Oddball Minnesota: A Guide to Some Really Strange Placesby Jerome Pohlen
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Land of the world’s largest prairie chicken, birthplace of Spam, and home of the world’s oldest rock, this is Minnesota, where summers are short, winters are long, and back-road wonders abound. This entertaining guide wastes no time with descriptions of scenic lakes, pristine bike trails, or quaint cafés. Instead it directs travelers (and residents) to the spot where Tiny Tim strummed his last notes on the ukulele; to the Cold Spring chapel where two grasshoppers bow down to the Virgin Mary; and to the McLeod County Museum, where the mummy on display could be from Peru or outer space. While ordinary tourists are fighting off mosquitoes in the Boundary Waters, oddball travelers can size up the world’s largest ear of corn and admire the fourth Zamboni ever built. And one last thing: there aren’t 10,000 lakes in Minnesota; there are 14,215. For travelers who are in search of the unusual, there is no better reason to park the bike and hiking boots in the garage, fill up the gas tank, and hit the road to Minnesota, where weirdness awaits.
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A Guide to Some Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
So where should you start your quest for Minnesota's oddballs? Perhaps at Minnesota's Northwest Angle on the Lake of the Woods. Jutting up above the 49th Parallel, this geographic anomaly is the northernmost point of the continental United States. Unfortunately, it is accessible only through Canada; it might as well be in a foreign country. (Maybe that's why its few residents have threatened to secede from the union.)
Still, the northwestern part of the state has plenty of easily accessed weirdness, most of it enormous and hard to miss. This comes in handy if you're not good with maps. The region also has the state's highest concentration of Paul Bunyanalia — red-flanneled statues, oversized artifacts, jilted sweethearts, abandoned logging tools, and toenail clippings. You can even find Bunyan's grave up here.
But that's not all that's strange and out of proportion. There must be growth hormones in the water; you'll also find mammoth mallards and otters and prairie chickens and crows and grasshoppers and pelicans and coots — you start to wonder whether this stuff is truly big, or whether you've just shrunk!
Paul Bunyan Town
Bangor, Maine, claims to be the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, but it hardly has as valid a claim as Akeley, Minnesota. You see, Paul wasn't so much born as he was conceived — and not as long ago as you might think. The big guy was mostly the invention of William B. Laughead, a PR hack for the Red River Lumber Company, which had its largest sawmill in Akeley. Starting in 1914 — that's right, Paul Bunyan is younger than the airplane — Laughead churned out pulp novels of the hero's exploits for American schoolchildren. Kids adored the oversized, fun-lovin' lumberjack chopping through our nation's forests. Never mind that in reality the woods were being laid to waste by a vast timber conglomerate. Laughead also invented Babe the Blue Ox, Big Ole, Johnny Inkslinger, and Paul's dog Sport.
The best place to learn about Paul Bunyan and the history of the Red River Lumber Company is at Paul's Cabin, a museum you enter through a Phillips 66 station on the east side of Akeley. Owner Nels Kramer will likely be there to show you his extensive collection of Red River memorabilia.
The museum is shaped like a starfish with exhibits radiating out from a central display area. One wing has an elaborate model of Akeley during the heyday of the Red River lumber mill, circa 1905. Another wing contains a miniature logging camp and Minnesota farm, and the next has a collection of tools and transportation, including a working model train. The best wing, however, is dedicated to Paul Bunyan — the guy in red flannel, the one created by Laughead, the one whose mustache looks almost like a cat's whiskers.
Paul's Cabin/Red River Museum, 440 E. Broadway, Akeley, MN 56433
(218) 652-2588 or (218) 652-3333
Hours: May-September, Tuesday-Saturday 10 A.M.–6 P.M., Sunday
Noon–5 P.M.; other times by appointment
Cost: Adults $3, Kids $1
Directions: On Rte. 34 (Broadway), just west of the Rte. 64 turnoff to Bemidji.
Paul's Cabin was not the first museum to open in this town. Another is located behind the town's big Bunyan statue and is staffed by volunteers from the local historical society. The structure is dwarfed by a 28-foot fiberglass statue kneeling on the lawn out front. Crafted by Dean Krotzer in 1984, this Paul, if he were able to stand erect, would be 50 feet tall. The statue is by far Minnesota's most photo-friendly Bunyan monument — mostly because he holds out an upturned palm for you to sit on. Your coworkers will no doubt show you a little more respect when you pass around vacation pics of you and your gigantic, ax-wielding friend.
Just behind the statue is Paul's baby cradle, protected from the elements by a wooden canopy. Another colossal cradle is located on a lot across the street next to the Woodtick Musical Theatre. Still want more Bunyanalia? Drop by Akeley during the last weekend in June each year for Paul Bunyan Days.
Paul Bunyan Statue and Museum, Memorial Park, Broadway & Chicago Ave., Akeley, MN 56433
Contact: Paul Bunyan Historical Society, PO Box 131, Akeley, MN 46433 (218)
Hours: Always visible; Museum May-September, Tuesday-Sunday 10
Directions: On Rte. 34 (Broadway), just west of the Rte. 64 turnoff to St. Cloud.
The Kensington Runestone
Do you think Columbus discovered the New World? Well, you'd better keep that ill-informed opinion to yourself if you plan to visit Alexandria, known in these parts as the Birthplace of America. One hundred and thirty years before that misguided Italian navigator stepped onto the beach at San Salvador and proclaimed he'd reached India, a group of Vikings had already penetrated the continent to present-day Minnesota and their eventual demise.
What proof is there of this early voyage? On November 8, 1898, farmer Olof Ohman dug up a 202-pound stone on his property north of Kensington. The flat graywacke slab was tangled in the roots of a 40-yearold aspen tree he was clearing for a new field. Ohman noticed it was covered with strange, chiseled markings so he brought it back to his farm.
Kensington Runestone Discovery Site, County Road 103, Kensington, MN 56343
Hours: Always visible
Directions: North two miles from Kensington on Rte. 1, right on Rte. 103 (Runestone Lane), then north at the first left (still Rte. 103); one mile ahead.
Ohman planned to use the stone as a doorstop, but he also brought it to the attention of a local newspaper editor who sent a sketch of the markings to the University of Minnesota to be translated. The scratches turned out to be runes, and they translated roughly as:
8 Goths [Swedes] and 22 Norwegians on exploration journey from Vinland over the West. We had camp by 2 skerries [islands] one days journey north from this stone. We were and fished one day. After we came home found 10 men red with blood and dead. Ave Virgo Maria, save from evil. ... Have 10 of our party by sea to look after our ships 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362.
The translator also suggested the rock resembled the type used as ballast in Viking ships. The stone was further studied at several universities around the Midwest.
Shortly after being proclaimed the biggest find since the Rosetta Stone, others denounced the Kensington Runestone as a clever but obvious fraud. Battle lines were drawn with Scandinavians on one side and non-Scandinavians on the other. (Some doubters claim the text was lifted from The Well-Informed Schoolmaster by Carl Rosland.) The debate got personal, by calling into question Ohman's veracity. Angered, the old farmer retrieved his stone, brought it home, and used it as an anvil. One of Ohman's sons eventually committed suicide after suffering years of ridicule, and Ohman's daughter fled town. (About this same time, a neighboring farmer found another runestone but, seeing the grief it brought Ohman, reburied the tablet. It has yet to be rediscovered.)
That might have been the end of the story, but the Smithsonian became interested in settling the question in the late 1940s. They must have thought the runestone genuine, for it was put on display in Washington in 1948.
Piggybacking on the publicity, the Alexandria Kiwanis Club commissioned an oversized granite replica in 1951. You can still see the 25-foot stone in Runestone Park, one mile east of town on Route 27 (east of McKay Avenue). The replica was followed by a 28-foot, 4-ton Viking statue of Ole Oppe, better known as Big Ole. Both went to the 1964 New York World's Fair. Big Ole was built by Gordon Schumaker and today stands in the middle of Broadway in Alexandria — in front of the museum at Third Street — you can't miss him.
In the late 1960s, the Smithsonian issued its revised verdict: the Kensington Runestone was a fake. It was returned to Minnesota for the final time. When it arrived, locals became suspicious after discovering the Smithsonian had scrubbed the stone with a wire brush, thereby destroying any microevidence that could have dated it. Was it just a bonehead move, or was the nation's most revered museum involved in a Columbus-centric cover-up? Something still smells fishy, for although the Smithsonian to this day cites "experts" in its literature denouncing the stone, it has yet to identify who those experts were.
You're just going to have to make up your own mind. The Runestone Museum makes a compelling case, though it does not ignore conflicting claims. In that respect, it's more fair than the Smithsonian.
Kensington Runestone Museum, 206 N. Broadway, Alexandria, MN 56308
Hours: April-September, Monday-Friday 9 A.M.–5 P.M., Saturday 9 A.M.-4 P.M., Sunday 11 A.M. — 4 P.M.; October-March, Monday-Friday 9 A.M.–5 P.M., Saturday 9 A.M.–3 P.M.
Cost: Adults $5, Seniors $4, Kids (7-17) $3
Resources: www.geocities.com/TheTropics/Island/3634/index2.html www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/6726/kensington/kensington.htm
Directions: Exit 103 from I-94, go north on Rte. 29 (Broadway) until you see Big Ole at Second Ave.
World's Largest Coot
It's not hard to find a coot in these parts — just stop by any town café in the morning and there are usually a few at the counter talking about the weather and complaining about the good-for-nothin' local kids.
But there's another kind of coot: a mud hen. There are plenty of them around, too, when hunters aren't thinning them out. To be a good coot hunter, you need to practice at places like the Ashby Trap Range. To be sure you know what you're aiming for, the range has erected a 10-foot-tall coot beside the adjoining lake. It was built in 1991 by Steve Morgan for the Ashby Coot Feed.
Morgan chose concrete as his medium. In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to use fiberglass. The coot's flapping wings weigh so much they have to be propped up by a bulky metal frame, making it look as if the bird is wearing a back brace — not so great for photos. Then again, had it been made from something less durable, it might be riddled with hunters' buckshot. At least concrete deflects gunfire.
Coots Trap Range, Rte. 78, Ashby, MN 56309
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Just northeast of the intersection of Rtes. 10 and 78, at Little Lake.
As you might suspect, Battle Lake is named after a war fought near here. Chief Wenonga led his Ojibwe warriors to victory over the Dakota, but not by much. It was 1795, and Wenonga marched some 50 warriors into battle. Only a few Ojibwe survived, one of them being Wenonga, but all the Dakota were slaughtered. The body of water was named Ish-quan-ade-win-ing by Native Americans, which translates roughly as "Where but few survived." Settlers eventually renamed it Battle Lake.
Today a 23-foot statue of Chief "The Vulture" Wenonga stands on the western shore of Battle Lake. The 1979 fiberglass statue has its right hand raised in greeting, while its left hand grips a stone-headed tomahawk. The town celebrates Wenonga Days each July.
Halverson Park, Rte. 78, Battle Lake, MN 56515
Hours: Always visible
Directions: On Rte. 78, just south of the intersection with Rte. 16 (Lakeshore Dr.).
World's Largest Crow
Belgrade needs a scarecrow — an enormous scarecrow. Why? It appears an 18-foot crow is building a nest of logs atop a rest-stop bathroom, and it plans on staying. Maybe this 3,000-pound black bird felt it could lay claim to this spot, seeing as how it's on the eastern shore of Crow Lake, not far from the Crow River. Locals have appeased the bird since it arrived in 1990 by dressing up the surrounding park, but there should be no illusion as to who's in charge here.
Route 71, Belgrade, MN 56312
Hours: Always visible
Directions: South of town on Rte. 71, just south of Rte. 19.
Concordia Language Villages
Anyone who's ever had to learn a foreign language in a hurry can tell you that total immersion is the best strategy. Want to learn German? Dump yourself in the middle of a Bavarian village. Italian? Move to the Tuscan countryside. But here's the rub: it's tough to find a Tuscan villa in the North Woods, right?
Wrong. You just need to know where to look. The four European-styled mini towns of the Concordia Language Villages serve as the campus for 20 different language programs, including French, German, Norwegian, Spanish, Korean, Danish, Russian, Japanese, Finnish, Chinese, and French Voyageur. More languages are added each year. If you want to see these out-of-place structures you have three options: (1) enroll in a class, (2) visit in the summer during one of the villages' two International Days celebrations, or (3) call them to see if you can tag along on one of the school's occasional tours.
9500 Ruppstrasse NE, Bemidji, MN 56601
(800) 450-2214 or (218) 586-2214
Hours: Call ahead for a tour
Directions: Six miles east of Rte. 21 on Rte. 20, follow the signs.
Fireplace of the States and Paul's Stuff
Moviegoers laughed at Lucille Ball when she collected rocks during her honeymoon journey in The Long, Long Trailer, but Desi was downright hostile. When he discovered the stones while driving up a mountain pass, he chucked them all off a precipice. Still, his attitude toward geographically significant rocks hasn't always been in vogue.
Take the case of the Fireplace of the States, a project started by local resident Harry E. Roese in the 1920s. He began collecting rocks on his travels, then brought them back with a plan to embed them in his resort's fireplace ... a rock from Yellowstone ... a dinosaur bone ... gopher stones to make the letter M. ... Wanting to complete his collection, Rose wrote to all of this nation's governors asking them to contribute a piece for the fireplace. Stones and bricks were ripped from the base of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Capitol, and lesser-known spots from each of the 48 states, plus several Canadian provinces. Under contract from the WPA, masons Charles Budge and Mark Morse constructed the fireplace between 1934 and 1935. Tourists came from all 48 states to see what they'd lost.
Sixty years later in 1995, when Bemidji's new tourist information center was built next to the Paul and Babe statues, the fireplace was moved to this location. In addition to the fireplace, you can see the world's largest collection of Paul Bunyan artifacts. Mounted on the wall and encased in glass cabinets, you'll find Bunyan's oversized broom, ax, Zippo lighter, CB radio, dice, playing cards, candleholder, fishing hook, potato masher, chocolate bar, cigar, toothpick, belt, wallet, class ring, nightcap, razor, toothpaste, fly swatter, toenail clippings (uck!), and underwear. (They're boxers.)
Bemidji Chamber of Commerce, 300 Bemidji Ave., PO Box 66, Bemidji, MN 56601
(800) 458-2223 or (218) 444-3541
Hours: September-May, Monday-Friday 9 A.M.–5 P.M.; June-August, Monday-Saturday 9 A.M.–6 P.M.
www.bemidji.org or www.visitbemidji.com
Directions: At the intersection of 3rd St. and Bemidji Ave. (Rte. 197).
Stuffed and standing in a glass case in front of Morell's Trading Post in Bemidji is one of the mangiest, meanest, nastiest looking wolves you'd ever want to see, dead or alive. He is none other than Lobo, the smartest predator the North Woods ever saw. For 12 years, between 1926 and 1938, Lobo attacked three deer a week from Lake Itasca to Red Lake. That's 1,200 dead Bambis!
Lobo's success was a result of his unique strategy: he never returned to the scene of a kill, never traveled on trails, never took a mate, and never touched poison left for him. He also never attacked cattle or horses, or any other livestock for that matter. Still, some locals had it in for him (probably because the wolf consistently outwitted them). In 1936, Algot Wicken almost caught Lobo with a wire snare, but the wily wolf broke free. Two years later, Wicken finally captured the wolf with a foot trap. Lobo was still alive and growling, five days after having his leg crushed in the trap's teeth. Wicken shot him. It was then that he discovered the previous wire snare still wrapped around the creature's neck, embedded in its flesh.
The wolf's painful end led some to rethink their relentless pursuit of this predator that had done the citizenry no direct harm. After all, wasn't he just doing what wolves do? Those that wanted him dead and those who admired his skill agreed that his body should be put on display. The 140-pound, 3-foot-tall deer killer was mounted with his ears laid back and his teeth in a permanent snarl, just the way he would have wanted it.
Excerpted from Oddball Minnesota by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2003 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jerome Pohlen is the author of Oddball Illinois, Oddball Indiana, Oddball Wisconsin, and Oddball Colorado. He has researched 43 states for his Oddball travel series and is a regular travel commentator for 848 on WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio. He lives in Chicago.
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