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Get the Inside Stories Behind These Classic Minnesota Brands

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Andrew Zimmern shows off his Red Wing Boots
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Get the Inside Stories Behind These Classic Minnesota Brands

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

From Greyhound buses to SPAM and Red Wing Pottery, get the inside story on Minnesota's best-known creations at these museums and factory tours across the state.

  1. Faribault Woolen Mill Co.
    Display at Faribault Woolen Mills store

    Wool scarves, throws, pillows and blankets for sale at Faribault Woolen Mills / Kirsten Alana

    Faribault Woolen Mill Co.

    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.

  2. Red Wing Stoneware & Pottery
    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, 4 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.

  3. Red Wing Shoe Co.
    The world's largest boot

    Visit Red Wing Shoes in southern Minnesota to see the world's largest boot, size 638.5 / Lisa Meyers McClintick

    Red Wing Shoe Co.

    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. A new Wall of Honor displays dozens of well-worn boots alongside the stories of the tradespeople who wore them. Check out the basement for deals.

  4. Duluth Pack
    Duluth Pack

    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.

  5. Schell's Brewery
    Schell's Brewery

    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.

  6. General Mills & Pillsbury
    Interior of Mill City Museum

    The Mill City Museum tells the story of how flour shaped the history of Minneapolis

    General Mills & Pillsbury

    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. From its perch above the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, the Mill City Museum blends historical character and high-tech exhibits to tell the stories of these two iconic Minnesota flour companies. 

    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.

  7. SPAM
    SPAM museum exterior

    Meet Minnesota's favorite meat at the SPAM Museum in Austin / Eileen Chao

    SPAM

    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 SPAM Museum.

  8. Green Giant Co.
    The Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth

    The Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth

    Green Giant Co.

    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 Jolly Green Giant Museum in Blue Earth also has displays on the Jolly Green Giant. (Both museums have limited hours, so check before you go.)

  9. Minnesota-Made Boats
    Minnesota-Made Boats

    The Land of 10,000 Lakes once had 100 companies building boats, not to mention many more cottage industries inspired by fishing. Learn about the heyday of the Minnesota-made fishing industry at the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls, which includes an aquarium, fish camp, ice-fishing diorama, replicas of the state’s biggest catches, and vintage wooden boats and modern Minnesota-made Larson and Crestliner boats.

  10. Greyhound Buses
    Greyhound Buses

    Minnesota’s Iron Range has a claim that might take many people by surprise: It’s considered the birthplace of American intercity bus transportation, the Greyhound Bus. What began as a way to shuttle people between the mining towns grew into the nationwide bus company. Learn more about Greyhound history at the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing. Open mid-May through mid-October, the museum includes 17 vintage buses, along with numerous artifacts and exhibits of how transportation evolved over the years.

  11. Polaris & Arctic Cat Snowmobiles
    Snowmobiling in Thief River Falls

    Explore over 1,500 interconnected miles of groomed snowmobiling trails in northwest Minnesota / Visit Thief River Falls

    Polaris & Arctic Cat Snowmobiles

    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.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.