Uncle Sam nutcrackers show that this German craft has gone global.
Uncle Sam nutcrackers show that this German craft has gone global.

Nutcrackers of Luverne

Field review by the editors.

Luverne, Minnesota

Betty Mann has spent most of her life in Luverne, Minnesota. She began collecting things in 1940 when she was ten years old (Her home, she said, is filled with, among other things, "10,000 little shoes"), but it wasn't until 2001 that she started collecting wooden nutcrackers -- the kind that resemble people with big, toothy jaws. Betty went at it with her usual gusto, adding, on average, a new nutcracker every other day for 15 years. By 2016 she had over 2,500 of them.

Betty Mann in her
Betty Mann in her "Jaw Dropping" shirt.

Betty was also president of the Rock County Historical Society that oversaw Luverne's history center. "One day," she recalled, "I heard someone say, 'If you've seen one museum, you've seen 'em all.' Well, I'd never seen nutcrackers in a museum, and since I had so many of them I decided to donate them -- just to get people to come to our museum."

Nutrockers.
Nutrockers.

And they come. Luverne now has a big billboard by its interstate exit with an open-mouthed nutcracker and the slogan, "Jaw Dropping" (It's also a t-shirt in the museum gift shop). Wendel Buys, the history center director, told us that when he asks visitors, "What brings you to Luverne?" most of them answer, "Well, to see the nutcrackers."

Betty's original hoard spawned many subsequent nutcracker donations -- people are always bringing them in -- so the history center decided to set a goal: more nutcrackers in Luverne than people. The 2020 census put the town's population at 4,946, and when we spoke with Betty the museum's nutcracker population was 4,923. By the time that you read this, the nutcrackers should be in the majority. "I brought in a new one just this morning," Betty said, still collecting. "I can't resist."

(One thing that visitors are asked not to bring to the museum are nuts to crack. The ones in Luverne are for viewing only.)

An army that could conquer any nut.
An army that could conquer any nut.

Betty never intended to turn the history center into a nutcracker-only museum, she said, because it has so many other things to see. There's a 1909 Luverne automobile (one of only two in existence, according to Betty), a recreated "claim shanty" cabin from 1867, a stuffed buffalo, an authentic covered wagon, and a Lutheran church that was deconstructed and reassembled indoors. Separate buildings include a restored Victorian mansion, a replica of the oldest schoolhouse in Rock County, two barns filled with agricultural relics, and a museum for military mementoes. There's even another collection -- not Betty's -- of old dolls.

South of the Border 'cracker with maracas and sombrero.
South of the Border 'cracker with maracas and sombrero.

And there are also all of those nutcrackers.

Originally confined to a single room, the nutcrackers have spilled out of their cabinets and into adjacent museum spaces -- an unstoppable slow-motion explosion of toothy people and animals. Betty explained that the first wooden nutcrackers, carved in Germany, were caricatures of soldiers and kings: men of authority who were apparently so strong that they could break nuts with their teeth. Today, anything is fair game. The museum displays nutcracker hippies, leprechauns, chefs, witches, farmers, firefighters, pirates, vampires, rock-and-rollers, Uncle Sams, astronauts, and Santas. There's a nutcracker Yoda, Elvis, Abe Lincoln, Saint Peter, circus strong man, Thanksgiving turkey, and Frankenstein's monster. Among the nutcrackers is the first one collected by Betty -- a Santa that she bought for six dollars at a Cracker Barrel.

1909 auto in the background is one of the rarest in the world.
1909 auto in the background is one of the rarest in the world.

The nutcrackers have been arranged by Wendel ("They won't let me on a ladder," said Betty) into tribes of little lantern-jawed police officers, women, devils, pilgrims, sports teams, etc. This makes for a more striking visual display and is a great help when Wendel and Betty have to compare new acquisitions to the existing stock. "It can be quite a challenge," said Wendel, "but we don't want any duplicates." If any are found, they are sold in the museum gift shop as souvenirs.

Betty told us that she's proud of her "Crazy Nutcracker Lady" sweatshirt, and doesn't mind if people call her nutty. We said that walking into a room with 5,000 things with big teeth is a little weird, although not as weird as a building full of clowns. Betty said that some people were initially worried that children might be fearful, but thus far no one is known to have been cracked by the nutcrackers. "If you want creepy, come and see our doll collection," said Wendel. "That's the thing that people are scared of."

Nutcrackers of Luverne

Rock County History Center

Address:
312 E. Main St., Luverne, MN
Directions:
Rock County History Center. Downtown, on the southwest corner of MN-4/E. Main St. and S. Spring St.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
507-283-2122
Admission:
Donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Tiny ChurchTiny Church, Luverne, MN - 3 mi.
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Outdoor Collection of WindmillsOutdoor Collection of Windmills, Jasper, MN - 18 mi.
In the region:
Bank Robbed by John Dillinger, Sioux Falls, SD - 27 mi.

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