Gopher Roots Routes

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by P.J. Fleck's My North

New University of Minnesota Golden Gopher P.J. Fleck is a Chicago native, but he has already adopted Minnesota as his new home state, using “we” in reference to Minnesotans as convincingly as Garrison Keillor. Although Fleck is a new Minnesotan, he knows that many of the best Gophers of all time were life-long, homegrown Minnesotans. From Bronkoo Nagurski to Bruce Smith, here are some famous Gopher football hometowns worth a visit.

Bruce Smith, Faribault

faribault woolen mill factory store
The Faribault Woolen Mill Factory Store is another homegrown Minnesota treasure.

Faribault native Bruce Smith’s number 54 is one of only five retired by the Gophers, and for good reason: as the bruising running back, Smith both won the 1941 Heisman Trophy and was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. An hour south of the Cities, his hometown of Faribault sits at the confluence of the Straight and Cannon Rivers. Central Avenue is an old-timey main street that’s worth the drive, filled with solid bars and even a monument to the Tilt-A-Whirl, which was invented in Faribault in 1926 by Herbert Sellner. Further off the main drag, the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s, established in 1856, is worth exploring if only for the fact that Marlon Brando briefly went there. And if you’ve only got time to hit one more place, make it a tour of heritage woolener Faribault Woolen Mills, which originally opened in 1865 and is one of the last vertical woolen mills in the country.

Bronko Nagurski, International Falls

Technically Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski was born in Rainy Lake, Ontario, Canada—but by the time he was five, his parents came to their senses and moved to International Falls. The fullback’s number 72 is another of the five retired by the U, and he ultimately ended up in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame by the time his playing career was all said and done. He played for the Chicago Bears after graduating in 1930, but said the only place he could imagine living was International Falls, so he moved back and opened a service station. And while Bronko and his service station are long gone, there’s still plenty of great stuff to do up in his Canadian border town on the Rainy River, just southwest of Rainy Lake and only ten miles to Voyageurs National Park. Hit Smokey The Bear Park where a 26-foot-tall, 82-ton Smokey stands to greet you and where you can find both the Koochiching County Historical and Bronko Nagurski Museums. Then poke around downtown, or get really adventurous and rent a houseboat from Rainy Lake Houseboats and drive it into the depths of Voyageurs for a few days and nights on the water.

Paul Giel, Winona

A two sport athlete who would go on to play professional baseball before ultimately returning to the U to become Director of Athletics from 1971–1989, Winona born and raised Giel wasn’t too shabby at football, even being named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975. His hometown is at the heart of southeastern Minnesota’s Mississippi River bluff country, and the hands down best way to get there is along scenic Highway 61. As you drive into Winona, stop at the limestone chimney called Sugar Loaf bluff, which presides high above the town. After that, head to their historic downtown, park the car, and walk to see some classic feats of rural architecture from the Winona Free Public Library to the Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie-designed Merchants National Bank, then pop over to Bloedow’s Bakery (est. 1928) to reward yourself for being so studious.

Herb Joesting, Little Falls

The Great River road near little falls and Lindbergh boyhood home Named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, the speedy Joesting was called the “Owatonna Thunderbolt” in high school, because his family eventually relocated south to Owatonna, but he was born and spent the first part of his life in Little Falls. Located on a windy strip of the Mississippi barely two hours north of the Twin Cities, Joesting’s childhood home has a picturesque main street that’s worth a walk, but the most notable to-dos are outside of downtown. The Pine Grove Zoo, originally founded as Primeval Pine Grove in the early 20th century, is an old-timey menagerie worth a gander, with an exotic array of animals from bears to tigers to kangaroos. The other Little Falls must-stop is the childhood home of famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Nestled along the Mississippi in a state park named after his father, Charles A. Lindbergh, Lucky Lindy’s boyhood home has been left largely untouched, with one big addition: A life-sized Spirit of St. Louis cockpit, so visitors can experience first hand what Lindy did when he was completing the first Transatlantic airplane flight in history.

My North is a weekly video series created in partnership with Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and Explore Minnesota. If you missed P.J. Fleck's story, view it here.

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