The Doc Project

Bean there, done that: Why Albertans build giant roadside attractions

Alberta has a penchant for building big things: the world’s largest pysanka, the largest sausage, and the largest pinto bean. But what’s the obsession with these massive structures, and are they telling diverse stories?

Alberta has more than 100 gigantic tourist attractions, but whose heritage do they represent?

Bow Island, Alta., mayor Gordon Reynolds poses with Pinto MacBean, the town's larger-than-life mascot. (Submitted by Gordon Reynolds)

The year is 2537 and it's been 200 years since civilization was nearly wiped out because of an unknown disaster.

A handful of survivors are scattered in pockets around the world, including a small group in a place once called Alberta. While digging a well to find fresh water, this group uncovers the rounded tip of something orange.

They eventually unearth a nine-metre tall statue. It's a blob shape, and, from the few books they have remaining, they identify the blob as a bean. But this bean has an orange hat, orange gloves and a lime green holster around its waist. Its right arm is raised in a wave, and its face is frozen in a wide-eyed, friendly grin.

No one knows what this thing is. It must have been a god to the ancient Albertans, one person says. Another person suggests it must have been an altar where beans were sacrificed to encourage a better harvest.

This future is imagined, but the bean statue is actually real. Its name is Pinto MacBean, and he's the mascot of Bow Island, a small town in southern Alberta.

The 'Bean Capital of Western Canada'

"Around 1991 or 1992 someone designed a statue … and he was set up on the highway right next to the visitor centre," said Gordon Reynolds, the mayor of Bow Island. "They gave him a cowboy hat and he's got a six shooter and a holster and, you know, [he's] a bit cartoonish."

Bow Island is known as the Bean Capital of Western Canada. Reynolds says the area has about 20,000 hectares that grow a variety of beans annually.

But the bean statue isn't just a symbol of industry pride. Large objects like Pinto MacBean are a strategic marketing tool across the country, and there's a concentration of them in Alberta.

"On almost any given day, you can drive by and see people stopped there taking pictures with Pinto MacBean," said Reynolds. "Often from there people drive downtown, go over for a coffee at the bakery or whatever. That really was the original impetus for constructing Pinto MacBean."

Bow Island actually has six "big things," including a giant putter at the entrance of the golf course and a massive sunflower outside of the former Spitz sunflower seed processing plant.

Although an official count has not been done, it appears that Alberta has more than 100 of these large objects, including a four-metre tall badminton racquet in St. Albert, a six-metre tall cluster of mushrooms in Vilna, and a seven-metre tall bee in Falher.

It's not just a small town pursuit, either. The city of Edmonton used to have the world's largest baseball bat, which would swing in the wind. The city of Calgary has an eight-metre tall blue metal mechanical man.

The rise of 'big things' in Alberta

The fascination with these large objects started to crop up over the last few decades in the Prairie provinces.

"It seems like the Prairie provinces have really taken it on in a big way," said Chris Wiebe, the manager of heritage and policy relations at the National Trust for Canada.

He says a lot of these structures were created in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

"It's just a theory of mine, but I think maybe it was in some way anxiety created around that kind of moment in history when those [grain elevators,] that really announce the name and the presence of a town, were being lost in a lot of prairie and Western Canadian communities."

Wiebe says the idea of these giant roadside attractions originated in the United States when car culture was born in the 50s. Towns needed a way to bring dollars to their local economies, so giant, eye-catching objects were built along major highways like Route 66.

Whose perspective is it anyway?

Scanning the "big things" skyline across Alberta, it's apparent that a settler perspective is prevalent, and Indigenous representation is slim.

Mundare, a town settled largely by Ukranian immigrants, built a 13-metre tall Ukranian sausage, while the town of Coronation built an English crown.

"We do have the world's tallest teepee in Medicine Hat, and we have the world's largest beaver at Beaver Lodge. But I don't know if these things were made to necessarily honour or acknowledge or recognize Indigenous history," said Amber Paquette, Edmonton's first historian laureate of Indigenous ancestry.

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Paquette is Métis, and she says many of these "big things" scattered across the province are on traditional Indigenous lands that have plenty of opportunity for recognition in this way.

"It's just kind of interesting that a lot of these towns have actual long-standing [Indigenous], historic roots and stories to tell, but we don't see those anywhere."

A lot of these towns have actual long-standing [Indigenous], historic roots and stories to tell, but we don't see those.- Amber Paquette, Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton

The town of Andrew, Alta., is home to the world's largest mallard duck, to honour the area's wetlands and mallard nesting grounds. On a recent trip to the area, Paquette was puzzled by the choice to build a giant duck.

The village of Andrew, Alta. is home to the world's largest mallard duck. It measures seven meters tall. The statue was made to recognize the area's wetlands and mallard nesting grounds. (Travel Alberta)

"[The town] is named after Andrew Whitford, and he was a Métis individual who first founded that town," said Paquette. "The area I was in is very much a traditional land for us as Métis people."

Part of Paquette's goal as Historian Laureate is to reveal Indigenous stories that have been hidden over the years. She says there's an abundance of stories to choose from that represent pre-colonial history in towns across Alberta.

"It would be really beautiful to see a large statue recreating a First Nations story or a myth, because we have so many of them and a lot of them incorporate animals."

About the producer 
(Tanara McLean)

Tanara McLean is a producer and journalist based at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer, Alta. and has spent her entire career in Alberta on Treaty 6 and 7 territory, working in print, radio and television. Tanara has produced several documentaries for The Doc Project, including How the mbira – an instrument with a complicated history in Zimbabwe – found a following in Western Canada.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook, Acey Rowe and Jennifer Warren.