Urho after dark, with his impaled insect nemesis, Papadakis.
Urho after dark, with his impaled insect nemesis, Papadakis.

Saint Urho: Grasshopper Vanquisher

Field review by the editors.

Menahga, Minnesota

St. Urho (pronounced "OOR-ho") was a Finnish priest who lived before the last Ice Age. Ancient Finland had a Mediterranean climate and was known for its grape crops, but a plague of grasshoppers, big as dogs, threatened the harvest. Urho, using his splendid and loud voice, shouted "Heinasirkka, heinasirkka, mene taalta hiiteen!" ("Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to hell!") and the bugs were blown into the sea. He also managed to spear a few with his mighty pitchfork.

2016 look-alike winner Robert Keranen and his grasshopper horde.
2016 look-alike winner Robert Keranen and his grasshopper swarm.

In fact, none of that is true. St. Urho was invented in 1956 by Richard L. Mattson, a Minnesota department store manager. One of his Irish co-workers had teased him that the Finns lacked a holiday-worthy holy hero like St. Patrick, so Mattson dreamed up St. Urho, "the patron saint of Finnish vineyard workers." Mattson originally claimed May 24 as St. Urho's Day, but changed it to March 16 so the Finns could get the beer a day before the Irish.

St. Urho in his roadside park.
St. Urho in his roadside park.

Today, St. Urho is officially recognized in all 50 states and even in Finland, but nowhere more obviously than in the Minnesota town of Menahga. On the weekend nearest March 16 the town has an Urho look-alike contest and crowns a King and Queen for the new year. At noon on Saturday is the "Changing of the Guards," when the "Nytes" of St. Urho, wearing traditional green and purple tutus, fright wigs, and other regalia, march to the town's Urho statue, strip to their long johns, throw their clothes into a pile, stir it with a stick, then grab whatever they can and put it back on (Mid-March can be cold in Minnesota). The mayor reads a proclamation, and everyone joins the St. Urho parade on Menahga's main street.

2019 Urho King and Queen, Gene and Myra Anttila.
2019 Urho King and Queen, Gene and Myra Anttila.

We asked Gloria Markkula, president of the Menahga Civic and Commerce Association (and 2018 St. Urho queen), about the statue. She said, to our surprise, that Menahga has three of them.

The first dates to 1975, when Minnesota's governor recognized St. Urho's Day by official proclamation. No one knew what St. Urho looked like, so Menahga's newspaper ran a contest. It was won by 21-year-old Rita Seppala, whose depiction of a sturdy, bearded Lapland Finn in reindeer skins inspired the town. Menahga felt that Rita's portrait could be turned into a heroic statue, placing St. Urho among the pantheon of Minnesota roadside role models such as Paul Bunyan and the Jolly Green Giant. The town laminated a one-ton block of oak, and in 1977 hired a Minneapolis woodcarver, Konstantinos Papadakis, to turn it into St. Urho.

Years passed. Mark Hepokoski -- an Association member like Gloria -- said that Papadakis made a lot of excuses but never made the statue. So in late 1981 Menahga took back its wood block and gave it to Jerry Ward, a chainsaw sculptor who Mark found working in a parking lot. "I want to present as noble-looking a figure as I possibly can," Jerry told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune at the time. "It isn't often that an artist gets first crack at portraying a Saint." And in only six weeks he produced a 12-foot-tall St. Urho, which was unveiled next to Menahga's main highway on March 19, 1982.

Second Urho, inside the Menahga Area Museum.
Second Urho, inside the Menahga Area Museum.

Although Menahga was delighted with the statue, Minnesota weather quickly took a toll on the Saint's laminated body. So a mold was made of the statue by F.A.S.T. (also builders of the World's Largest Fish), and the wood statue was replaced with an exact fiberglass replica. This Urho still stands beside the road atop a rock pedestal. A bronze plaque beneath Urho's reindeer-skin boots praises the Saint's shouting skills, calling them an "impressive demonstration of the Finnish language."

"Can you guess the grasshopper's name?" asked Mark, referring to the huge bug skewered on St. Urho's pitchfork. "It's Papadakis!"

Behind the statue is the Menahga Area Museum, and in its lobby is a second Urho statue, eight feet tall, with a friendlier face and less gigantic grasshopper. Gloria said that this statue sometimes makes appearances in the annual parade, but it's a hassle to get in and out of the museum, so "it probably won't come out much more." If you arrive in the daytime and the museum is closed, Gloria said to call the number on the front door; someone in town can probably let you in. Bonus: the museum also displays several issues of 1950s EC horror and sci-fi comics, such as Weird Fantasy and Tales from the Crypt, because EC illustrator Wally Wood was born in Menahga.

2020 look-alike contest finalists. All worthy, but the Urho on the right won.
2020 look-alike contest finalists. All worthy, but the Urho on the right won.

The original St. Urho statue is still around, too, just down the street in Menahga City Cemetery. It's been locked in the graveyard's temporary mausoleum -- where bodies are stored when the ground is too frozen to dig graves -- for over 30 years. We asked Gloria if the town had ever considered moving the statue into the museum. She said yes, but the town probably won't. "It makes for a better story if it's in the mausoleum."

Also see: Tree Trunk St. Urho | Giant St. Urho Grasshopper

Saint Urho: Grasshopper Vanquisher

Address:
320 Helsinki Blvd, Menahga, MN
Directions:
South side of town, in a little park on the east side of US-71. Turn onto Helsinki Blvd and park in the museum lot.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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