Minnesotans love their lakes. But they just might love roadside attractions even more.
They’re everywhere. A drive up I-35 from the Twin Cities to Duluth will take you past the world’s largest walleye statue, a 25-foot tall voyageur named Big Louis and a spectacular gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
For Karen Smith, a Star Tribune reader from St. Paul, these Minnesota oddities strike a nostalgic feeling. She remembers discovering “quirky” destinations as a child on family road trips.
“Now that I’m an adult, I still enjoy seeking those things out,” Smith said.
With road trip season approaching, Smith began to wonder: How many roadside attractions are there in Minnesota and where are they?
That’s the latest question for Curious Minnesota, a community-driven reporting project that invites readers into the newsroom to ask questions they want answered.
But counting Minnesota’s roadside attractions is complicated because there is no clear definition.
“I don’t know that there’s really a good answer [to] what exactly is a roadside attraction,” said Eric Dregni, the author of books about Minnesota’s roadside attractions and an English professor at St. Paul’s Concordia University.
Seth Hardmeyer, the Minnesotan creator of the website Highway Highlights, said he defines roadside attractions as any unusual landmarks designed to “bring people off of the main highways and back into the towns … that the Interstate system has largely now bypassed.”
A list compiled on RoadsideAmerica.com includes a grand total of 390 Minnesota attractions that range from oversized statues and themed restaurants to historic landmarks and peculiar festivals. OK, so we’re not exactly the Land of 10,000 roadside attractions. But regardless of how you define them, that’s a lot.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most well-known stops:
Paul Bunyan(s) and friends
Yes, that’s right, the legendary lumberjack gets his own category. Traces of Paul Bunyan dot northern Minnesota. There, you can find a statue of Paul’s sweetheart Lucette in Hackensack and the Brainerd water tower, which has been dubbed Paul Bunyan’s flashlight.
Bemidji, Paul’s supposed birthplace, is home to the most famous lumberjack tribute: a boxy Paul and his sidekick Babe. There is a giant talking Paul in Brainerd, and the world’s largest Paul Bunyan statue resides in Akeley.
Made in Minnesota
Some of the most whimsical attractions rep Minnesota-made products. Vegetable packager Green Giant has roots in southern Minnesota. In fact, “The Valley of the Jolly Green Giant” originally referred to the Minnesota River Valley. It is fitting then that a Jolly Green Giant statue towers 55 feet over Blue Earth.
A size 638-D boot sits inside the Red Wing shoe store. The leather boot weighs more than a ton and would be too big for the Statue of Liberty.
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it makes sense that fish are a big deal. Minnesota’s roadside attractions are no exception. The state is home to an array of giant fiberglass fish, including the world’s largest cod in Madison (named Lou T. Fisk) and a walleye in Kabetogama equipped with a riding saddle. The Big Fish Supper Club in Bena is famous for the 65-foot long muskie that encases its dining room.
So much Skol
Nothing says Scandinavian pride like a 28-foot-tall Viking warrior. The warrior — named Big Ole — resides in Alexandria and is believed to be America’s biggest Viking. A Viking ship in Moorhead just might be big enough for Big Ole. The 76-foot-long working boat was built by a native Minnesotan. In 1982, the ship sailed from Duluth to Bergen, Norway in 72 days.
A dam good find
A two story outhouse (Belle Plaine), a patrol car that collided with a UFO (Warren) and the largest ball of twine (Darwin) rolled by a single person are just a few of Minnesota’s oddest oddities.
For a trip off the beaten path, Hardmeyer of Highway Highlights suggests checking out Broken Down Dam Park in Fergus Falls where you can find the remains of a crumbling concrete dam from the 1960s. “I swear, nobody knows about it,” Hardmeyer said.
For Dregni, the best roadside attractions have a story to tell. “If there’s a good story around it, that’s when it gets more interesting,” he said.
These quirky attractions and landmarks dot the state, you just have to know where to look.
Emma Dill is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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