While the "world's largest" thing that began my obsession called neighboring Nebraska home, it seemed fitting to kick off this new adventure by featuring my current home state—Iowa.
Whether you find it surprising or not, the Hawkeye State is a land full of immense attractions. From the World's Largest Ball of Popcorn to the World's Largest Manmade Grotto, choosing just one Iowa wonder to focus on was no easy task. But when I looked back on all the super-sized spots I've visited over the years, I realized a huge Hereford from Audubon, Iowa had already stolen my heart.
Built in 1963 & dedicated on October 21, 1964
Height: 30 feet tall and 33 feet long with a 15-foot horn span
Weight: 45 tons
Fun fact: When he's in need of a spruce, it takes 65 gallons of paint to cover Albert's huge hide.
A Hereford with Heart
As you drive north on U.S. Highway 71, the expanses of rolling farmland quickly flash into view and in the blink of an eye you're nose to nose with Albert the Bull. Towering 30 feet over the sprawling Iowa countryside, the concrete bull is a symbol not only of the area’s cattle raising past but also of its hopes for future generations.
While the Audubon County Tourism Office doesn’t keep exact numbers, it’s estimated that more than 20,000 people stop in the sleepy town of Audubon each year to visit Albert the Bull. With a population of just over 2,000, Audubon, Iowa seems the perfect place for a 45 ton, blue-eyed beauty like Albert to call home. The first time I visited him, I think it’s safe to say that I acted like a giddy small child. Essentially I was a pretty big dork.
But talking with people who helped bring the huge Hereford to life and have worked to maintain him ever since, I’ve come to realize that my initial reaction probably had a little more to do with Albert than it had to do with me.
A History of Cattle Feeding
Named after the famous ornithologist—a studier of birds—and artist John James Audubon (yes, the same one as the Audubon Society), the western Iowa town of Audubon, Iowa has a long history of cattle raising. In the 20th century, as the industry grew, the most lucrative (and closely located) market for cattle sales quickly became Chicago. So, beginning in the early 1950s, Iowa farmers would ship their cattle across the state to market via the Northwestern Railroad. And with each cattle voyage, the shippers and businessmen endured drafty, uncomfortable rides across the plains in the train’s caboose during the late fall and early winter months.
That is, until 1951, when Albert Kruse of Audubon’s First State Bank told colleagues he would only accompany them on the journey to Chicago if and when they obtained a Pullman rail car for the cattle train. And thus, Operation T-Bone was born.
That year 50 carloads full of cattle headed by three modern sleeper cars full of businessmen traveled to the Windy City on a journey that caused surprising acclaim. The story made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and was even picked up internationally by the London Times. After the first year, the partnership was transferred to the Rock Island Railroad and continued for many years.
So what does this have to do with Albert the Bull?
As time passed and transportation changed, the Chicago packing houses eventually closed and Operation T-Bone ceased to exist in the same way. In 1963, the Audubon Junior Chamber of Commerce (also known as the Jaycees) came up with the idea of the huge Hereford as a way to pay tribute not only to Operation T-Bone but also to the region’s cattle raising history as a whole.
To find out more about how Albert came into being, I called Duane Schmidt, the owner of Audubon-Exira Ready Mix and one of the original community members who agreed to help make the idea a reality. As I dialed his number, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that a concrete contractor and mason was an incredibly helpful person to have in your corner when trying to construct a 45-ton Hereford.
Schmidt told me that Albert’s design was really the creation of Donald C. Olesen who had the idea to create “basically just a copy of what they used for a model airplane structure, just so much more huge” and, obviously, cow-shaped. The plans for Albert were drawn to life-like scale from a small model bull sent to Audubon by the American Hereford Association based in Kansas City.
“We had some people that thought we was absolutely crazy when we started all this,” Schmidt said. “As it went on though it was amazing how people started picking up on it and the amount of help we received from the community.”
Constructed around a steel frame and made from dismantled Iowa windmills, according to Eric Peterson's The Great American Roadtrip, Albert the Bull was covered in wire mesh then topped with three coats of concrete and an additional layer of cement to add texture.
The Jaycees managed to raise $30,000 for the project through various fundraisers and donations from agricultural partners from across the country, and while Schmidt can’t remember exactly how big the group of Albert’s supporters grew, the Jaycees gained more than 100 new members.
“We had any number [of helpers] from farmers to businessmen in town to construction workers to just about everybody,” he said. "If you needed help and if you yelled enough, you’d have a bunch of people there. That’s just the way it is."
Named in honor of the local banker and Operation T-Bone founder Albert Kruse, Albert the Bull was officially dedicated on October 21, 1964, to coincide with the 14th annual Operation T-Bone. Standing at 30 feet tall with a 15-foot horn span, Albert the Bull is an authentic Hereford right down to his toenails.
A Long(horn) Legacy
Over the years, Audubon’s World’s Largest Bull has had his fair share of publicity—not only does he appear in the movie Beethoven’s 3rd but he also was an answer on “Jeopardy” and even got a mention in “The West Wing.” His fame has even extended to one of the movie adaptations of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series where Albert the Bull appears emblazoned on a custom-designed square of a T-shirt quilt given to the main character by her mother.
This past August, Albert the Bull celebrated his fiftieth birthday during Audubon’s annual T-Bone Festival, a celebration that includes a hamburger feed, fireworks, and more. Intrigued by the local legacy Albert has helped foster, I reached out to the head of Audubon’s T-Bone Committee, dubbed the Wagonmaster, and his wife, Becky, promptly emailed me back.
“I’ve been feeding cattle all my life and I’m still doing it,” Duane Sloth told me over the phone. “The T-Bone Committee is a local cattle feeding organization that was formed in the late ‘70s and now, somehow, I got to be the leader.”
Today the Audubon T-Bone Committee is comprised of 10 local cattle feeders and 10 local businesses. Each winter, each business purchases a calf that is given to one of the local cattle feeders to raise until the steer goes to market in August.
“All money generated gets put back into the community in monetary or in beef donations to fundraisers, little league, you name it,” Sloth said. “If anyone has a need it’s not very often we turn anything down if we have the funds to donate.”
Visit Albert the Bull
If you're planning your own visit to the World's Largest Bull, I recommend choosing a day you can also enjoy a picnic in Alber the Bull Park. Whether he's your final destination or merely a stop on the way to bigger, kookier things, a visit to Albert the Bull is always the perfect choice. Be sure to stop inside the kiosk to the right of Albert to listen to an audio recording about his personal history and even hear the huge Hereford moo.
If you’re visiting on a weekday during regular business hours, drive through town and stop in the Audubon Chamber of Commerce to purchase all of your Albert the Bull themed souvenirs—from key chains and postcards to T-shirts and plush versions of Albert.
Address: Albert the Bull Park in Audubon, Iowa