Wandering With Wendy: Where Laura Ingalls Wilder Meets The Jolly Green Giant For Polka, Polka, Polka

Features reporter Wendy Corr travels from the Polka Capital of the Nation to the inspiration for Little House on the Prairie to the home of the Jolly Green Giant. Ho, Ho, Ho.

Wendy Corr

March 06, 20236 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Editor’s Note: Cowboy State Daily features writer Wendy Corr is traveling across the country as a musician with Cody-based Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue. Wendy will report regularly from the road about people and places within reach of the Cowboy State.

Looking out the window at the wind-carved Minnesota snow, stark leafless trees and a dreary, gray sky, it’s not hard to imagine Ma and Pa Ingalls chopping wood, hitching up the horses and making maple sugar candy at their little house on the prairie.

As the Dan Miller Cowboy Music Revue continues its tour of midwestern states, the trio of Miller, Wendy Corr and Stephanie Streeter found themselves spending 10 days in rural Minnesota. From Roseau in the far north to St. James in the southern part of the state, the group played six venues between Feb. 21 and March 2, most in rural towns with populations of less than 5,000.

But the beauty of these small towns is in their proud history and unique heritage – something many of Wyoming’s rural communities can relate to.

Polka Capital Of The Nation

New Ulm, Minnesota, is located in the southcentral part of the state. 

While the town is just like every other town of its size in the rural Midwest at first glance, this primarily Norwegian and German settlement is rich in history and was recently named one of the top 100 Best Small Towns in America by the Family Destinations Guide.

The center of the town’s social scene for the last 150 years has been “Turner Hall,” so named by the town’s German founding fathers who prized athleticism –º hence “turner,” which means “gymnast” in German.

The Revue played for several hundred stoic Minnesotans in Turner Hall on Feb. 24, the same day that the local fast-pitch softball team was hosting its annual drive-by fish fry. Miller had to dodge volunteers carrying vats of deep-fried fish in front of the stage while setting up for the group’s show that night.

After the show, the group was treated to a tour of Turner Hall and a glimpse into its storied history. In the basement of the 150-year-old building is a quiet bar, decorated with detailed murals depicting scenes from Germany. 

The Rathskeller bar is possibly the oldest continuously used bar in the state, but is not the only business in town that claims a top spot in Minnesota’s history books.

A few blocks from historic Turner Hall is another state treasure – the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. 

Housed in the former public library, the museum displays memorabilia from musicians and musical groups honoring Minnesota music legends like Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, The Andrews Sisters and Prince, as well as celebrating the most popular music genre in rural Minnesota culture – polka.

In fact, New Ulm was once known as the Polka Capital of the Nation. In the mid-20th century, 18 professional polka bands called New Ulm home, and for nearly 20 years the town hosted Polka Days, an annual festival that brought tens of thousands of visitors to the area each July.

On The Banks Of Plum Creek

For those who grew up in the 1970s, Wednesday nights were spent tuned to NBC following the adventures of Laura, Mary, Carrie and Ma and Pa Ingalls and their friends in Walnut Grove on the hit television show “Little House on the Prairie.”

As the band traversed the southern part of Minnesota, Streeter – who was binge-watching the television show in the back seat of the pickup while traveling cross-country – was beyond ecstatic to find out that the real Walnut Grove is in Redwood County, Minnesota. 

It was here that Laura Ingalls and her family homesteaded in 1874, which Ingalls documented as part of her “Little House” series of books in the novel “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”

The town of Walnut Grove is fiercely proud of its connection to popular culture. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is housed in Walnut Grove, although it’s not open this time of year, so the group couldn’t tour the iconic museum. 

But every year the town hosts a Wilder Pageant in July, celebrating the author’s life and her books, which have influenced generations of readers since they were first published in the 1930s.

Mississippi Rising

The headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River also are in Minnesota, and the cities and towns that dot its shorelines keep a watchful eye on the water levels in the springtime.

When Miller, Streeter and Corr arrived in Hastings, Minnesota, they took a (chilly) stroll down the riverwalk along the Mississippi. 

At Levee Park, they discovered a monument of sorts commemorating the record-setting water levels. Two stone pillars mark the high water levels recorded in the town’s history. The highest flood level recorded in Hastings was in April 1965, when the Mississippi River crested at 25.9 feet. 

While wandering the wintery streets, the trio stumbled upon a fabulous restaurant called the Busted Nut. The owners capitalize on the novel name with sweatshirts, hats and beer glasses proudly showing off the bar-and-grill’s unique logo.

Blue Earth And The Jolly Green Giant

Stray off the interstate just a mile or so south of Blue Earth, Minnesota, another pop-culture icon stands tall over the landscape.

The Jolly Green Giant was erected in 1979 to lure travelers to the small town of Blue Earth. The 55.5-foot-tall fiberglass likeness of the Green Giant vegetable company mascot was the brainchild of radio station owner Paul Hedberg, who was concerned that the soon-to-be-completed Interstate 90 would bypass the town of Blue Earth and impact the local economy.

However, the Green Giant company was unwilling to foot the bill for the giant green man, so Blue Earth businesses raised the money necessary to create the likeness (Hedberg himself contributed the largest amount), and the big guy arrived just in time to be part of the dedication ceremonies for the Golden Stripe, the meeting point between I-90’s east and west construction efforts.

The Jolly Green Giant is the inspiration for the annual Giant Days festival, a two-day celebration of the region’s agricultural heritage. But travelers pull off the nearby interstate year-round to snap a selfie with the towering icon – and his little buddy, Sprout.

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Wendy Corr

Broadcast Media Director