Minnesota inspires dream-like visions of lakes and loons, friendliness and farms. Yet, people forget about one our state’s best kept secrets: oversized fiberglass sculptures. From the colossal 55-foot Green Giant in Blue Earth to the eponymous mascot of Pelican Rapids, the nine foot “Mother of All Pelicans”, gigantic statues dot the rolling Minnesota landscape.
It’s no wonder that Weird Al Yankovic paid homage to Minnesota’s off-the-beaten path attractions in his ode to Darwin’s Twine Ball:
I said, “Kids, if you could go anywhere in this great big world, now where’d you like to go ta?” They said, “Dad, we wanna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.”
When making spring break plans this year, I discovered that a series of these larger-than-life attractions could be found if I left my house in Chaska, and made a loop from Hwy 12 (starting in Delano) to Hwy 212, back to Chaska. I spent hours on RoadsideAmerica.com mapping my route from the world’s largest ball of twine*to fresh cheese curds in front of the Bongards cow.
Meanwhile, my friends from the East Coast were buying sunscreen for Cozumel or a pocket Czech dictionary for the now obligatory backpack trip to Praha.
Needless to say, my friends found my plans “quaint” and “oh-how-Midwestern!” This did not deter me in the slightest; in fact, two of my Minnesotan friends excitedly tagged along.
The morning began early enough, leaving at about 8:00 am from my friend’s house in Chanhassen. First stop: the Delano Chicken, located in a gas station parking lot. While taking pictures with it, passing truckers honked their horns and waved. Then we were off to Darwin, Minnesota, population 276.
A reasonable estimate would say 75% of the signs in Darwin included the words “twine ball”, a testament to the great ball of twine’s centrality to this small town and its economy.
Our lunch break included a walk through downtown Willmar, a photo-op with the 17-foot tall, bronze “Chief Kandiyohi” in front of the library, and some shopping at House of Jacobs, home of the best lefse this side of Bergen.
Oversized fiberglass animals are not oddities, but symbols of the unique character of the town in which they reside. In addition to character, they also represent the particular histories of Minnesota’s small towns.
Olivia is not just the “Corn Capital of the World” because the Minnesota State Legislature proclaimed it so in 2004, but also because it is in the heart of the most productive corn-growing region of Minnesota, Renville County.
The several cities which lay claim to being the home of Paul Bunyan, such as Bemidji, Brainerd and Akeley, all celebrate the historical importance of the logging in Northern Minnesota.
In Willmar, one shop owner gave a history of the historic building kitty-corner from her own, which might be renovated and turned into overnight lodging for the coming railroad boom. A railroad boom was precisely what gave birth to the city in 1871. The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad came through Kandiyohi County in 1869 and a few years later, Leon Willmar, a Belgian immigrant, settled at what was to become the commercial locus of central Minnesota.
Dawson gives it monuments a truly local and personal touch: the mayor, elected officials and town legends are immortalized as wooden gnomes.
The frank conversations with farmers in the local bar or a stop at the general store make up the experience of visiting a town like Vergas, but the world’s largest loon provides the perfect photo-op. It is perhaps as a visual souvenir of the persistent small-town charm in Minnesota that these roadside attractions serve their purpose.
For a few dollars and a tank of gas, my friends and I had a wonderful trip, exploring our home state. So when fretting over the cost of a week-long family vacation this summer, consider instead travelling to your local “World’s Largest” attraction for a low-cost, high-pleasure day trip. Not only is it a blast, but you’re reinvesting in Minnesota’s economy.
*World’s Largest Ball of Twine created by a single man, for all you nay-sayers in Kansas.