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Vandals apparently like to vandalize Big Ole in weird ways

by Mike McFeely

I was born in Minneapolis at North Memorial Hospital and spent my formative years living at 4733 Georgia Ave. N. in Crystal, Minn., a first-ring middle-class Minneapolis suburb. My parents bought a modest cabin on Lake Carlos north of Alexandria not long after I was brought onto this earth.

Clearly this was a different era, when a middle-class family of six with one working parent could afford 110 feet of lake property on the famed Alexandria chain of lakes. The purchase price for that wonderful piece of lakeshore and two-bathroom, two-bedroom cottage was $15,000, I believe.

Going northwest to Alexandria was a grand adventure as a youngster. Sections of I-94 between the Twin Cities and Alex were not completed until the mid-1970s and speed limits were not so liberal in those gas-crisis days (55 mph on a freeway, for God's sake), so the trips in the family station wagon seemed like they took forever instead of the breezy 100 minutes it takes today.

In those days, Alexandria seemed to a 10-year-old to be a remote outpost that was all about resorts and fishing. The Cowing and Robards hardware store on Broadway featured frozen trophy fish in its storefront window. Tiny Lund's bait shop along County Road 42 between Alex and the cabin stunk wonderfully of minnows. The Vacationer newspaper featured photos of smiling resorters holding big walleyes, bass, pike, sunnies and crappies often caught from an "area lake."

At the intersection of Broadway and 3rd Ave. on the north end of downtown Alexandria stood what seemed to be a gigantic statue of a bearded Viking, wearing a short skirt while holding a shield in his left hand a spear in his right. Hanging from his belt was a massive sword. On the circular shield the words "Alexandria: Birthplace of America" told the world that local Scandinavians believed the legend of the Kensington Runestone. That is, that Vikings beat Columbus to the New World by hundreds of years.

This was Big Ole, Alexandria's homage to its Norwegian and Swedish roots. He was the representative of Alexandria's tourism industry. Not far away was a museum that displayed the Runestone. And many businesses and organizations around Douglas County were named "Viking" this or "Runestone" that.

Why am I thinking about the good old days and Big Ole, an oversized Viking statue? Because the Alexandria newspaper recently ran a story on Big Ole that you can read by clicking here .

Big Ole proudly stood sentinel at the end of Broadway, and tourists visiting the mom-and-pop resorts on Lake Carlos or Darling or L'Homme Dieu or Mary or Geneva or Ida would snap family photos at the statue's concrete base. He seemed larger than life.

That perception changed over the years, of course. Eventually me, Dad and Mom  moved to our then-slightly enlarged Lake Carlos cabin (my older sisters had all graduated high school) and I graduated from Jefferson High School in Alexandria in 1984. Big Ole still stood at the intersection of Broadway and 3rd Ave., but by then he was just part of the everyday hometown landscape and maybe even something of a small-town joke. 

I was off to college, then back home for a few months to work, then off to newspaper jobs in Owatonna and Fargo. I returned home to play town-team baseball, hang out with old friends and visit Mom often in those days. Then came marriage to the lovely Michelle in 1997. Mom sold the lake place in 1998. Life became busy and visits to Alexandria became rare.

Somewhere in that time frame, Big Ole was moved from his longtime location to a small park nearby (probably to improve the intersection because of the increased traffic in the quickly growing Alexandria), but far enough away that he was no longer a centerpiece of downtown Alex. It seemed to fit the times. Alexandria long ago stopped being a remote resort town and instead became a destination for wealthy Twin Cities suburbanites who bulldozed small cabins on area lakes and built year-around McMansions.

Last winter, on a drive back to Moorhead from the Twin Cities, I pulled off I-94 and told Michelle and our daughter Emma that we were going to go look at Big Ole. Just for the heck of it. Call it a wild hair. We drove to the small park so I could show them a piece of my hometown's history.

Emma's first reaction to Big Ole: "Why is he wearing a skirt?"

Michelle's reaction to Big Ole: "Why is his skirt so short?"

My reaction: "He's really small. This must be a different Big Ole. He used to be much larger."

We snapped a few pictures, got back in my pickup and drove back home. Big Ole was, well, underwhelming. Then again, Emma has made something like 5 trips to Disney World so that should have been expected. The topic of Big Ole didn't come up again, except perhaps in silly discussions on KFGO with Paul Jurgens.

Fast-forward to this week, when I saw an article in the Alexandria Echo-Press relaying the news that Big Ole had been vandalized by somebody spray-painting a "piece of anatomy" on his leg. The story went on to say that Big Ole has survived much vandalism and weather-related damage since he was first erected 50 years ago.

I learned by reading the article that the current Big Ole is, indeed, the original Big Ole. He stands 28 feet tall. It just seemed that he was gigantic when I was a kid. 

I also learned that Big Ole's short skirt apparently invites hooligans to vandalize him in a phallic way. In addition to the "piece of anatomy" painted on his leg, “the last time he was vandalized, it was a 2-by-4 placed between his legs. That’s the type of thing they like to do," according to Carol Meyer, a volunteer at the Runestone Museum.

I also learned that somebody set Big Ole on fire in 1965 when he was dressed like Santa during the holidays. Perhaps a Norwegian was upset a Scandinavian statue was dressed up as a legend fashioned after a Dutch or German figure.

Anyhow, the story has a happy ending. Meyer said they hope to get a camera trained on Big Ole so vandals will be deterred. She also said the Viking will stand watch over Alexandria for a long time.

Now if only they could make Ole bigger, so it matches my memories of childhood. And while they are at it, why don't they return lakeshore prices to 1960s levels.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)