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Hundreds of junked cars contributed their wheel rims to make the mighty W'eel Turtle.
Hundreds of junked cars contributed their wheel rims to make the mighty W'eel Turtle.

W'eel Turtle: World's Largest

Field review by the editors.

Dunseith, North Dakota

Of all the byproducts of Seattle, Washington's "Century 21" World's Fair -- held in 1962 -- the most unexpected has to be North Dakota's giant mecha-amphibian: the W'eel Turtle.

Spray residue stains the concrete from the latest turtle repainting.
Spray residue stains the concrete from the latest turtle repainting.

Twenty-year-old George Gottbreht was a visitor to the Century 21 Fair. It had many technological wonders, but George was instead impressed by a piece of folk art: a scaled-down version of the Fair's Space Needle made of steel tire rims. "I got to thinking, you know, I oughta try something like that," he told us.

Decades passed. George had become the owner of a truck stop in Dunseith, North Dakota, and along the way he'd accumulated thousands of tire rims from junked automobiles. In 1982, the centennial of the town, George decided to scratch his Space Needle itch: he would take his tire rims and build the world's largest turtle next to his truck stop, honoring Dunseith's best-known natural feature, the nearby Turtle Mountains.

George enlisted the help of one of his employees, a welder named Curt Halvorson. "We just started building. We didn't have a plan," said George. "Curt and I would have coffee in the morning about 6:30, 7. Then we'd go out and put two, three layers on the turtle. Then we'd go do our daily work."

Over several weeks the rim stacks grew higher, always sorted by size to ensure that each layer was horizontal. "We'd be up on the shell," said George, "and all of a sudden we'd hear these big 'Snaps!' It was our welds busting someplace, you couldn't tell where. It was scary."

Path to the turtle at dusk. George Gottbreht's truck stop is in the distance.
Path to the turtle at dusk. George Gottbreht's truck stop is in the distance.

Unwilling to die for their art, George and Curt halted construction while they built a framework inside the turtle to support its great weight.

George credited Curt for the turtle's appearance. "He was very particular about looks," George said. "He was eyeballing everything all the time, trying to figure out how to do the head, the neck, the legs." Fortunately for the two men, they had a local reference. "There was a gal here in town with an alabaster turtle, a fairly good size one, so we went and looked at it," said George. "That's where we saw that we had to build the legs to go forward before they bent around to the back."

The final wheel rim total? "We were at 2,140 or something like that," said George.

The turtle, completed in the summer of 1982, is over 40 feet long and 18 feet high. It originally had an internal motor from a combine harvester, powering a salvaged pump jack that bobbed the massive head and neck up and down every 30 seconds. But whenever the turtle dipped its head it would open a gap into the shell, and George feared that some kid would be tempted to crawl in and either get trapped or crushed. So he and Curt welded the neck permanently in the up position.

Today the turtle is maintained by the Dunseith Community Betterment Club, which uses local casino revenue to give it a fresh coat of paint every few years.

We asked George: why is it named the W'eel Turtle? "The fellah that come up with that spelling was a grammar teacher at school," said George. "We were all together sitting there and I'm talking about a 'Wheel Turtle.' And he says, 'Oh, we gotta spell it like this: "W'eel".' That's just the way it came about."

Also see: Tommy the Turtle | Tommy the Canadian Turtle

W'eel Turtle: World's Largest

412 Main St., Dunseith, ND
On the west side of US-281/Main St. just north of its intersection with ND-5/96th St. NE.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

International Peace GardenInternational Peace Garden, Dunseith, ND - 13 mi.
Four Arrows MonumentFour Arrows Monument, Belcourt, ND - 14 mi.
Tommy the TurtleTommy the Turtle, Bottineau, ND - 17 mi.
In the region:
Tommy the Giant Turtle, Boissevain, MB, Canada - 29 mi.

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