Arnold (Butch) Dahl remembers soaking each length of white ash 1-by-4 in water and bending them to make the ribs. Then they covered the wooden skeleton with roofing paper and started painting a muskie bigger than anything pulled out of nearby Lake Winnibigoshish.
"And we found a couple old round Coca-Cola signs for the eyes," said Dahl, 69.
He was 15 back in the 1950s, when drive-ins were the rage, earning a couple bucks an hour as a carpenter's helper. Dahl has worked construction all his life around the northern Minnesota town of Bena (pop. 102).
"But that was my first construction job," he said. "It's unique - you'll never see another one built like this."
Like all old fish, though, the old Big Muskie Drive-In on Hwy. 2 is rotting.
The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota on Thursday named Bena's Big Fish one of the state's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places, joining a quaint ballpark in Chaska, an old hotel in Crookston and an empty jail in Duluth on the annual list of jeopardized landmarks.
Bena's quirky roadside attraction, which once served hamburgers and ice cream, now serves as a neglected storage shed for a nearby restaurant.
"I drive by it just about everyday," Butch said. "And it's kind of sad. But it wouldn't take much to put it right back in its original shape."
A teacher's nomination
Carla Roscoe, 40, teaches pre-school in Minneapolis. She remembers driving up to Bena as a teenager to see the Big Fish, which made a cameo in Chevy Chase's movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation." The fish also got national exposure once on CBS, when correspondent Charles Kuralt featured it on his "On the Road" series.
Roscoe was back up in Bena last summer to check up on the Big Fish, in whose toothy jaws she posed for a snapshot decades ago.
"We noticed it looked a bit ill and worse for wear," she said.
So along with her father, noted St. Paul preservation designer Bob Roscoe, she made the case to the alliance.
"Minnesota has such wonderful weirdness up in the woods," she said. "The Big Fish is part of our roadside architecture and part of our mythology of vacations past."
There's enough energy directed toward preserving Summit Avenue mansions and old government buildings, she said.
"Heritage isn't always something in a museum or a book," she said.
Eric Dregni, author of "Minnesota Marvels; Roadside Attractions in the Land of Lakes", considers Bena's Big Fish one the state's seven wonders. (The other six are the Kensington rune stone, the Spam Museum, the talking Paul Bunyan statue, the St. Urho statue in Menagha, the twine ball in Darwin, and the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth.)
The fish is "handmade and uniquely Minnesota," Dregni said. "Of all the fish statues in Minnesota, it's the best."
"They didn't order this one from out of state," Dregni said. "It's just a bunch of wood and tar paper. It's an original and not some knockoff of European or eastern architecture like so many of our so-called classic buildings."
Matthew Wooley, who runs Bena's pagoda-style convenience store and gas station, turned down a recent proposal that he buy the Big Fish, the adjacent supper club and resort cabins for $450,000.
The owners of the property couldn't be reached for comment.
"It needs a lot of work," Wooley said. "There's water damage, and it's about ready to cave in, and it's rotting to the ground."
If it collapses or gets razed, Butch Dahl will shake his head. "I'd be ashamed if we let it go," he said.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767