Cement penguin.
Cut Bank's concrete colossus provides a warm greeting to an occasionally frostbitten town.

Penguin Colossus At Coldest Spot

Field review by the editors.

Cut Bank, Montana

If you listen to people who've lived in Cut Bank, they'll tell you about the cold. Cold so intense that it freezes tears on your face and toothpaste in the tube. Cold so extreme that it breaks thermometers.

Cement Penguin in Cut Bank.
The Penguin: built to weather winters that would freeze lesser civic symbols.

Cut Bank has never frozen in silence. The small town's large international airport (a former military base) broadcast its wintertime temperatures for years over wire services and the Armed Forces Radio Network. The town was so frequently linked to the phrase, "coldest spot in the nation," that it became Cut Bank's unofficial motto, even after frigid Alaska became part of the USA.

Arctic air masses and local topography bring waves of bitter cold into Cut Bank. It was on one of those flash-frozen days, February 1, 1989, when the wind chill plummeted to 64 degrees below zero, that Ron Gustafson was inspired to create a year-round tribute to his town's seasonal claim-to-fame.

Ron and his family ran an appliance store at the eastern edge of Cut Bank, right off of US Highway 2. It was a perfect spot for an eye-catching tribute, and that's where Ron built his giant "Coldest Spot in the Nation" Penguin.

Several other towns also claim dominion in the "coldest spot" battle, but their inhabitants apparently never warm up enough to go outside and build a statue. Based on the cold calculation of public outreach, Cut Bank deserves the frosty title.

Penguin repainting in 2013.
The statue was briefly slogan-less during a 2013 repainting.

Ron never talked much, at least on record, about the 27-foot-tall Penguin, but his son and son-in-law later told the hometown Pioneer Press that he wanted it to be over 25 feet tall, and that he vetoed a plan to crown it with cowboy hat as "too far-fetched." Still, there's nothing subtle about the Penguin. It looks more like a plush toy than a real animal, with comically giant feet better suited to the cartoon Lion King than a penguin, and a curiously undersize peaked cap. Made of reinforced concrete, the bird reportedly weighs five tons, heavy enough to stay grounded even during Cut Bank's wintery blasts.

The Penguin was so successful at its job -- stopping traffic faster than a Montana blizzard -- that in 1992 the Gustafsons closed the appliance store and turned it into a motel. But the statue still had to weather occasional icy reviews. Some Cut Bank citizens felt that it demeaned the community. At least one resident wrote that it should be blown up. Outsiders criticized the statue for the "Coldest Spot" slogan -- unaware of its long history with the town -- and for featuring a penguin, an animal that doesn't even live in the Northern Hemisphere. Cut Bank, however, had penguin-head trash cans long before the penguin statue, so Ron was just celebrating an established civic symbol.

Penguin boosters.
Visiting members of the Distinguished Young Women feel the Penguin spirit.

The Gustafsons even installed a loudspeaker in the Penguin so it could squawk a recorded message, "Welcome to Cut Bank, Coldest Spot in the Nation!" But when Ron sold the motel and retired to Texas in 2004, the Penguin lost its voice.

The Penguin is so memorable that it inspired a Hollywood scriptwriter to create Cut Bank, a 2014 noir movie that wanted to be the next Fargo. The only thing that the writer remembered about his brief trip through Cut Bank was the Penguin, so it's the only thing in the movie related to the town. To save money, the director filmed in Innisfree, Alberta, building a replica Penguin that still stands. The film's premiere in Cut Bank left its citizens lukewarm, and they chuckled at the cut-rate Canadian Penguin, ten feet shorter than their own.

Ron Gustafson's giant Penguin is a welcome proxy for something that you might not want to experience in person. Penguin-worthy days in Cut Bank can freeze electronics in cameras and smartphones, not to mention exposed human digits and selfie body parts. But as long as the town has the Penguin, you can have photographic proof that you visited the Coldest Spot in the Nation, and do it on a summer's day when you're wearing shorts.

Penguin Colossus At Coldest Spot

Glacier Gateway Inn

Address:
1130 E. Main St., Cut Bank, MT
Directions:
Glacier Gateway Inn. North side of Railroad St. where it merges with US-2/E. Main St., on the southeast edge of town.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Rock CityRock City, Valier, MT - 13 mi.
Teddy Bear FenceTeddy Bear Fence, Dupuyer, MT - 34 mi.
Yard Art: Oxygen Tank Wind ChimeYard Art: Oxygen Tank Wind Chime, Pendroy, MT - 38 mi.
In the region:
World's Largest Dinosaur Skeleton, Bynum, MT - 45 mi.

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