From Greyhound buses and snowmobiles to SPAM and Red Wing Pottery, Minnesota boasts a boatful of great inventions and beloved products that have been woven into American life for generations. Get the inside story on everyone from Betty Crocker to the Jolly Green Giant by visiting museums and factory tours devoted to the North Star state’s best-known creations.
|Photo by Kirsten Alana|
While Red Wing made boots for World War II soldiers, Faribault Woolen Mill kept them warm with blankets they’ve been producing since 1865. Production peaked in the 1960s and '70s, when the company made about half of America’s blankets. The mill closed briefly for two years, but looms are again clattering and weaving wool into fine blankets. The on-site store includes some historical exhibits, and you can call 507-412-5534 to check on once-a-week factory tours.
Red Wing Stoneware & Pottery
The iconic red wing symbol can be seen all over this southern Minnesota town, and it’s hand-painted on many of Red Wing Stoneware’s crocks, jugs, mugs, plates and bowls. Visitors can take weekday factory tours of the facility, four miles west of downtown, which also has a gift shop.
Also check out the Pottery Museum of Red Wing for the history of this river town’s rustic salt-glazed and highly collectible crocks (made since 1878). The museum—which claims a super-sized 70-gallon crock—displays dishware, cookware, vases and collectibles that boomed in the mid-20th century when American manufacturing hit its peak.
The gigantic size 638 ½ boot at the Red Wing Shoes downtown shop may be pure novelty, but upstairs in the company’s free museum you can learn how the company’s founders started to make serious footwear specialized for America’s loggers, miners and farmers in 1905. The business expanded to provide footwear for all trades and the military over the years, with 500 designs created for comfort, safety and durability. Kids can dress up like tradesmen and pretend to walk along skyscraper beams. Check out the basement for deals, and ask about the availability of summertime factory tours.
Duluth Pack, Duluth
Since 1882, this company has been building sturdy canvas and leather packs ideal for portaging and paddling the Boundary Water Canoe Area. Besides a spacious Canal Park storefront, the company has expanded its line and become trendy, even teaming up with Faribault Woolen Mills for wool and a double-dose of Minnesota craftsmanship. Visitors can call ahead and request to take a factory tour Monday through Thursday.
Food & Brews
Schell’s Brewery, New Ulm
You can sip a little history at this charming brewery tucked into the woods outside New Ulm, which proudly touts its German heritage. While new breweries are popping up everywhere, Schell’s startup in 1860 makes it the second-oldest family-run brewery in the nation. A tour includes a look at its early years (including surviving Prohibition by producing soda pop) as well as a look at how today’s traditional brews and seasonal craft beers are made. Leave time to stroll the pretty gardens that surround the historic Schell mansion next door, and keep an eye out for the resident peacocks.
Mill City Museum, Minneapolis
American food giants General Mills and Pillsbury both began in the late 1880s when Minneapolis ruled as the world’s breadbasket by shipping wheat from Midwest farms across the globe. This downtown museum along the Mississippi River was built to literally rise from the ruins of an old mill, blending historical character and high-tech exhibits.
Kids enjoy getting wet with a hands-on lock-and-dam river display, making seasonal goodies in baking area, and finding familiar icons from Betty Crocker to giggling Pillsbury dough boy, but it’s the elevator that leaves an impression. Built to hold small groups, it rides up and down, opening to different mill scenes, with narration on the history and dangers of Minneapolis mills including a special-effects explosion. Interpretive signs along the riverfront and additional ruins continue the history lessons.
Spam Museum, Austin
These rectangular cans of spiced pork were introduced as a convenient lunchmeat in 1937, and by World War II, Minnesota’s Hormel meat company shipped more than 100 million pounds of Spam to troops. While the heydays of canned meats have faded, Spam continues to draw fervent fans and a cult following with its famous name and a boost from Monty Python in the 1970s, spoofing the name and inspiring Spam as the term for junk emails. Test your Spam IQ and learn about Spam’s international popularity at Austin’s playful and free, family-friendly museum.
Jolly Green Giant, Blue Earth & Le Sueur
Break out your “Ho, ho ho!” and wave to towering replicas of the Jolly Green Giant along highways in southern Minnesota. A 55-foot tall Green Giant stands near I-90 in Blue Earth, and a cut-out of the big guy graces a billboard on the road into Le Sueur. The Le Sueur Museum will give you the full history of the Green Giant Company, which started in 1903, growing and canning sweet corn and peas throughout the Minnesota River Valley. The Giant Museum in Blue Earth also has displays on the Jolly Green Giant. (Both museums have limited hours, so check before you go.)
Sports & Transportation
Minnesota Fishing Museum, Little Falls
The Land of 10,000 Lakes once had 100 companies building boats, not to mention many more cottage industries inspired by fishing. This museum, which includes an aquarium, fish camp, ice-fishing diorama and replicas of the state’s biggest catches, pays homage to it all, including vintage wooden boats and modern Minnesota-made Larson and Crestliner boats.
Greyhound Bus Museum, Hibbing
Minnesota’s Iron Range has a claim that might take many people by surprise: It’s considered the birthplace of American intercity bus transportation. What began as a way to shuttle people between the mining towns grew into the nationwide bus company. This museum, open mid-May through mid-October, includes 17 vintage buses, along with numerous artifacts and exhibits of how transportation evolved over the years.
Polaris Experience Center, Roseau, & Arctic Cat, Thief River Falls
In northern Minnesota, sports enthusiasts can tour two powerhouse names in the outdoor recreation business: Polaris in Roseau and Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls. Just over an hour’s drive apart, these two companies have been making snowmobiles for more than 50 years, along with ATVs and side-by-side vehicles. At the Polaris Experience Center visitors can see the second snowmobile the company made in 1956 and appreciate the evolution of Polaris’ outdoor vehicles that even include motorcycles. Nearby Polaris plant tours can be taken on weekday afternoons. Arctic Cat also offers factory tours.