When friends from Italy visit Minnesota, I try to impress them by showing off our great architecture: the State Capitol, the Cathedral of St. Paul, the spacious Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
“You know these are all just imitations of Italian buildings,” they often respond. “You have seen St. Peter’s in Rome, no?”
I reassess our vacation to include uniquely American experiences. We spend a day in the car. We get cash at a drive-through ATM to pay for coffee at a drive-up cafe, which we drink in the carwash. I roll up to the pharmacy window to pick up a prescription before parking at a drive-in restaurant to eat hamburgers. I push for an outdoor movie at the Vali-Hi Drive-In or the drive-in church in Crosslake, but my foreign friends beg for mercy.
Instead, we hit the open road to experience what is not just American, but truly Minnesotan. I bring them to attractions found only in our state. They are the icons of our storytelling and treasures that even Italy lacks.
One visitor, Sergio, took his nickname from the spaghetti western director Sergio Leone, so was disappointed that Minnesota was not the Wild West. Sergio wanted to dress like “real” Americans, so he wore a neon-hued Hawaiian shirt topped with a leather cowboy hat.
“I hear in America you can buy guns at shopping malls. Is this true?” he asked excitedly.
To avoid a road trip with an armed Italian, I stopped at a Western saddle shop on the way Up North instead. We parked next to a wooden fence where shoppers on horseback can tie up their ride, supposedly, in a world of SUVs. Inside, Sergio tried on cowboy shirts with rhinestone buttons and lapels embroidered with little horsie patterns.
The shopkeeper was a real Oklahoma cowboy who was Up North to shoe horses and worked in the shop on Saturdays. He wore beat-up Wrangler jeans, broken-in boots and a well-used straw hat. His calm Western accent floated gently next to Sergio’s barrage of Italian.
Sergio placed his stack of bright clothes topped with a turquoise bolo tie at the cash register.
“Whoa! Those are some fancy duds,” the cowboy said. “Are you going to a party? You must be gettin’ gussied up for a hoedown.”
“No, I am from Italy,” Sergio responded, as if this were an explanation.
On the way north, we often veer off to see the 38-foot-tall Viking statue, Big Ole, in Alexandria. My Italian friends question the “Birthplace of America” inscribed on his shield, so I tell them about the Kensington Runestone inside the museum that many believe proves that Norsemen arrived here in 1362. They’re skeptical that Scandinavians made it to central Minnesota 130 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
To further confuse them, we go to the St. Urho statue in Menahga. I tell them of my student from here who gets a week off school to celebrate this Finnish saint who chased the grasshoppers out of Finland to save the grape crop. They wonder why this sounds suspiciously like St. Patrick — and quickly remind me that San Patrizio was a Roman born in Britain.
We stop in Bemidji for more bold historical claims.
“Ah, this is America!” exclaims Paola from Brescia.
I point out that there is much more of the country. “You know: New York, Chicago, California.”
“Yes, of course, but for me this is all I see, so this is America for me.”
She looks up at the giant statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox: “This is what you worship in America.”
From coast to coast, oversized statues of lumberjacks in plaid flannel and off-color cows preside over very few towns. But when more than a dozen businesses in the area carry the lumberjack’s name, I see her point.
I show my guests the classic 1958 Disney “Paul Bunyan” cartoon and sing along to “Poor Paul, Paul Bunyan!” I tell them about Brainerd’s animatronic lumberjack who mysteriously knows everyone’s name. Years ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty begged the mighty woodsman not to leave the state for South Dakota when the amusement park he occupied closed. Paul looked down at the diminutive politician and proclaimed, “Well, hello there, little Timmy!” Paul stayed, moving down the road to This Old Farm, which promptly became Paul Bunyan Land.
Between the Bemidji and Brainerd Paul Bunyans, a “World’s Largest Paul Bunyan” kneels and visitors pose on his hand in Akeley. But it’s just a nouveau upstart, according to proud Bemidjians, who told me “Akeley is so poor that even Paul Bunyan has his hand out.”
We skip Akeley and instead head south to see Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart in Hackensack: Lucette Diana Kensack.
Meanwhile, Brainerd claims that Paul’s girlfriend, or wife, went by the unimaginative “Pauline.” Could Paul Bunyan have been a bigamist with wives in every lumber camp?
Poet Robert Frost entered the debate but was careful not to choose sides. In his poem “Paul’s Wife,” Frost reveled in the gossip behind the giant’s love life when he wrote that “Paul sawed his wife out of a white-pine log” — much like Pinocchio, my Italian friends note. “There were witnesses that Paul was married,” Frost continued. “And not to anyone to be ashamed of … She wasn’t anybody else’s business, Either to praise her, or so much as name her.”
To avoid any lawsuits, the Hackensack Chamber of Commerce did name her and displays the “official” marriage license to verify that the holy matrimony of man to tree indeed took place here.
As my Italian friends snap photos of Paul’s busty bride, I point out the peculiar trap door in Lucette’s skirt — does she double as a storage shed or is she a sort of Trojan horse waiting for nightfall to attack? To further the mystery, I tell them that she is essentially Minnesota’s Marie Antoinette since a brisk wind across frozen Birch Lake in 1991 decapitated Paul Bunyan’s wife like a guillotine. Her head rolled down main street to prove that winter always wins. Rather than replacing her old noggin, Hackensack performed that nation’s first head transplant.
Loads of history
The tour of giant statues includes a stop in Crookston, where the world’s largest oxcart greets visitors at the county historical museum.
That and another statue — depicting a walking driver and grumpy ox molded by sculptor E.A. Konickon — honors a short-lived, but essential mode of transportation, when settlers began farming the flatlands of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.
Clumsy-looking, squeaking wooden carts with 6-foot wheels pulled by oxen were designed to pass over thick prairie grasses. Their wheels could be removed and put under the cart as extra flotation for fording the Red River. Before the railroad laid down lines, oxcarts carried settlers between St. Paul and North Dakota beginning in 1844; travel peaked in 1858, when around 600 oxcarts made the trek.
The St. Anthony Express derided the huge wagons and their drivers in 1855: “Those ironless, uncouth, two wheel carts, of such rude primitive fashion … the swarthy complexions, straight long black hair, and wild devil-may-care look of nomadic drivers muttering their unintelligible French and Indian jargon. Yet these French Half Breeds are our fellow citizens …”
In our tour of the state, I try to time a bathroom break for a stop at the famous two-story biffy attached to the historic Hooper-Bowler-Hillstrom House in Belle Plaine.
Samuel Bowler constructed this formidable five-holer to ensure that his many kids had easy access and he could even swap out different-sized holes to avoid the nightmare of having a little one fall in the pit. The clever two-level design set the upper story back so those busy below wouldn’t get any unwanted surprises from above.
Of course, Twin Citians don’t want to admit that the extensive skyway system dates back to this 1871 covered, second-story walkway connecting to a double-decker outhouse. The design allowed the family to stay warm in the winter while preventing fumes from seeping into the bedrooms. With a design like this, no wonder Belle Plaine can claim one of the only outhouses on the National Register of Historic Places.
Due south, in Blue Earth, we learn that the tallest giant in Minnesota, at 55½ feet, is neither Akeley’s Paul Bunyan nor Alexandria’s Big Ole (both at around 25 feet tall), but rather the half-vegetable, half-human Jolly Green Giant. The giant corporate logo sports a contagious 48-inch smile, a far cry from its earliest images as a menacing white giant covered by an enormous bearskin when he first appeared in 1925 on a bag of beans.
I suppose Paola was right in a sense. These roadside attractions are our idols because they are grounded in a good story with a touch of mythology, a lot of imagination and plenty of humor. And they help us honor our past. Sure, my foreign guests may be getting a skewed vision of America, but these attractions are uniquely Minnesotan and not imitations of European art and architecture.
We need to push on to visit Darwin’s twine ball and the swollen toe statue in Vining. Then we can wrap up our Paul Bunyan tour by visiting his anchor (Ortonville), bobber (Pequot Lakes), marble (Chisholm) and black duck (Black Duck). The last stop is Kelliher to see Paul Bunyan’s grave, a 40-foot-long rise in the earth with a tombstone inscribed with the simple epitaph: “Here Lies Paul, And That’s All.”
Eric Dregni is the author of “Minnesota Marvels,” “Midwest Marvels,” “Weird Minnesota” and most recently “You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches From Summer Camp.”