Akeley Bunyan and visitor.

Statue Day.
International Falls to Minneapolis, Minnesota

Field review by the editors.There is an eerie continuum of giant statues down the center of Minnesota -- town-sponsored photo ops created solely to lure tourists. Elsewhere we've been visiting big cows and floating loons, but today is justifiably dubbed "Statue Day."

It's also the only day that rain and erratic weather strikes...

First stop is the Big Thermometer and Smokey the Bear in International Falls. We looked at them last night, before scooting across the border in the foolish belief that Canada would have a nice restaurant. Little did we realize that the only bridge between International Falls and our neighbor to the north shares its roadbed with a set of busy, ungated freight train tracks! The dash across the border is one of timing, luck, and wide-eyed over-the-shoulder glances, more like sneaking into El Paso than driving out of Minnesota. A half-hour of fruitless travel in Canada, with its hypnotic, blinking traffic lights and incomprehensible metric road signs, convinces us to come home -- train or no train -- and a decent meal of American food in a restaurant that tries to convince diners it's actually a firehouse. The Spot Firehouse is filled with antique fire extinguishers, nozzles and firefighting memorabilia, good old USA dining ambiance.

Willie the Worm-man.Willie the Worm Man

Pelland Junction, Minnesota

Ten miles southeast of International Falls stands an obscure chainsaw sculpture known as Willie the Worm-Man. He's perched on a big fishhook next to the "Y" bar in Pelland Junction, with a weird leer on his wriggly face. Heading south on 71, we encounter the even more obscure Big Dan Campbell statue in Big Falls, and three separate black duck tributes in Blackduck.

Paul Bunyan Territories

Bemidji, Minnesota

Possibly the oldest Bunyan shrine in this Bunyan-thick land is in the town of Bemidji (also the hometown of Jane Russell). Broad-shouldered and boxy, like Pierre the Voyageur that we saw back in Two Harbors, this 18-foot tall, 2.5 ton Paul was built in January 1937 by sun-starved Bemidjians. A companion Babe the Blue Ox on wheels was trucked around to Minnesota carnivals for a few years before joining Paul permanently in 1939. The spot where they stand on the shore of Bemidji Lake is supposedly Bunyan's birthplace.

Tiger Muskie. World's Largest Tiger Muskie

Nevis, Minnesota

Continuing on the colossi trail, we find the big Tiger Muskie. Parked under a roof, this cedar and redwood statue was built in 1950 and is dedicated to tourists who spend their vacations in Minnesota. The statue requires regular upkeep, and a sign in the mouth discourages the obvious photo opportunity...

There are more statues sprinkled around Park Rapids, where we turn south again. In Menahga we come across our second St. Urho statue -- much more photogenic than the one in Finland -- standing proudly, grasshopper skewered on his lethal pitchfork. [Read the latest on St. Urho]

Loon.Fowl Weather

Our biggest disappointment of "Statue Day," aside from the spotty weather, is that Big Tom, World's Largest Turkey, is still missing from Frazee. He was completely incinerated in a horrible fire only a month earlier [read the complete, gruesome report], but a town official promised us a replacement would be in place for our visit. It isn't, and all we find is a misshapen, paper mache egg on Tom's scorched pedestal. As a consolation, we visit other big birds nearby: the Big Loon in Vergas, the next town over, and the World's Largest Pelican in downtown Pelican Rapids. [Read the more about the Pelican.]

Viking Photo op.Viking Attractions

Alexandria, Minnesota

Alexandria claims to be "the birthplace of America" -- a strange claim for a town in central Minnesota -- based on the cryptic carvings on its celebrated Runestone (one of several around the US). Giant swords and helmets-with-horns are everywhere here; this town was into heavy metal imagery long before it was hip. The photo ops are Big Ole, a towering Viking standing in the center of Broadway; and a Viking long ship photo op prop with room for the whole family.

The Kensington Runestone Museum takes itself more seriously. Its centerpiece is a 200-pound slab of graywacke stone, "placed in Douglas County by the Vikings in 1362." The runic inscription reportedly describes an expedition made to the area by 8 Goths and 22 Norwegians. The story goes that it was found under the roots of an aspen tree by Olaf Ohman, a Swedish immigrant farmer, in 1898 -- "Minnesota's most famous and controversial artifact."

A giant replica Runestone sits a few miles outside of town on Hwy. 27: 25 feet tall, made of granite, erected by the Alexandria Kiwanis in 1951. It traveled to the 1964 New York World's Fair in a miniature replica Viking dragon boat on the back of a flatbed truck.

Crow on its perch.

Crow Centennial Boondoggle

Belgrade, Minnesota

"AAWWRRR! AWWWWR! Welcome to Crow Country!" A huge black crow sits atop a 31-foot-long branch, itself atop a 25-foot-tall cement pedestal. Eighteen feet tall -- in all, 43 feet high -- this biggest of all birds has an eerie, pagan idol quality, particularly since it's so massive, so well-done, and so out in the middle of nowhere. Inside the crow's base is a tiny self-guided museum. Only a few displays of bleached, dusty detritus from the 1988 Centennial celebration survive: Belgrade T-shirts, commemorative Frisbees, and beverage insulators. Push a button and a prerecorded narration tells you more than you'd ever want to know about the crow and the county. The voice excuses all of this weirdness because crows, like the humans who admire them, are "resourceful" and "mate for life and remain close to their families."

Obligatory Twine Ball Visit

Darwin, Minnesota

Twine close-up. The World's Largest Twine Ball Rolled By One Man is enclosed in a Plexiglas and wood gazebo in this tiny town, the Plexiglas providing the usual challenges to flash photography. A blue mailbox out front reads: "The World's Largest Twine Ball," leaving out the clarifying coda (since added). It's lost more of its ball shape since last we visited, though maybe not, since our previous views were of the ball obscured in a Plexiglas-fronted metal shed. There's a souvenir stand (closed) and a nearby house that will sell Ball memorabilia if you knock on the door.

A gray-haired local woman approaches us. "Are you here to see our Twine ball? You know, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about it. He's even been here to visit." A staunch Darwinian, she proudly announces, unprompted, that this twine ball was rolled by "ONE man" -- unlike a certain other, larger twine ball in another state that is apparently regularly added-to by various townspeople. "We don't have much of a town left, but the twine ball really draws 'em in."

Mall of America

Bloomington, Minnesota

The Mall's ten-story parking garage appears as a twinkly, magical castle at night, particularly after two days of looking at nothing but trees and water. The Mall itself is essentially four high-rise wing malls built around a central core -- Camp Snoopy -- which features a virtual reality ride (giant worms erupt from an alien planet surface and try to eat your star fighter), a DEADLY log flume, the Ripsaw roller coaster, and The Mighty Axe.

The Mighty Ax.The Mighty Axe is impressive, a Bunyan-sized cleaver that swoops in a ten-story tall arc, vertically spinning a busload of 40+ horizontally-tumbling passengers around and around. Fat Tuesday (fine dining) offers an upper-floor view of the proceedings; do the smart thing and eat AFTER you ride. A display of chainsaw-carved "Northwoods Creatures" -- the Mall's concession to Minnesota folklore -- lines the walls, and includes a Hodag (Rhinelander, WI's mascot, "the most fearsome of all") and something called a Splinter Cat. The Mall of America aquarium is featuring sharks when we visit; according to the guy at Alligator Alley (Wisconsin Dells) they were going to euthanize their much-ballyhooed previous attraction, an albino alligator, when it became old news, but he saved it.

We speculate there are probably five or six "Mall of America orphans" each year. Exhausted moms pay for an $18.95 all-day Camp Snoopy pass, leave the little cruncher, then skip town.

The Mall of America may be the only mall (for now) with its own self-referential gift shop and souvenirs. Kids who grow up in Minneapolis must experience a lifetime of disappointment when they move to places with normal malls.

Road Cheese home. On to Day 6: Minneapolis to southeast Iowa

April 16, 2014

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