Minnesotan small towns think BIG

Colossal roadside attractions put Norwegian-American legends on the map

Norwegian roadside

Photo: David Nordgren / NMN, Inc.
Alexandria boasts a replica of the famed Kensington Runestone and Big Ole, the world’s largest Viking at 28 feet tall.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

The state of Minnesota has attracted a multitude of ethnic groups, and Norwegians are one of the largest. The community continues to flourish, offering much to the Nordic visitor. The Norwegian-American Historical Association is, of course, located on the grounds of St. Olaf College, one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges based on a vibrant Norwegian Lutheran tradition. The state’s largest urban center, the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, blends big-city appeal with small-town charm, but not far from the cosmopolitan hubbub is the sheer beauty of rural scenery featuring some 12,000 lakes. Here lush corn-carpeted farmlands and waving grasses afford a rolling patchwork of natural textures. Punctuating the luxuriant view is the periodic discovery of giant animals and fish, gargantuan mythic creatures and larger-than-life foodstuffs by the roadside. Obviously, Minnesotans like to fiddle with scale. Small towns here erect statues of people and things of extraordinary size.

Exaggeration has long been a characteristic of America’s visual and storytelling heritage, and postcards have long depicted the story and spread the word. But here in Minnesota the concept takes on special meaning. Communal celebration, local identity, and civic pride have a lot to do with it. Small towns like to think big. Their straightforward citizens vote to erect giant colossi, visual hyperbole on steroids. And where boosters reign, competition is never far behind. The Minnesota State Fair is a good example. It is an ultimate American event, that special place where blue ribbons are awarded to the best pies and pickles, the biggest fruits and vegetables, and prizes go to the largest horse and the fattest pig, which pale in comparison with the fair’s longstanding symbol, a giant cow fashioned from butter.

Minnesota also spawned the quintessential American folk hero, mighty logger Paul Bunyan. Born in 1910, he emerged as a national frontier demigod when Akley’s Red River Lumber Company, one of the larger sawmills of its day, hired W.B. Laughead, a Minneapolis adman and Ex-Minnesota-lumberjack in 1914 to promote its products. Laughead wrote a 32-page pamphlet with the title “Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan” in which he included lots of advertising copy among stories of Paul and his ox, Babe, who pulled the water tank with which Paul iced roads from North Dakota to Lake Superior. When the tank burst, the Mississippi River was born.

The popularization of the legend first took visual form with a giant statue in Bemidji, Minn. It first appeared in print, as my research uncovered, in the Feb. 1, 1937, issue of Life Magazine in which a headline read, “Paul Bunyan and Babe, his Blue Ox, go to a Winter Carnival at Bemidji, Minn.” To advertise itself as a winter resort, Bemidji held its first Paul Bunyan Carnival in 1937.

Norwegian roadside

Photo: Charles E. Smith / C. Edwards Studio, Inc.
With a fish like that, who’s to argue Madison’s claim to be the lutefisk capital?

“Paul Bunyan lived near Bemidji in the winter of the Blue Snow when it was so cold that cuss words froze in the air, thawing out the next Fourth of July with a great din. It was there that he found Babe, an animal so big and hungry that it ate 50 bales of hay between meals, and required six men to pick the bale wire from its end. With Babe’s help, Paul cleared North Dakota of timber in one winter.”

Since Minnesota is a multicultural state, numerous statues reflect the ethnic backgrounds of a town’s inhabitants. Landlocked Madison, (pop. 2,000) boasts itself the “Lutefisk Capital” of the U.S. in reference to the Norwegian love of this aromatic cod specialty. Every supermarket in town overflows with the lye-soaked delicacy. Two Madison chamber members, Dick Jackson and Scotty Kuehl, suggested to the city council in 1982 that the town be named the Lutefisk Capital of the U.S. A large fish statue was subsequently ordered from the F.A.S.T. Corporation in Sparta, Wis. The 25-foot-long fiberglass cod, Lou T. Fisk by name, was officially dedicated at a ceremony in 1983. Aside from several trips back to Sparta for some face work, it continues to greet visitors to Madison who attend the “Lutefisk Madness” promotion at the annual Stinker Day before Christmas or during Norsefest in July.

Gordon Schumaker carved Big Ole the Viking in 1965 as an attraction to accompany the Kensington Runestone to the New York World’s Fair. Afterward, this modern-day Thor took residence in Alexandria, (pop. 11,000). Standing some 28 feet tall, it bears a shield emblazoned with “Alexandria, Birthplace of America.” The huge Viking celebrates what Alexandrians believe is an ancient Nordic heritage from the 1300s based on the 1898 discovery of the Kensington Runestone. Swedish immigrant farmer Olof Ohman allegedly unearthed the rock slab tangled in tree roots and after a cleaning found it held ancient runic carvings and writing scrawled onto the surface. The writing revealed that Viking explorers had been in Minnesota long before Columbus. Most scholars consider it a grand hoax, though citizens of Alexandria continue to believe in it.

A recent publication, The Big Ole Legend is a tongue-in-cheek biography of Big Ole’s life from childhood in Scandinavia to emigration to Minnesota accompanied by mother Mektild Valdis Guld. Author Marge Van Gorp (with co-creators Julie Zuehike and Kerry Olson), herself a descendent of Nordic immigrants, has published for the first time Guld’s long-lost personal letters describing the arduous journey. She based part of the character on her grandmother, Minnie Fischer. The journey itself is based on the emigration of her father, Carl Engstrand, from Sweden to Spruce Hill, Minn., in 1893. The book is sprinkled with “factids,” facts plus tidbits, about Big Ole, his life in early Alexandria, and the statue.

And for those who are content with mere memories, there is the 1983 world-record lefse baked for the Centennial Celebration in tiny Starbuck, (pop. 1,300) on the western shore of Lake Minnewaska, the 13th largest lake in Minnesota. The 780-pound circular dough had a diameter of 9 feet 8 inches and is remembered each year during Lefse Dagen in May. The record for world’s largest lefse has yet to be broken.

In The Colossus of Roads, Minnesota author Karal Ann Marling writes that these fiberglass or cement wonders “mark off a stretch of time and a node of place from the continuum of the summertime highways.” Undoubtedly, attracting tourists is one important function of these Norwegian-American landmarks. Northern Minnesota Novelties in Crosslake, home of millions of postcards, is a primary provider of the larger-than-life variety. They continue to sell well, reflecting the Minnesota sentiment, “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.”

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. She is currently working on Enorme Amerika: Norske utvandreres postkort, humor og rariteter to be published by SpreDet Forlag in Oslo and is completing a manuscript on O.S. Leeland, Norwegian immigrant photographer who worked in South Dakota in the early 1900s. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

This article originally appeared in the June 29, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.