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Visiting the Mall of America or the Twin Cities and looking for a daytrip? Or live locally and looking for something different to do with a little history thrown in? In less than two hours, you can drive to charming Austin, Minn. to check out the SPAM® Museum, Hormel Historic Home, historic Paramount Theatre, Buffy the Cow, and more.
My niece, Nicci, and I added the SPAM Museum on our bucket list several years ago. We’re naturally curious and life-long learners. I remember eating SPAM as a kid – usually in cold sandwiches or salads and my father liked it grilled so I guess there’s some nostalgia behind my desire to tour the museum.
We had scheduled this daytrip a couple of months ago, but a severe thunderstorm kept us home. Turned out to be a picture-perfect day for an aunt-niece road trip.
The drive itself on US-218 was beautiful – two lanes winding through corn fields and a couple of small towns.
Finding the SPAM Museum was pretty easy. It’s right in downtown Austin, Minn., 101 3rd Avenue. Plenty of free parking in the lot behind the museum as well as free parking on the street.
And admission to the museum is free. Open year-round, it’s only closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day as well as Mondays in January and February.
After taking a few photo ops with the farmer and pigs out front, we were met by a SPAMbassador who gave us a self-guided tour guide and map. The interactive museum is all on one floor so pretty easy to get around. But there is a lot to do for all ages. Free tours are also available on the weekend every hour on the hour. They last about 30 minutes. Additionally, you can take a walking tour of downtown Austin at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Definitely a focal point, the colorful Can Central provides some fun interactive displays and fun facts about SPAM. You can even send yourself SPAM recipes.
SPAM fun fact: Guam consumes an annual average of 16 cans per person.
1891 and Beyond
This section focuses on the origin and evolution of SPAM and includes the actual desk of founder George A. Hormel.
The World Market was a pretty cool exhibit featuring several countries and I was actually surprised by SPAM’s popularity around the world.
Supporting U.S. Troops
SPAM played a crucial role in supporting troops especially during WWII – not just the U.S., but also our allies. In fact, due to its long shelf life and no refrigeration needed, more than 100 million pounds of SPAM product was shipped abroad during WWII. Here is one of the exhibits in the SPAM Museum (located in Austin, Minn.) where you can hoist a 50-lb. crate of SPAM products.
SPAM fun fact: More than 100 million pounds of SPAM product was shipped abroad during WWII.
Even General and former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a consumer.
“I ate my share of SPAM along with millions of soldiers. I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it. As former Commander In Chief, I officially forgive you of your only sin; sending us so much of it.”Dwight D. Eisenhower
SPAM also supported troops during the Korean War, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.
SPAM Brand 101
Is SPAM a mystery meat? No secret recipe. It’s made of six ingredients: pork, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate.
In this exhibit, you can dress up and time yourself against others in a friendly competition to see who can fill, bake and label the SPAM cans the fastest. Nicci won because I couldn’t figure out the label. In fact, she was twice as fast as me.
And then you can discover how many SPAM cans tall you are. This many.
You can even try SPAM yourself. SPAMbassadors walk around with free samples.
SPAM Brand Today
In this area you can watch the Monty Python spoof Spamalot and learn more about SPAM’s brand today.
Hormel Foods Today
Wow. I had no idea all of these were part of the Hormel family.
Kids Playground and Kitchen
Your kids will definitely love this area where they can play on the slide and whip up a SPAM dinner in the kitchen or grill out in the backyard.
You’ll definitely want to stop in at the SPAM shop before you leave where you can purchase SPAM-branded tshirts, socks, back scratchers, playing cards, shot glasses, bags, shoelaces, and, of course, SPAM – all varieties. Anything you could possibly want with the SPAM logo is in here.
Once we purchased our our own SPAM gear, we took a stroll around downtown Austin.
Located across from the SPAM Museum’s back parking lot, the Paramount Theater is one of only four atmospheric theaters remaining in Minnesota.
Rather than sitting in an auditorium-style setting, the atmospheric theater created a more personal ambiance such as a Spanish garden with a blue ceiling, stars and moving clouds like you’ll find at the Paramount.
Originally built in 1929, it offered first-run movies until 1975 when it reinvented itself as a disco bar, a teen club and then a comedy club. The Austin Area Arts purchased it in 1992 and refurbished the theater to its natural glory where the venue shows movies again as well as performing arts productions.
Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que
Downtown Austin provides several dining options and we opted to try Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que right on Main Street. While they offered a special SPAM menu, we went with something a little more traditional: fried pickle spears, shredded pork sandwiches with a side of pit potatoes and cornbread with honey butter. Several self-serve barbeque sauces available on each table and booth.
Then it was definitely time to do some walking. But we didn’t have far to go to reach our next destination – the Hormel Historic Home was located just a few blocks away at 208 4th Avenue.
Hormel Historic Home – the house that keeps on giving
Built in 1871, this was the home of the founder of Hormel Foods and SPAM, George and Lillian Hormel and their son Jay. It’s open for self-guided tours Monday through Friday for a $5 admission; children under the age of 18 are free.
The beautiful home and 6,000-square-foot Carriage Hall Event Center are available for weddings, private parties and other events. They also offer a space, programs, and camps for children with autism spectrum disorders.
The Hormels purchased the home in 1901 and did some extensive remodeling including adding columns to the front of the house to raise the roofline as well as an upper-level summer porch and more.
Fun fact: The family name Hormel is actually pronounced more like Hormole, which is different from the brand name’s pronunciation of Hor-MEL.
With several staircases and doors leading to more rooms, Nicci characterized the Hormel Historic Home perfectly as “the house that keeps on giving.”
And the home did give back to the community as it served as a YWCA for young women and newcomers in Austin until the 1990s.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Minnesota Register of Historic Places, this place is a little different than other historic homes as you are allowed to touch the furnishings, and are free to take photos. They only ask you not to play the piano or open closed doors or go into the basement or attic.
After our tour, we then took the opportunity for a couple of more photo ops in town.
St. Augustine’s Catholic Church
We could see the spiral of this beautiful gothic revival church from blocks away. Built in 1866, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was dedicated by Bishop Thomas Grace in 1868.
Buffy the Cow
An Austin landmark since 1966, 15-foot Buffy the Cow graces (grazes) the entrance to the Mower County Fairgrounds (700 12th Street SW). BTW: It’s a free county fair that starts in early August every year.
It was a short trip, and although we didn’t experience everything that charming Austin, Minnesota has to offer, we did accomplish quite a few things in one afternoon before we headed back north to the Twin Cities.
Taking a look at the Austin Visitor Guide, here are a few other interesting experiences for future visits.
- Jay C. Hormel Nature Center: Named after the Hormels’ son, this center that sits on 518 acres features a three-story observation tower, 10 miles of hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trails. It also offers several displays including Creatures of the Night, Renewable Energy, Climate Change, Forest Ecology, Live Birds of Prey, a children’s discovery area, and more.
- Nativity House: More than 900 nativity scenes from 42 countries.
- Austin ArtWorks Center: Create your own holiday ornament.
- Ethanol plant: Southern Minnesota leads the state producing more than 125 million gallons a year.
- Old Mill: A former flour mill, the historic building is now a restaurant overlooking the Ramsey Dam.
- Four Daughters Vineyard: A fully operational winery and cidery, restaurant and event center.
- Wind Farm Tour: You can find more than 350 wind turbines in the Austin area, and learn why wind power is the fastest growing source of electricity.
How to get there from the Twin Cities
- Take I-35 South until Exit 40A onto US-14E toward Rochester.
- Keep right onto US-218 south toward Austin.