Mad about mascots
They can be fruit, fish or fowl — but they all have to be BIG.
© Beth Gauper
In western Minnesota, a 22-foot otter lives in Fergus Falls.
Paul Bunyan has been very good to Bemidji, Minn.
When Cyril and Leonard Dickinson and their Rotary Club cronies built their 18-foot lumberjack for Bemidji’s first Winter Carnival in 1937, they had no idea they were creating a national icon.
Their blocky Bunyan landed on the pages of Life magazine and the New York Times, and the 1938 Winter Carnival drew 100,000 people to the town of 7,200. It was a bonanza for Bemidji, mired in the Depression and down to its last sawmill.
Neighboring Blackduck was quick to jump on the bandwagon; civic leaders there built a 16-foot duck and Paul’s
rifle, which blasted away at the bird when they rode in parades.
Bemidji’s Babe the Blue Ox also was a parade staple, snorting clouds of exhaust from the jalopy on which she rode.
The next entry in the Bunyan wars came in 1949, when Brainerd bought a giant talking Bunyan. In 1952, a Hackensack grocer created “Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart,’’ the 17-foot Lucette Diana Kensack.
Akeley’s kneeling Bunyan arrived in 1984; by then, Minnesota had lost its Bunyan franchise and plaid-shirted behemoths had popped up all over the country.
But a new one appeared in 1992, a waving Paul Jr. who stood beside a beaming, newly buxom Lucette in Hackensack. She replaced the old Lucette, whose head was blown off and hands and back damaged by storms; however, she still was only a sweetheart.
That is, until little Paul became legitimate with the “discovery’’ of a marriage license; the Associated Press covered the story, calls poured in from around the nation, and the town sent out 500 parchment copies at $2 apiece.
“I bet, within a year of two, I’ll find his birth certificate — what d’you think?’’ asked Glenn Tuma, the Chamber of Commerce volunteer who uncovered the marriage license, then organized a Lucette & Paul Wedding Anniversary Weekend to celebrate it.
After all these years, people are just as gaga about the big, goofy galoots.
In Crosby, Minn., a giant snake named Kanabec (Ojibwe for snake) coils alongside Serpent Lake.
At the end of Broadway Street in Alexandria, Minn., 28-foot Big Ole rarely is seen in summer without a family posing for the camera around his mukluk-claid shins. In Akeley, they clamber onto the outstretched hand of Minnesota’s largest Bunyan, outside the town’s Paul Bunyan History Museum.
Near Lake Kabetogama, they pose for photos atop a bucking walleye, and in Hayward, Wis., they climb into the mouth of a 143-foot muskie.
Everywhere they appear, these giant mascots draw admiring crowds. They’re colorful, they’re kitschy and they’re really, really big.
They say a lot about their home towns — sometimes literally, as in the case of Chatty Belle, the world’s largest talking cow, who lives in Neillsville, Wis.
There’s a giant strawberry above Strawberry Point, Iowa, and a moose in Moose Lake, Minn.. Elsewhere in Minnesota, there’s a pelican in Pelican Rapids, an otter in the Otter Tail County seat of Fergus Falls and a crow near the Crow River in Belgrade, which is just as close to the Skunk River.
I don’t know of any giant skunks. But there sure are a lot of fish (Garrison, Orr, Preston, Nevis, Baudette and Madison, among the many in Minnesota alone).
There are also a lot of cows (Neillsville and Plymouth, Wis.; Harvard, Ill.; Audubon, Iowa; and New Salem, N.D., which claims a 38-footer) and a lot of loons (Mercer, Wis., and Vergas and Virginia, Minn., which each have 20-foot loons they claim is the world’s biggest; the one in Virginia, however, floats).
Behind other town symbols is a story.
White River, Ont., would be a nondescript town on Lake Superior if it weren’t for Winnie the Pooh. The bear
cub was bought there in 1914 by a soldier en route from his hometown of Winnipeg to England, where the cub ended up in the
London Zoo and inspired the stories of A.A. Milne.
Today, a fiberglass Winnie sits in a tree with his pot of honey, and few families on the Lake Superior Circle Tour fail to
stop to see it.
In Woodruff, Wis., a giant 1953 penny commemorates a Million Penny Parade by local schoolchildren, who raised the money for a hospital championed by a country doctor known as "the Angel on Snowshoes.''
© Beth Gauper
The hodag was born out of a hoax but now is Rhinelander's beloved mascot.
In L’Anse, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a 60-foot sculpture pays tribute to Father Baraga, the heroic Snowshoe Priest who traversed Lake Superior.
In Starbuck, Minn., an 8-foot hobo is a reminder of the hundreds of out-of-work men who rode the rails into town during the Depression, gathered along the shores of Lake Minnewaska and were befriended by townspeople.
And in Jim Falls, Wis., a bald eagle marks the life of Old Abe, traded to a local farmer by a band of Ojibwe in 1861
and sent into the Civil War as a mascot for the Eighth Wisconsin.
Old Abe served in 42 battles, where he is said to have demoralized the enemy with his screams, and after the war he received his own room and caretaker at the State Capitol.
Other mascots demonstrate gratitude. In Sparta, Wis., the world’s largest bicycle pays tribute to the bicyclists who poured into town after the Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened on an abandoned rail line in 1967 and, to the surprise of locals, became hugely popular.
In Silver Bay, Minn., rotund Rocky Taconite celebrates the development of taconite pellets, which allowed mining to
continue in Minnesota after high-grade ore was depleted.
In western Minnesota, Rothsay put up a prairie chicken "booming'' -- part of a mating ritual that can be seen almost nowhere else but at the booming grounds near Rothsay, which draw birders from all over the world in spring.
La Crosse, Wis., has not one, but two monuments to beer: King Gambrinus, a 13th century Flemish warrior said to be
acclaimed for his beer recipes; and the world’s largest six-pack.
In Minnesota, Blue Earth has the 55-foot Jolly Green Giant, whose peas and corn have provided jobs for generations.
There’s a 25-foot corncob in Olivia and a 22-foot turkey in Frazee.
A 26-foot Smokey the Bear stands in International Falls, which adjoins Smokey Bear State Forest as well as Minnesota’s only national park, Voyageurs.
And speaking of voyageurs, the pack horses of the fur trade are all over Minnesota — in Pine City,
Crane Lake, Ranier, Two Harbors, Cloquet, Bigfork.
© Torsten Muller
The 26-foot Smokey the Bear is the mascot of International Falls, next to Voyageurs National Park.
And there are many Indians — in Battle Lake and Thief River Falls, Minn.; St. Germain, Wis.; Wakefield, Mich.; and in Bemidji, whose Shaynowishkung is said to have fed the first Europeans who settled there.
Some towns looked across the ocean for inspiration. Mora, Minn., put up a 22-foot, bright-orange version of the Dala horse, hand-carved since the mid-1800s in the Swedish province of Dalarna, whose principal city also is named Mora.
Menahga, Minn., stretched into the mists of time and imagination for its mascot; townsfolk claim that St. Urho, who it depicts with a grasshopper impaled on a pitchfork, banished a plague of grasshoppers that threatened the wild grapes in ancient Finland.
Alexandria’s claim on history is no less shaky. Vikings may or may not have visited the area in 1362, as the Kensington Runestone claims, but Big Ole’s silver shield still reads, “Alexandria, Birthplace of America.’’
Of course, the Wisconsin town of Rhinelander pulled its mascot out of thin air — the hodag, which started out
as a logging-camp joke but now is the most beloved swamp thing in the north woods.
Other towns make do with what they have. In Crosby, Minn., townsfolk put up a 25-foot, Disneyesque serpent on the
shores of Serpent Lake.
The northern Minnesota hamlet of Effie doesn’t have a lake or much else, so it put up the local wildlife — a mosquito.
No matter what they look like, these mascots all say the same thing: “Come and look!’’
And it works. It’s still working in Bemidji, whose endearingly homemade Paul and Babe continue to draw streams of camera-toting tourists after having weathered a time when they seemed outdated and, said Earle Dickinson, “everybody seemed to forget them.’’
It was Dickinson’s uncle who built Paul, helped by his father, who in his youth drove horse-drawn sprinkler tanks to
create the logging-camp ice roads and later owned a sawmill himself.
“This was Paul Bunyan country,'' he said. "For a folk hero, how could we find a better one?’’
Trip Tips: Finding mascots
The web site RoadsideAmerica, which calls itself "Your Guide to Offbeat Tourist Attractions,'' lists many of the mascots and shows images.
The book "Monumental Minnesota,'' by Moira F. Harris (Pogo Press, $15.95), is very informative and includes many
Last updated on October 13, 2011
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