When it comes to sunfish, Onalaska's giant fiberglass replica — known as Sunny — is definitely a keeper.
The city of Onalaska is known as the Sunfish Capital of the World. Lake Onalaska, created by a Depression-era dam project in the 1930s, is full of them, and Sunny is perched high on wayside rest along Hwy. 35 overlooking the lake.
Sculptor Elmer P. Petersen, whose iconic sculpture of lacrosse players and Riverside Park eagle monument highlight La Crosse's public art offerings, lived in Onalaska in the 1980s and proposed a metallic sunfish at the entrance to the city. His vision never came to be, but in the mid-1990s another Onalaska resident, Vicki Gilbertson, revived the sculpture idea.
Gilbertson came back from the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., home of a fiberglass muskie so big you can stand inside its mouth, with the inspiration to erect a sunfish monument in Onalaska. Gilbertson pitched the idea to then-Mayor Clarence Stellner and helped raise the money for the sculpture, chairing the 1997 mayor's Open golf tournament committee.
Dave Oswald of D.W.O. Fiberglass Co. of Sparta, who made the giant muskie in Hayward, was commissioned to build the 25-foot-long, 15-foot-high Sunny, which was dedicated in time for the community's annual Memorial Day weekend festival, Sunfish Days, in 1998. Sunfish Days has since gone by the wayside, but the base of the sunfish has a plaque listing the names of Sunfish Days parade marshals.
Sunny has stood sentinel over Lake Onalaska ever since, except for a two-month stretch in 2012 during which the statue was removed and given a fresh coat of paint. For people traveling the Great River Road, the giant sunfish is an irresistible photo op, and for the city, it is the go-to image to represent Onalaska.