Is Minnesota the Best in the Midwest?
Our wide-ranging, data-driven, totally authoritative yet dramatically unscientific assessment of how we compare to our neighbors
Illustrations by studio Muti
Is life here really, as legend has it, above average? The answer to that question depends on what you’re seeking. Diverse demographics? A robust economy? Unique cultural icons? Do Sturgis and Mt. Rushmore outshine MOA and Mayo? How about the Packers and cheese? We collected the facts, the figures, and the folklore to help you decide.
Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, also known as L’Etoile du Nord (French for “The Star of the North”). The name comes from the Sioux description of the Minnesota River, the meaning of which has been obscured over time but is popularly known as “sky-tinted water.” The Native Americans were pushed out by French fur traders and later by European settlers working in farming and lumber, with their hub on the Mississippi River’s St. Anthony Falls.
Mall of America
MOA is the largest mall in the country and describes itself as “a city within a city.” And as far as cities go, there’s nothing else like it. It’s home to the nation’s largest indoor theme park, a 1.3-million-gallon aquarium, a wedding chapel, and a 34-foot-tall robot comprised solely of Legos. It’s even had its own writer-in-residence and high school. Then there are the 500-plus stores, from Burberry to Boot Barn. There’s always something interesting going on at MOA, whether it’s a collection of handbell players or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles assembling to set a Guinness record, or a guy who threw $1,000 off a fourth-story balcony, inspired by a GEICO commercial. Climate is the mall’s one constant: It’s always 70 degrees, even without central heating. That and the $2 billion a year it adds to the state’s coffers.
Minnesota State Fair
It’s the country’s largest fair in terms of daily attendance—161,000 on average for each of its 12 days. And it serves more than 80 foods on a stick. Corn dogs. Hot dish. Deep-fried cookie dough. Of course, the event isn’t just fair fare (although some argue otherwise). There are horse shows, butter sculptures, and art made from field crops. Baby animals. Giant pumpkins. And llamas in hats, wigs, and custom gowns (unknowing participants in the llama costume contest). There’s a reason it’s called “The Great Minnesota Get-Together,” as it’s by far the state’s best-attended event, setting an overall attendance record last year of 1,943,719.
Although William Worrall Mayo was born in England, his serpentine career path can be traced all over Minnesota: He settled in St. Paul, where he recovered from malaria; worked as a census taker in the Duluth area; tried his hand at farming, operating a ferry service, serving as a justice of the peace, working on a riverboat, running a small medical practice, and editing a newspaper in Le Sueur; took up civilian medicine in New Ulm, where some of the worst fighting in the Dakota War of 1862 had erupted; stole a corpse to practice dissection before moving to Rochester, where he worked as a military surgeon, mayor, alderman, school board member, and state senator; and finally—finally!—established a little medical practice that would become, under his physician sons William and Charles, one of the greatest and most notable hospitals on the planet. Today, the Mayo Clinic is renowned for its innovative, patient-centered approach to medical care and is the first and largest integrated, nonprofit medical group practice in the world.
Mall of America (Bloomington), Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Canadian border), Mayo Clinic (Rochester), Largest Ball of Twine Rolled by One Man [not to be confused with the Largest Ball of Community-Rolled Twine in Kansas, the Heaviest Ball of Twine in Wisconsin, or the Largest Ball of Nylon Twine in Missouri] (Darwin)
Prince (b. Prince Rogers Nelson; Minneapolis), Bob Dylan (b. Robert Allen Zimmerman; Duluth), F. Scott Fitzgerald (St. Paul), Judy Garland (b. Frances Ethel Gumm; Grand Rapids)
St. Paul Winter Carnival (the nation’s oldest winter festival; St. Paul) Minnesota State Fair (largest attended state fair, per capita; Falcon Heights) Minnesota Renaissance Festival (oldest and largest renaissance festival in the U.S.; Shakopee)
Wisconsin’s name comes from an Algonquian description of the state’s namesake river. While its precise meaning has been lost, leading theories posit it related to the reddish sandstone of the river’s banks. Wisconsin earned its nickname, the Badger State, from miners who arrived in the territory in search of lead deposits. (Like the burrowing animal, the miners found shelter in the holes they dug.) Its motto is simply: “Forward.”
Green Bay Packers
The Packers, quietly formed in 1919 on the second floor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette building, are the oldest NFL franchise operating continuously under the same name in the same place. In contrast to their billionaire-backed peers, the Packers are also the only nonprofit, community-owned professional sports team in the U.S. (meaning that, technically, more than 100,000 people could claim ownership of Aaron Rodgers’s right arm). The team’s name is an homage to the Indian Packing Company, an early investor and employer of Packers co-founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau, who worked as a shipping clerk at the meat-canning company. Although Green Bay is the smallest NFL market by far, Packer fans (affectionately known as “cheeseheads”) are a devout bunch, and the waiting list for season tickets to Lambeau Field is the highest in the NFL at 123,000, with an approximate wait time of 30 years.
A supper club is, by reductionist definition, a restaurant or nightclub serving suppers. But they’re as much imprinted on the Wisconsinite’s gastronomical zeitgeist as the All You Can Eat Fish Fry or the cheese curd. Oddly enough, the first American supper club—the Tam O’Shanter—was opened in Los Angeles in 1922 by Milwaukeean Lawrence Frank (developer of another Midwestern mainstay, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt), but mostly they’re a timeless Midwestern tradition, centered in Wisconsin, as unchanged as their brandy Old Fashioned recipes. Supper clubs are typically family-owned, laid-back establishments serving drinks at 3 p.m. and supper at 5. Once you’ve put away a few slabs of carved-to-order prime rib, all manner of creamed and/or mashed sides, and the requisite relish tray, you’ll feel like family, too.
Wisconsin is the largest cheese producer in the country, yielding more than three billion pounds a year. Its preeminent dairy product infiltrates every aspect of society. There are, of course, the iconic cheddar-orange, wedge-shaped “cheesehead” caps proudly donned by self-deprecating sports fans. (The inventor had been reupholstering his mother’s couch when he got the idea to carve a wedge out of some leftover foam, boring the holes with his sister’s wood-burner.) But cheese lovers also founded Cheesecyclopedia, an online course focusing on feta, ricotta, and provolone. One resident carved a replica of Mt. Rushmore out of a 700-pound block of cheddar. The state even has its own Master Cheesemaker program, the only one of its kind outside of Europe, ensuring that the tradition will continue to be passed down.
Lambeau Field (Home of the Green Bay Packers, NFL team that has been a publicly owned, non-profit corporation since 1923; Green Bay), Taliesen (Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate; Spring Green), Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Bayfield), Baraboo/Wisconsin Dells (home of Noah’s Ark, Kalahari Resort, and Cruisin’ Chubbys Gentlemen’s Club), House on the Rock (Spring Green)
Liberace (b. Władziu Valentino Liberace; West Allis), Willem Dafoe (b. William Dafoe; Appleton), Georgia O’Keeffe (Sun Prairie), Les Paul (b. Lester William Polsfuss; Waukesha)
Milwaukee Summerfest (World’s largest music festival; Milwaukee) American Birkebeiner (The nation’s largest and most prestigious cross-country ski marathon; Hayward/Cable) Lumberjack World Championships (Professional lumberjacks—yep, that’s a thing—from around the world compete in speed sawing, speed climbing, log rolling, and chopping; Hayward)
The Iowa or Ioway people, a Sioux tribe, originally inhabited the area that became the Hawkeye State. The term is thought to express great satisfaction with a place, or, more popularly, “the beautiful land,” which Euro-American settlers found well suited for growing crops and raising animals. The state’s motto reflects a value of freedom: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”
Iowa Writers’ Workshop
The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop originated in 1936, when a small group gathered to discuss poetry and prose. By 2015, it was trending on Twitter, when Lena Dunham’s character on HBO’s Girls was admitted to the program. (The University of Iowa initially turned down the show’s request to film on campus due to concerns about the school being portrayed unfavorably.) The workshop, famous for its hours-long workshop sessions, was the first to offer a master’s degree in creative writing. Today it’s considered the country’s premier place to learn the craft. Flannery O’Connor studied there. Robert Frost taught there. And thousands of writing careers were launched there. Some say the only thing Iowa grows is corn. But the mostly agricultural state also produces plenty of Pulitzer Prize winners and U.S. Poets Laureate.
Iowa’s political caucuses are the first step in the nominating process that will eventually determine the President of the United States. In other words, it’s the time when candidates descend on the Hawkeye State to butter up the voters. Politicians chat with locals over loose-meat sandwiches at the Maid-Rite. They hold court at truck stops and family farms. And nearly 2,000 visiting reporters capture it all. Then, Iowans in 1,681 precincts gather to publically proclaim their political pick. The caucuses don’t always predict the next commander-in-chief. But they do often winnow the field, identifying candidates who lack the support to continue. With its early-bird status, Iowa wields far more political influence than its six electoral votes otherwise muster.
Covered Bridges of Madison County (Winterset, St. Charles), Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk (Riverside), Father Paul Dobberstein’s Grotto of the Redemption (four-story, football field–size, nine-grotto shrine to the Virgin Mary made entirely of shells, minerals, and rare stones; West Bend), American Gothic House (Eldon)
Johnny Carson (Corning), Elijah Wood (Cedar Rapids), John Wayne (b. Marion Robert Morrison; Winterset), Shawn Johnson (Gymnast, Olympic Gold Medalist; Des Moines), Herbert Hoover (West Branch)
Iowa Caucuses (The first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States) Ragbrai (The seven-day, nearly 500-mile, pie-fueled bicycle ride across the state is the oldest and largest touring bicycle ride in the world) Madison County Covered Bridge Festival (Driving tour of the world-famous covered bridges, immortalized in book, movie, and musical; Madison County)
North Dakota, part of the original Dakota Territories, was sparsely settled until the railroad came through the area in the late 1800s and brought with it immigrants from the east. Its nickname, the Peace Garden State, comes from the country-crossing park that straddles the North Dakota/Manitoba border. The state’s motto is: “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable.”
Bakken Oil Boom
Named after Tioga, North Dakota, farmer Henry Bakken, the Bakken Formation is a 200,000-square-mile rock spanning the subsurfaces of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Basically, it’s a rock filled with oil—as in billions of barrels. After its first major oil field was discovered in 2006, twentysomething kids from all over the country were making the pilgrimage to Williston, ND, living in shipping containers and trailers (or “man camps”), and striking it rich (truck drivers could rake in up to $150,000). The city used its newfound fortunes to build a $70-million high school and a $68-million rec center. The local McDonald’s offered a $300 signing bonus. A gallon of milk ran about $7. The state’s slogan became: “Find the Good Life in North Dakota.” Highways, such as the one between Williston and Watford City, had to be widened to accommodate some 12,000 vehicles a day. City populations doubled. Stocks soared, investors clamored. Then they didn’t. Over the past two years, the Bakken’s oil output has fallen 23 percent, with no sign of a reversal. Since the oil rush began, tens of thousands of workers have returned to their homes all over the country flush as blue-blooded boulevardiers, and the United States has cut its dependency on foreign oil by about 50 percent. But after the frugal farmers and ranchers socked away their oil-royalty millions, all that remained back at the Bakken was the Boom’s resounding echo.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests (hashtag #NoDAPL) on the Dakota-states-straddling Standing Rock Indian Reservation evolved into an international movement that helped redirect the nation’s attention toward the importance of Native American land rights. The protests, started in April 2016 at North Dakota’s Sacred Stone Camp (which swelled to thousands of protestors that summer), were a reaction to Energy Transfer Partners’ pipeline, proposed to run 1,172 miles and cross hundreds of waterways, including Lake Oahe, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s primary source of drinking water. The #NoDAPL protests, although unsuccessful at halting construction altogether, accomplished something else: reviving the national conversation about environmental racism, tribal rights, and the importance of spiritual resistance.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Geographic Center of North America (Rugby, which is 16 miles from North America’s actual geographic center), International Peace Garden (a symbol of peace between the U.S. and Canada; Dunseith, ND), National Buffalo Museum (home to three albino bison: White Cloud (1996-2016), Dakota Miracle, and Dakota Legend; Jamestown), KVLY-TV Mast (standing at 2,063 feet, this is the tallest structure in the western hemisphere and the fourth-tallest on earth; west of Blanchard)
Josh Duhamel (actor better known as husband to Fergie; Minot), Peggy Lee (b. Norma Deloris Egstrom; Jamestown), Wiz Khalifa (b. Cameron Jibril Thomaz; Minot), Laurence Welk (Strasburg), The Woodchipper in Fargo (actual Yard Shark® prop from the film, complete with socked mannequin leg jutting from its hopper, on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau; Fargo)
Norsk Høstfest (North America’s largest Scandinavian festival; Minot)
Despite being named after the Dakota tribe whose name translates to “ally,” as soon as gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills in 1874, newcomers treated the native inhabitants as anything but friends. “Under God the people rule,” is the motto of the Mount Rushmore State, reflecting its famous monument to four iconic presidents.
Every August, Sturgis, SD—population 6,700—hosts one of the largest motorcycle events in the world, drawing approximately half-a-million riders. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally started out with nine guys speeding around a dusty track back in 1938. It’s morphed into a 10-day blast of riders and races. Between the rumbles and roars are stunt shows, pub crawls, and awards for the best tattoos. Swarms of leather-and-bandana-clad riders rumble through the streets, stop for a beverage at the Iron Horse Saloon, participate in the Loud Pipes Contest, or catch Ozzy Osbourne or Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Buffalo Chip campground. At the end of it all, a surprising number of attendees have gotten married or jailed (in the hundreds for both).
“Art in America should be American,” wrote the very American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, “drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement.” Borglum designed and oversaw the creation of Mount Rushmore National Monument, with the help of his son, predictably named Lincoln. Rushmore, one of the most iconic images associated with America, features the 60-foot heads (from left to right) of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, carved into a batholith, or big rock. While each president was originally intended to be depicted from the waist up, lack of funding cut construction at either the lapel or just below the chins. Rushmore reflects this nation’s complicated history: On the one hand, it’s a symbol of unflagging patriotism, synonymous with America as the dollar bill; on the other, it’s a subject of ongoing controversy—the United States having unlawfully seized the area from the Lakota, whose own leader, Crazy Horse, is being carved into a nearby mountain on an even grander scale.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial (Keystone), Badlands National Park, Black Hills National Forest, National Music Museum (“...one of the most renowned institutions of its kind in the world”; Vermillion), Crazy Horse Memorial (ongoing since 1948; Crazy Horse), Wall Drug (Americana run amok; Wall), The World’s Only Corn Palace (Mitchell)