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Time Passages: Roadside art part of Minnesota landscape

One of the cool Minnesota road trip things to see from the window of a passing car is roadside art.

Roadside art can pop up in the most unexpected places, along busy highways or quiet rural roads, but often it’s seen when entering the city limits where communities show pride in something indigenous to the area, its heritage, history or related to the town name or annual celebration(s).

Images can appear on anything from advertising signs to oversized animals or fish to artists’ murals on buildings or chainsaw carvings in wood and assorted items made by sculptors of metal and painted steel structures put together from odds and ends. In Minnesota, some guys like parking relics of the past, like old cars, tractors and threshing machines, in fields next to the road, but whatever it is, all of it gives you something to look at and wonder about while out driving. Like I always wonder about the person who decorated his roadside fence line by placing worn out cowboy boots and work shoes on each of the fence posts.

While they can be humorous, eccentric or serious, most of the items or signs reveal some sort of creativity and expression of regional or state pride. Although many of them are created for some sort of public statement, others are done just for the fun of it or bragging rights.

Some of the artwork ends up being a recognized symbol for the state that can be seen in department of tourism promotions. As in Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, the 55-foot-tall Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth or the spoon and cherry in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center.

Some of my favorites include New Ulm’s impressive Hermann the German monument or the much smaller statue of Linus, a character from the mind of cartoonist Charles Schulz, who holds a heart and his blanket and stands in front of the Sleepy Eye city library along Highway 14.

Franklin features a catfish attached to their community signs, while in the town of Morton a mural covers the entire side wall of the Morton Pub building. Over in Morgan there’s a giant silver bar stool that’s sitting on top of the entrance to the City and Country Tavern. And at Hector there’s an Air Force trainer plane attached to a pedestal standing next to Highway 4 by the municipal airport. Elsewhere around Minnesota there’s Big Ole which stands in Alexandria, while a giant corn cob is placed in a roadside park along Highway 212 in Olivia. Up by Mahnomen there’s a farmer who bought a small wrecked airplane and then positioned it to look like it crashed into a combine along Highway 59.

Then there’s the great ball of twine in Darwin, which is 40 feet in circumference. It used to sit outside along Highway 12 before it was moved into the town’s museum. Outside of Belgrade you can see a big black crow standing on the ground, and Alexandria’s Country Club has three golf greens in the shape of Minnesota, Texas and Oklahoma. Speaking of Texas, I once took a photo of my wife Tracie standing next to a big, bowlegged roadside cowboy named “Tex” with a six-shooter in his hand. She didn’t think it was so funny.

Then there’s the sea serpent in Crosby, a troll in Spring Grove, Smokey the Bear in  International Falls; a mermaid in Mounds View, mouse and cheese near Lindstrom, the White Bear Lake polar bear on top of a car dealership and a horse and horseshoe in Bayport. A statue of Chief Little Crow is located by the Crow River in Hutchinson, while Willmar also has a large 17-foot-tall golden statue of an Indian nicknamed Chief Kandiyohi standing next to the county courthouse building.

Pierre the Voyageur stands in Two Harbors, and Pequot Lakes has a red and white fishing bobber design on top of its water tower, which would be big enough to haul in that large walleye in Garrison near Mille Lacs Lake.

Other miscellaneous attractions are the bucking bronco near Northfield, a human foot with upturned big toe at Vining, the giant hockey stick in Eveleth, the Kensington Runestone at Alexandria and some various Viking ship replicas can be found as well. In addition, there’s a number of old windmills out there reminding us of days gone by and various sports signs proudly depicting state amateur or high school state championship teams.

Last June a new, full-scale $125,000 replica of the historic red Schmidt beer sign was restored and relit again above the skies of St. Paul at the redeveloped former brewery site.

A few months ago August Schell Brewery, of New Ulm, stepped up to the plate to save the iconic Grain Belt beer sign, which had been dark for nearly 20 years on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis.

Schell’s reached an agreement to buy the 65-year-old sign to restore, preserve and relight the historic 50-foot wide by 40-foot tall bottlecap sign. Built in 1941 for $5,000, Grain Belt’s letters are spelled out through 900 feet of neon tubes. It’s one of the largest freestanding neon signs in the state, and repairing it will reportedly cost over a half million dollars.

But its animals, birds and fish that dominate the landscape all over Minnesota. There are communities that have fish (24), bears (6), beaver (2), cows (3), bison or buffalo (6), bulls (4), deer (2), horses (6), lizards and moose (2), loons, pelicans and turkeys (4), eagles (8), ducks (2), chickens (2), a dinosaur, otter, dogs, frogs, gophers and squirrels plus an octopus. There’s a story behind every one of them I’m sure. As in Madison, known as the lutefisk capital, which has a 25-foot-long cod fish statue named Lou T. Fisk on display.

And then there’s the Worm Man in Pelland, an unincorporated burg located southwest of International Falls near the Canadian border. Who knows what that’s all about, but you can probably guess it has to do something with fishing…imagine that in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and roadside art.

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