Roadside Art

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

The highways can surprise you. Just off two-lane MI-28, for instance, well away from so much as a gas station, I found a sculpture park, quirky and free and controversial.

Upper Michigan's Lakenenland Sculpture Park
Upper Michigan’s Lakenenland Sculpture Park

Lakenenland, named after its creator, is unaffiliated with any city or artist collective. It is not a tourist trap or a commercial venture. Lakenenland is simply one man’s art–made for art’s sake and shared with anyone lucky enough to find it.

“Look there!” My driver pointed right, and I glimpsed giant, metal sculptures: brightly colored animals, cylinders bent to form letters. “It’s a U.P. highlight–our free sculpture park.”

We flew past, and jack pine and white pine again dominated the view.

“Everyone loves the place,” she continued. “Or at least my friends and I do.”

Hailey, an environmental studies major at Northern Michigan University,” had picked me up outside 21,000-person Marquette, the Upper Peninsula’s largest city. She lives in a house of seven students, eats local and vegetarian, talks freely about her former depression, and loves art and any activity she can do outdoors.

“We should go back there.” Hailey pulled onto the shoulder and let the car behind us pass. “If you aren’t coming through again soon, you should see the sculptures now. Is that okay?”

“I’ve made way better time than I had hoped, so any detour’s fine by me.”

“Good. I don’t really go anywhere quickly–I always get distracted or find something interesting to explore.”

We turned around, then pulled into the park. No visitors, security, or monitoring equipment awaited us, and we were free to explore as we wished. More than fifty statues filled the area, spaced out along a short dirt road loop. Visitors usually walk, taking time to read occasional descriptions or climb on the sturdier statues, but for the sake of time, we drove, and Hailey narrated as we went.


“This is one of my favorites.” She pointed at a pig labeled “corporate greed,” literally shitting on the “average American worker.”

She had me take a picture of a Big Dipper sculpture, another favorite, and then another, an oversized and blackened snowmobile. The sculptures ranged from political to playful, serious to oddball. An antlered red dragon, an anatomically correct male dinosaur, a pair of giant lumberjacks. One piece related the demise of a local union; another depicted a god holding a globe and warning, “One more fight over there and I’m drop’in ya.”

Tom Lakenen, a pipefitter, made them all from scrap metal. The park is strange, certainly–and by extension, so is its creator–but I think Hailey said it best: “Weird people are the interesting ones. I take weird as a compliment.”

A sign at the end of the dirt loop explained the park’s history: “Several years ago I started creating these pieces as a hobby. Eventually my yard became full and I had a hard time finding places to display them. I thought about trying to sell some except I’m kinda proud of them and have so many hours into each sculpture that I’d hate to see them go. This is when Lakenenland was born.

“Although I’ve never been to a sculpture park, this is what I’m trying to create. You are welcome to go through and I hope you enjoy it.”

Tom does not charge admission, although he does accept donations. Hailey put a few dollars in the donation box, and I did the same. Beside the donation box–which doubles as a sculpture of its own–I spied a stack of Lakenenland bumper stickers, also free of charge.

“Worth the detour?” Hailey asked.

I nodded. “You don’t see this stuff along the interstates.”

Free Lakenenland stickers
Free Lakenenland stickers

Before we left, Hailey drove closer to the entrance signs. Near the giant “Lakenenland” display, I spotted smaller “No Trespassing” signs. Hailey made me get out and read them.

Lakenenland welcomes anyone, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, the signs explained–except members of the local planning and zoning board. For them, admission comes with a fine of “$5,000 per person per day.”

The welcome (and anti-welcome) signs
The welcome (and anti-welcome) signs

Tom and the board have a history. He started the park in his backyard, in the Chocolay township just south of Marquette. But as the sculptures multiplied, the township ruled that they left the realm of “ornamentation” and entered that of “signage.” A battle ensued, and, bitterly, Tom moved to a new location.

Now, he continues to expand his roadside sculpture park, and when he can, Tom talks with visitors and explains his work. In the winter, he often sits by a campfire and roasts hot dogs for his cold-weather guests.

Lakenenland fits well in the Upper Peninsula, an area known for its quirkiness. The sculpture park is eccentric, but genuine; against the rules, but good-natured; removed from civilization, but worthwhile. And because of all of that, I found it worth far more than just a detour.

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