What Can You Make with Spam, Cement and a 55 Ton Rock?

I managed to visit three places on Friday and while they each differed wildly from one another, the combination of the three somehow improved the experience of each one individually.  My first stop after leaving Mason City behind was the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, hometown of Hormel.

The Spam museum is clever, bright and colorful, and presented with more than a little whimsy.  Interestingly the museum employs nostalgia (as opposed to history) as its chief methodology of persuasion. While what is being presented is definitely appealing enough to warrant a look around, what I was left with upon exiting (into the much-too-extensive gift shop) was a strong sense of having been marketed to for half an hour.  Nevertheless, I give Hormel credit - their museum is fun and creative and contributes to a fine tradition of companies working to entertain customers as a means of nurturing loyalty.

Just before leaving I stopped and asked the gal at the front desk about a local place where I might could eat some Spam (too bad there's not a Monty Python cafe!).  She listened attentively to my preferences and then recommended a perfect family owned diner conveniently located near the museum, Kenny's Oak Grill.  It was just what I was hunting for: a place that serves breakfast all day, but takes that commitment seriously.  I selected a hash brown conglomeration (topped with hollandaise) that ended up being rich beyond my imaging - it was tasty, but I sure couldn't eat very much of it.  The Spam was, well, you know...Spammy and the raspberry fritter french toast was quite tasty.  I laughed with the waitress (whose son is a big fan and current resident of Austin, Texas) about how butter is considered a seasoning in this realm.

After brunch, I headed to Winona, Minnesota, a charming old river city a bit south of Minneapolis. I would be lodging in Winona overnight, but in the meantime, I needed to cross the river into Wisconsin to visit my second destination of the day: Prairie Moon.  It wasn't until I started driving over the bridge that I realized it was the Mississippi river! I had no concept of the Mississippi flowing this far north but in fact, the Mississippi river makes up a good part of the north-south border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Amazing!  I learn so much about geography when I travel.


In 1952, farmer Ed Rusch retired from 40 years of agricultural pursuits and purchased a piece of property along the Mississippi where he would build a roadside attraction he called Prairie Moon.  Ed later wrote that Prairie Moon was his plan to  "...kill old-age boredom" and in that at the very least, he succeeded wildly.  He began by converting the old dance hall that sat on the land into a museum where he could display the large collection of oddities he'd amassed over the years. In 1958, he decided to start making concrete sculptures and planters to adorn the barren grounds to please his visitors.

Ed spent the next 16 years constructing nearly 40 different sculptures while faithfully tending the museum. In 1979 at the age of 94, he decided to retire a second time and auctioned off the land and the contents of the museum to the highest bidders.  The property was used as a dog kennel for the following 13 years, but in 1992 it was purchased by the Kohler Foundation who began a meticulous and thorough restoration.  Nothing remains today of Ed's collection of curiosities, but I'd imagine they'd pale in comparison anyway when measured against the wonderful sculptures that he produced to embellish the property.

One of the most impressive (and iconic) pieces at Prairie Moon is the 260 foot long arched fence that runs along the road.  Rusch was completely self-taught at masonry and construction (and quite good!) and stretched the frames of old iron wheels to make the graceful curving arcs that appear in different pieces throughout the park.

Ed also used (and the Kohler foundation faithfully restored) a very strong color scheme on the outdoor sculptures. You don't often see that kind of consistency in color with these sorts of environments and it's very striking.  It's hard to tell from the photos, but where you see the straw yellow color (as above) - those areas are painted with metallic gold paint.  It looks very  fetching with the deep brick red.

Below is a self-portrait bust Ed made so he could watch over things after he was gone:

Around 1959, Ed added four sculptures that were made in the 1930s by a friend of his, Halvor Landsverk.  I was particularly drawn to the one of a man fighting a bear.  It has a gravitas and universality to it that I seldom encounter when I look at sculpture - I couldn't stop looping back around to see it again and again.

 A few more pictures of the grounds:

I stayed at Prairie Moon snapping photos until the Mississippi river bottom mosquitoes grew inured to the catnip oil I'd doused myself with and all of a sudden it was clear I had to run for my life.

On my way back to Winona, I decided to stop and check out a place I'd spotted on the drive out and very vaguely remembered having read about on the Roadside America website. And boy howdy am I ever glad I heeded the instinct to stop!  It turned out to be my favorite destination of the day - and maybe even of the trip so far!  Let's see if I can explain why.

On April 24, 1995, a 55 ton chunk of rock dislodged from the top of a steep bluff in Fountain City, Wisconsin, and after rolling down the hill like a quarter through a coin chute, landed squarely in the middle of Maxine and Dwight Anderson's master bedroom.  Maxine was home at the time, standing in the kitchen, with what I'm sure was quite an amusing expression on her face.

Fortunately, Maxine was unharmed in the incident, but it was pretty clear to the Anderson's that it was high time to move. A local real estate investor by the name of John Burt made the Andersons a sales offer they were happy to accept, and the house began it's humble career as a roadside attraction.

While it's certainly unusual to have a 55 ton boulder as an unexpected annex to your home, the reason I was so enamored of my visit to the Rock in the House (a name which playfully mocks Wisconsin's bitterly bizarre and surprisingly popular attraction House on the Rock) is the way everything is presented. The owners don't live on site and have wisely chosen to just leave the house open so folks can wander in and discover the place on their own.  From the time you walk up on the porch and see a note instructing you to leave $2 in the mailbox, you get a sense that this is an intimate and unguarded place, not a glossy marketing opportunity reviewed on Yelp and visited by hoards of entertainment hungry crowds.  When you open the door, a clock radio on the kitchen counter plays tunes from a vintage oldies station and the music fills the space with a weird vibe, just by being nonchalant.  You see, everything has been left just as it was on that fateful day in 1995.  Photographs and Maxine's hand written labels are posted all around the house to help explain it all.  I'm finding my description here lacking, but there was something about the informality, naivety and sincerity of the place that made me positively giddy.  Maybe it was the long, hot day I'd had, too.  One way or another, I felt like I had stumbled on something pure and real.  And that doesn't happen all that often when you visit places that are meant to be seen.  How about I just get  to some pictures? 

It took me a while to get my fill of Rock in the House and when I did, I drove back over the Mississippi to Winona and to my evening's lodging, the wonderful Sterling Motel.  The Sterling was much as I had found the Rock in the House - sincere, untouched by time and a little shabby.  I loved the sign, the office, the entire motel.  My room was furnished with two rocking recliners, dual tone avocado shag carpeting and a seriously hideous 70s era faux Mediterranean side table.  It was the perfect place to recover from such a densely packed and delightful day.

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