The Legend of Big Ole

2019-12-04T12:32:34+00:00November 14th, 2019|

How one monument came to be at the center of Minnesota’s imagined white past.

By Rachel Boyle

Two hours west of Minnesota’s Twin Cities on Interstate 94, a twenty-eight-foot statue of a Norseman stands in the heart of the midsize resort town of Alexandria. Known as “Big Ole,” the towering Viking brandishes a shield that boldly proclaims the town “The Birthplace of America.” People pose in front of the mammoth man for photographs. When I attended high school in Alexandria, we even took our prom pictures in front of him (ironically, of course). The predominantly white population of Alexandria generally accepts Big Ole as a harmless feature of the town, one of many such kitschy fiberglass statues across the state and region. But Big Ole does not stand as an immutable, permanent feature of the landscape. Instead, he is a cultural artifact created to promote an imagined white past, financially and literally propped up into the present day.

Big Ole’s origin story begins with the Kensington Runestone, an inscribed rock discovered by Swedish farmer Olof Ohman near Alexandria in 1898. Some argue—and many others dispute—that the Runestone is evidence of a visit by Vikings to what is currently west-central Minnesota in the year 1362, well before Christopher Columbus or other Europeans arrived in the New World. In addition to offering a competing origin story of a European America,  the alleged documentation of early Norse presence in the Midwest served to validate nineteenth-century Scandinavian settlement of Indigenous land—specifically, the homelands of the Dakota.

Boyle - Runestone

The Kensington Runestone, housed at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota. Photo by Rachel Boyle.

What is currently called Alexandria has been part of the Dakota for hundreds of years. Euro-American settlers first arrived in 1858, just seven years after a series of manipulative treaties forced the Dakota out of the area onto reservations along the Minnesota River. When Indigenous resistance erupted in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, white settlers quickly fled the area. In the aftermath of the conflict, the United States interned hundreds of Dakota men, women, and children and executed thirty-eight Dakota men in the largest mass hanging in United States history.

Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota established Fort Alexandria as a military outpost to help revive and protect white settlement. The ensuing influx of European immigrants included waves of Scandinavian people arriving in the 1880s and 1890s—Olof Ohman among them. When he apparently discovered a Runestone in 1898  suggesting Scandinavian presence in the area dating to the fourteenth century, it helped justify immigrant settlement on stolen Dakota land.

The stone almost faded into obscurity in the early twentieth century after scholars in the United States and Scandinavia dismissed the stone as a hoax. In the years following World War II, however, the Runestone enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, in part because second- and third-generation Scandinavians were eager to defend the honesty of Ohman—and, by extension, the legacy of their ancestors. Embracing a Scandinavian origin story took on additional significance in an era when the category of “white” firmly included most European ethnic groups, often in opposition to African Americans and other people of color.

Asserting a Scandinavian history in the 1940s and 1950s meant affirming a white past and an associated sense of legitimacy. In 1948, the curator of archeology at the Smithsonian Institution examined the Runestone and determined that it was “carved by white-men who traveled far into North America long before Columbus’ first voyage.” In 1958, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce commemorated one hundred years of European settlement by constructing a museum to house and display the Kensington Runestone. And when it came time to name the state’s football team in 1960, leaders turned again to this white, masculine Minnesota heritage.

The Runestone garnered enough attention that the North Star Corporation approached the Chamber of Commerce and proposed putting the tablet on display at the Minnesota Pavilion for the 1965 season of the World’s Fair in New York. Businessmen of Alexandria responded by raising more than twenty thousand dollars to subsidize the costs of the sending the Runestone to the Fair and building an accompanying display featuring a Viking ship and a four-ton fiberglass Norseman. The mayor of Alexandria accompanied the Runestone on a press tour across the nation to New York. When the mayor arrived in the city with the Runestone, he met Vice President (and former U.S. Senator from Minnesota) Hubert Humphrey, and the giant Viking statue that came to be known as Big Ole.

Over the course of the spring and summer, 187,471 visitors passed by Big Ole on their way into the Minnesota Pavilion. Inside, spectators could examine the Runestone and listen to guides providing information suggesting the probability of the Vikings’ trip to Minnesota. Not all Minnesotans appreciated the display; the Minneapolis Star criticized the cost of the Pavilion and drew attention to the contested legitimacy of the Runestone. The director of the Minnesota Historical Society cautioned that “mixing history and commercialization can cause problems if claims are made which exceed evidence supporting them.” The North Star Corporation insisted on the great success of the Runestone display, but struggled financially and, eventually, closed the pavilion early due to bankruptcy. So Big Ole’s planned retirement, to Alexandria, started sooner than anticipated.

Before arriving in west-central Minnesota, Big Ole took a pit stop for repairs and an important modification. In New York, his shield displayed a provocative question: “Birthplace of America?” Before returning the statue, fiberglass workers removed the question mark. The shield then declared: “Alexandria: Birthplace of America.” The statement reflected a broader sense of confidence among the business community of Alexandria. In a special issue dedicated to the journey of Big Ole and the Runestone, the local Park Region Echo proclaimed that a “bright future seems assured” for the town thanks to modern infrastructure projects, growing industries, crowds of vacationers, the impending construction of Interstate 94, and, importantly, the “publicity bonanza” brought about by the World’s Fair. When he arrived in Alexandria in 1965, Big Ole helped turn the area’s white cultural heritage into a tourist attraction.

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Big Ole carries a whiff of mythology, like a distant cousin of lumberjack Paul Bunyan. In a 1965 article discussing the World’s Fair display, the Park Region Echo allowed that “there are some Alexandrians, believe it or not, who do not believe in the authenticity of the Runestone,” but insisted that few Alexandrians could “question the publicity value of the controversial artifact.” A 1997 article in the same newspaper, now called the Echo Press, argued that “no matter what Alexandria residents may think of the ‘Big Ole’ Viking statue, there’s no denying that it has become a cultural landmark in the community, part of the area’s identity and history.” Most recently in 2015, the Echo Press editorialized, “sure, Big Ole can come across as corny and kitschy, a small-town oddity, but like it or not, the statue has helped put Alexandria on the map.”

Across six decades, the Echo Press deliberately avoided a declarative stance on the authenticity on the Runestone. Scholars today largely agree that fourteenth-century Vikings were not responsible for the stone’s creation, and some critics even suggest that Ohman carved it himself. Still, the cult of the Runestone remains powerful in the Alexandria area. In peak Minnesota niceness, the Echo Press avoided controversy and instead fatalistically accepted Big Ole because of his tourism value. From my experience growing up in Alexandria as well as in informal interviews on recent trips to my hometown, many local residents similarly shrug off the Runestone as a probable myth, while acknowledging the continued presence of Big Ole as a kitschy fact of life.

The refrain even played out in a series of letters to the Echo Press editor earlier this year. In May 2019, a reader named Robert Voyles expressed frustration with Big Ole, whom he considers “a cartoon-like joke” that distracts from the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone. A rare detractor of Alexandria’s icon, Voyles called Big Ole harmful because he doesn’t better reflect the Viking story told by the Runestone. Another reader, Dale Flemming, responded in the following issue, ignoring the topic of the Runestone altogether and directly defending Big Ole as a “well-liked character for most Alexandrians.” His letter depicts Big Ole as a fun and harmless tourist attraction, akin to the oversized fish statues elsewhere in the state. Flemming represents Alexandrians who may be ambivalent about the Runestone but embrace the undeniably fictional Big Ole as a long-standing feature of the town.

 

Like many southern Confederate monuments, Big Ole was built by a generation that wanted to celebrate an imagined version of their white ancestors. The legend he represents ignores a violent local history of settler colonialism, as well as continued Indigenous presence in the broader region. The Runestone Museum—Big Ole’s neighbor and steward—does make an effort to collaborate with contemporary Indigenous groups through programming, exhibit updates, and consultation on the presentation of Native artifacts. But Big Ole itself, as a towering feature on the cultural landscape, tells a different story. A 1973 feature on tourist attractions in Alexandria in the Minneapolis Star directly lays out the twisted settler timeline:

“First the glaciers descended on Vikingland tens of thousands of years ago. Then Scandinavian explorers came, it is said, in the 14th century. Later Indians settled and still later the white man… Since Scandinavian explorers guided their boats down the Red River of the North, purportedly in 1362, the area has virtually remained unchanged. Except, of course, for the resorts and tourist attractions where contemporary explorers can live a lot higher that their Norse predecessors.”

The inaccurate history represented by Big Ole explicitly places Indigenous people as an interruption in the progression from Scandinavian explorers to white male settlers, erasing the Dakota’s continued presence and claim to the land.

Keeping Big Ole standing requires ongoing cultural buy-in. The statue has been actively maintained, renovated, and altered at a significant financial cost. In the fall of 1996, for example, after a particularly windy autumn, which became an infamously snowy winter, the Runestone Museum undertook a major renovation, raising $27,000 to repair him. The return of the Viking to his pedestal in the spring of 1997 was a celebratory event. The Runestone Museum threw the Ole Oppe Fest (Oppe meaning “Up” in Norwegian), which was supported by the business community, drew more than four thousand people (or the equivalent of nearly half the town’s population), and raised at least $10,000 for the Runestone Museum. The Ole Oppe Fest became an annual event that, according to the Echo Press, celebrates “all that the Runestone has meant to this area: community pride and tourism.”

The most recent major renovation for Big Ole was completed in 2016 and cost $29,000. By then, fundraising language did not expound on the economic and heritage value of Big Ole; the importance of the statue must have seemed self-evident. The Runestone Museum merely encouraged potential donors to “Make A Difference” by helping Big Ole look “fresh and new” and gain “new life.” The donation levels ranged from “Elf” to “Viking Chieftan,” and the entire Alexandria community was invited to submit opinions on a new hair color for the statue. The Runestone Museum received a wide array of feedback, including unsolicited comments about the color of Big Ole’s cape, his lack of a tan despite spending so much time outside, and the unimpressive proportion of his spear.

For more than fifty years, Alexandria has poured significant resources into keeping Big Ole upright, relocating him to various locations downtown, and routinely updating his look. Maintaining the Viking statue remains a political choice to keep alive a relic that whitewashes the past and ignores the violence of settler colonialism in the interest of tourism and an exclusive cultural heritage. If Big Ole can change, so can Alexandrians—perhaps reimagining a cultural identity that does not rely on propping up a giant Viking statue, and the harmful, revisionist legacy he represents. ■

 

 

Rachel Boyle grew up in west-central Minnesota, a settler on Dakota land. She is co-founder of Omnia History, a public history collaborative that uses the past to promote social change. She holds her PhD in U.S. and Public History from Loyola University Chicago.

Cover image by Lori Shaull via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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