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Runestone Museum recites the rise of Alexandria's Big Ole for History at Home

The 28 foot tall, 8,000-pound Viking voyaged from Alex to New York and back again.

Big Ole, Viking Statue
Big Ole stands at his former location on Broadway Street between Second and Third Avenue.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo
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ALEXANDRIA — The latest installment of History at Home hosted by the Runestone Museum featured the origins of the 28-foot-tall, 8,000-pound Viking statue known as Big Ole.

Big Ole Model
The original model stands on display near the front desk at the Runestone Museum.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

"Statues represent what people in the past chose to celebrate and memorialize. They do not represent history itself. Indeed, teaching history is almost never the reason why statues are erected. Instead, statues and public spaces since antiquity have most typically been used to represent power and authority," said Runestone Museum Executive Director Amanda Seim. "Big Ole is a symbol of a unique and controversial local artifact and represents a strong Nordic immigrant history that we have as a community."

In the beginning

In 1964, the World's Fair was held in New York City and featured pavilions from states across the country.

In September of the same year, the Runestone Museum and the Chamber of Commerce in Alexandria were approached by the North Star World's Fair Corporation out of Osseo about adding a Kensington Runestone exhibit, which would be accompanied by a Viking statue, to the Minnesota pavilion.

The original concept art featured a Viking with “Alexandria, Birthplace of a Nation” on its shield.

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“But they decided that the theme would actually be 'birthplace of America' with a question mark,” said Seim. "North Star felt that the question mark would stimulate controversy and attract visitors while also calling attention to the possible early Norse exploration of North America and Minnesota."

According to Seim, the statue would cost the Runestone Museum $25,000 to be paid to North Star by Sept. 1, 1965. And when the fair ended in October, the statue's title would transfer to the museum and be brought back to Alexandria.

The statue was commissioned by the same company responsible for the Smokey the Bear statue in International Falls, the Gordon Display Company in Minneapolis.

By the time of its completion, the Viking statue had grey hair, stood 28 feet and weighed four tons. It was made of weather-resistant fiberglass that could allegedly withstand 100 miles per hour wind gusts.

On Apr. 7, 1965, the statue and the Runestone began its maiden voyager to New York on a replica Viking ship that doubled as a trailer. The day was dubbed Runestone Day by the Chamber of Commerce president.

Big Ole
A worker does some touch-up work on Big Ole's face in August 2009.
Echo Press file photo

Along the way, it made stops at the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and finally, New York.

Controversy arose around the statue. Russell Fridley from the Minnesota Historical Society was quoted in the Minneapolis Star saying, "Mixing history and commercialization can cause problems if claims are made, which exceed evidence supporting them."

Seim says Fridley was bothered by the theme "Birthplace of America" because it did not apply to the nation nor its first inhabitants. He also felt the theme positioned white Christian males at the center of the history of America, lending legitimacy to national sovereignty and privilege for this specific group and suggested that its use at the Minnesota pavilion was an abuse of history.

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Seim said the Minnesota governor at the time, Karl Rolvaag, did not support the exhibit either, nor did he want to spend any money on the state pavilion.

"In fact, as a state, Minnesota had one of the lowest state contributions to its pavilion exhibit compared to participating states," said Seim. "And overall, the 1964/1965 World's Fair was not considered successful."

Many states closed their pavillions due to the low number of attendees. However, one of the popular highlights from the fair was the Viking statue at the Minnesota pavilion.

According to Seim, within the first seven days, it was estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 people visited the exhibit itself, and over 500,000 people took their pictures in front of the statue.

Two months into the exhibit, though, the Runestone Museum and the Chamber of Commerce were notified that the North Star Corporation was closing the pavilion early and did not have enough money to send the statue to Alexandria, which prompted an emergency meeting.

Museum leaders said they would only pay $20,000 of the agreed-upon $25,000 because North Star did not follow through on the length of the exhibit.

This resulted in many complications, and in the end, the museum ended up paying the total price. The statue was officially welcomed to the community with a ceremony on Dec. 21, 1965.

Upon its return, the statue was repainted, the question mark removed and positioned at the intersection of Broadway Street and then Highway 52, known today as Highway 82 or Third Avenue.

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Over the years

Seim says in 1966, some of the local merchants came up with the idea to promote downtown Alexandria as a Christmas capital. Because of this idea, it was decided that Big Ole should be dressed in a Santa Claus outfit during the holidays.

Petra Anderson, an experienced seamstress trained at the University of Minnesota Morris, was asked to make the suit and a gift sack.

About 156 yards of red corduroy fabric and three large white blankets made both the suit and his sack. Unfortunately, in 1967, vandals lit the statue on fire that November, destroying the Santa suit and costing $3,000 worth of damages.

Another suit was made and it lasted until 1970 when the suit was considered too worn and the cost to maintain it was too high.

By 1972, it was agreed upon that the statue would be named Big Ole. Before he was unofficially referred to by locals as Sven, or Big Ole, because “the Viking statue” was way too long of a name.

In 1980, Due to a traffic light installment, Big Ole was moved north on Broadway between Third and Second Avenue, in the middle of the road between the Runestone Museum and his current location.

Ole was repainted in 1991 with fresh looks. Honor student Travis Larson painted Ole's hair blonde and added blue around his pupils to look more kind and youthful.

Big Ole repairs
Work was done on Big Ole after storm damage in 2015.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

On Monday, Aug. 28, 1995, the Runestone Museum staff was alerted that Ole's sword went missing sometime between Aug. 26 and 27. Alexandria Extrusion was contacted for a remake, and Alexandria Light and Power helped replace it. The original sword was never found.

In 1996, storms and aging caused Big Ole to wobble. He was moved to the museum’s agriculture building. During this time, the roof collapsed due to heavy snowfall, causing even more damage.

For most of 1996 and 1997, Big Ole was under repair, costing $27,000.

In 1997, Ole was resurrected during an event dubbed Ole Oppe Fest, which means Ole Up. The event became an annual fundraiser.

In 2002, due to cars crashing into Ole, he was moved to his present location, Big Ole Central Park.

Another slew of storms in 2015 resulted in $15,000 worth of repairs. A vote was put to the community for a new hair color and red was the most popular choice.

A community representation

"States have symbols that it identifies with like a flag, a flower, or a fish," Seim said. "In the 1930s, states and Minnesota specifically took a step further to promote tourism. Regional statues began popping up to promote local industries, like the Jolly Green Giant in Bluearth and Chisholm's Iron Man Memorial. They also were used to promote local namesake wildlife, like Pelican Pete in Pelican Rapids and Otto, the otter in Fergus Falls, which is the seat of Otter Tail County. They also represented other cultural aspects like folklore, for example, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji."

Alexandria has Big Ole that represents the Norse heritage of the settlers who call Alexandria home.

Today, he can be watched 24/7 on ALP's website with a live stream webcam.

History at Home is a series of classes given as part of a partnership between the Douglas County Historical Society, the Legacy of the Lakes Museum and the Runestone Museum, with support from Alexandria Community Education.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
What to read next
A new episode is released every Tuesday and Thursday, giving readers a brief look at the stories found in Wednesday's and Friday's papers.
A new episode is released every Tuesday and Thursday, giving readers a brief look at the stories found in Wednesday's and Friday's papers.
A new episode is released every Tuesday and Thursday, giving readers a brief look at the stories found in Wednesday's and Friday's papers.
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