 lanes welcoming motorists to the city. A bobber is incorporated in the new County State Aid Highway 11 bridge design. Trinkets, jewelry and clothing with the bobber theme can be found throughout town. And an advertising slogan announces, "Find the Bobber ... You're there!"
It all began in the spring of 1987, when the water tower needed to be painted and then-council member Dale Headlee suggested a change of color from blue.
According to stories published in the Country Echo at that time, then-editor Louis Hoglund took the idea a step further and suggested the water tower be painted to resemble the "world's largest bean kettle" in reference to Bean Hole Days, when giant kettles are filled with secret recipe beans that are buried and baked underground overnight and then served free the next day.
"Think of all the publicity and potential tourist traffic," Hoglund wrote in a March 12, 1987, editorial with the headline "A Bunyanesque beanpot for Pequot."
"The water tower needs painting, and Pequot Lakes is perfectly positioned to make history," Hoglund wrote.
Contacted by phone recently in Pelican Rapids, Hoglund recalled the rally to paint the tower.
"At that time it wasn't that common to have specifically designed towers," he said. "It's more common now. You see it everywhere. It was something we saw as doing something unique for the town - a giant billboard."
Dave Guenther, a first-year K-12 art teacher in Pequot Lakes back in 1987, recalled the water tower talk when contacted last week while boating with friends. The now retired teacher said Hoglund contacted him and said, "Dave, we've got to make it into a beanpot.
"I think they thought I could paint it," Guenther said. "I said, 'I'm not crawling up there.'"
Guenther did do a design of a giant beanpot for the water tower.
"It was a cool idea, but how do you make it work? The bobber was quick, fast, simple and it just made sense. Funding-wise, it was cheap enough to do," Guenther said.
A May 21, 1987, Country Echo story explained: "The high cost of artwork to create a beanpot of that proportion combined with a fear of negative publicity connected to owning the world's largest kettle of beans eventually swayed the community decision toward the simple but clever design of a fishing bobber."
Guenther had a hand in that design too. As Hoglund's idea for a landmark design took hold in the community, the Pequot Lakes Chamber sponsored a contest seeking design concepts for the tower, offering a $100 savings bond to the winner. Guenther had his art students come up with designs as part of a watercolor contest.
Thirty years later, Guenther easily remembered the name of the student with the winning bobber design - Nathan Burns, whom Guenther said was an elementary school student in 1987. He assumed Burns received the savings bond.
However, contacted via Facebook, Burns - a fourth-grader when he drew the bobber design and who now lives on the west shore of Lake Tahoe in California - said the matter of the savings bond "is quite controversial."
"I was actually given 25 bucks in the form of a check. Apparently, someone in the PLHS art department had the 'same idea' and I was told that the other $75 went to the art department? Although, my drawing was the one that was on the cover (of the Echo) and the bobber is exactly how I drew it, I didn't get the full prize! I was in 4th grade at the time and had no way to fight for my rights as an artist!" Burns wrote.
"My uncle (who still lives on Sibley) always says I should be getting a cut of every T-shirt sold in town. Ha! I have no hard feelings though, I'm just glad I can tell people I designed the iconic symbol of my beloved hometown!" he wrote.
Burns still has that May 1987 issue of the Country Echo with his bobber drawing published.
"I always brag that it's the most prominently displayed piece of art I have ever created," Burns wrote. "I get tons of street cred from it and it's the first thing people mention when I tell them where I'm from."
According to the Country Echo, the bobber tower became a joint effort of the Pequot Lakes Chamber, Pequot Lakes American Legion and Pequot Lakes Woman's Club. The city had agreed to pay $5,300 to have the tower painted, and those three entities helped raise and pitch in an additional $3,000 to transform the tower into a bobber.
That transformation included a 200-pound, fabricated steel cylinder at the top of the 125-foot tower to serve as the bobber's plunger, according to the Country Echo.
Maguire Iron, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, water tower painting and manufacturing firm that painted the tower in 1987, said at the time that it was the most ornate tower it had done. While the company had painted logos on towers, it had never completely converted a tower into a landmark, according to the Country Echo.
The bobber water tower first sported black letters, and today the letters are red and white. The tower was last painted in 2007 for $10,775. Newspaper stories said water towers need fresh paint about every 10 years, and Mike Loven, Pequot Lakes public works supervisor, said the bobber tower's paint is fading.
The chamber is responsible for all maintenance and repairs of the tower, including lighting and painting, per a 20-year Bobber Water Tower Maintenance Agreement with the city signed in 2006.
The water tower - built in 1960 as a 106-foot tall tower built with a tank to hold 50,000 gallons of water - is no longer a working water tower. It was replaced in 1999 with the water tower on Pillsbury Avenue. Hoglund recalled talk to dismantle the bobber tower at that time, saying people realized that couldn't be done.
Instead, the bobber remains as a symbol of Pequot Lakes. In November 2011, the community celebrated the lighting of the historic water tower's spotlights.
Hoglund recalled that within a year of the water tower being painted in 1987, the bobber became an icon of Pequot Lakes, and soon people and businesses started using the bobber in logos and the chamber adopted it.
"Paul Bunyan's fishing bobber - it just evolved," Hoglund said. "It really became the symbol for Pequot Lakes."
Guenther added: "It's cool. It's something unique and welcoming. People can usually relate to it. It fits right in."
Sentiments about the tower when it was first built in 1960 relate to today's landmark. The end of a story published Dec. 8, 1960, reads: "Let the tower be a symbol of progress - let it be a reminder to each citizen to continue to help build the town."