From Big Ole in Alexandria to Willie the Worm Man in Pelland Junction, communities around Minnesota have erected every manner of statue and symbol to tell passersby what makes them special.
As a freelance travel writer Iíve told the world about Paul Bunyan in Brainerd and his girlfriend Lucette in Hackensack, about the two-story outhouse in Belle Plaine and the giant blue gill in tiny Orr.
Sure, the towns that sustain kitschy monuments like these have plenty more going for them. They have theaters and museums and fancy brochures extolling wonderful ways to enjoy the community.
Lots of towns and cities have things to brag about in a brochure, but what I find, unequivocally, is that tourism-centric towns have something more: An identity.
To tourists these monuments speak louder about the community than any brochure ever could. They say, clear as a bell, ďThis is who we are, and weíre willing to build something with absolutely no purpose except to make sure you, our visitor, knows it.Ē
Letís face it, the charm of a 30-foot walleye or the worldís largest ear of corn are soon lost on people who pass by them every day of their lives.
Tourists, on the other hand, will take thousands of pictures of those unusual town mascots, and when they go home they will remember them. They are cute. They are fun. They are different from where the visitors came from. Itís why they are visiting, after all.
Tourism towns remember that such monuments arenít there for locals, they are there to help solidify a communityís image as one that has an identity it is proud of and wants to share.
So when Iím writing travel pieces I dig and dig to find what a communityís symbol is. What is it known for?
Looking in on them as an outsider, itís easy to see which communities have their tourism thinking caps on and which donít.
Before it was left to rot, the Wilkie Steamboat Center was a pretty effective mascot for Winona. If you look at 50 travel articles about this town from years gone by you will undoubtedly find that 48 of them mentioned the Wilkie. It was exactly the kind of thing travel writers were looking for to give a town its heartbeat for potential tourists.
Now Winona has no real mascot save for the little wooden paddleboat replica that sits at the junction of Huff Street and Highway 61. (For the record, bronze statues in parks hardly count as unique monuments, as every town everywhere in the universe has a bronze likeness of someone. )
Now rumor has it a group within City Hall wants to tear that little paddlewheeler on a post down too. They have some other kind of idea, apparently, some other sort of ďvisionĒ for how to make Winona more appealing.
Twenty years ago I visited Winona on a weekend roadtrip. I was years away from becoming a resident here, and, in fact, Iíd never even heard of Winona before.
After I left I remembered three things specifically about this town in the whirlwind of places we saw on that roadtrip: 1. The Wilkie 2. Garvin Heights, and 3. That little paddleboat at the end of Huff Street.
It gave the town an identity, and I remembered it. You canít hate the truth.
By the same coincidental token, two weeks ago I played host to a family from out of town. It was their first visit to Winona, and I again had the opportunity to look at our fine city through someone elseís eyes.
They thought downtown looked kind of run down. They wondered what all the concrete steps and fencing was about at the end of Main Street. They thought Garvin Heights was beautiful. And they took pictures of the little paddlewheel replica on Huff and 61.
We donít have Babe the Blue Ox, a full-sized Viking ship or the Jolly Green Giant, but we do have a little something to tell the world that our identity is that of a historic river town.
Before officials tear anything else down they might do well to think a bit about our identity and look at our community through a new set of eyes: The people they say they wish would visit us here.