Trillions of tiny neutrinos — they are smaller than the nuclei of atoms — travel daily at the speed of light from Chicago to large steel plates at a research laboratory deep underground in northeastern Minnesota.
In the southwestern corner of the state, Native Americans spend weeks of hard physical work using ancient hand tools to extract rare pipestone from the earth.
Researchers in southeastern Minnesota search for cures for cancer using a computer that does 1.1 trillion calculations per second; while in central Minnesota, the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible in more than 500 years is taking shape at a much slower pace.
No matter what the speed, there is an array of attractions throughout Minnesota that can add fascinating stops to group visits to the Gopher State.
Mining for dark matter
Century-old mining techniques and cutting-edge contemporary research coexist nearly a half-mile beneath the earth at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
Visitors descend more than 2,300 feet in an elevator-style cage — the same kind used by iron miners for nearly 80 years — where they can tour a historic former iron mine or a modern research laboratory.
“We are one of the few mine tours that actually lower you down in a mine cage,” said park manager Jim Essig.
The Soudan mine, a national historic landmark, operated from 1882 to 1962 and was Minnesota’s first iron mine. “Minnesota has been a leader in iron production for over a century; this was the start,” said Essig.
On the 90-minute mine tour, a small locomotive pulls passenger cars three-quarters of a mile through some of the mine’s 50 miles of tunnels to the last area mined. Mine machinery and mannequins of miners line the route.
“We have tried to make it look like an operational mine as much as we can,” said Essig. “It gives a pretty good feel for how mining took place.”
Part of the experience is lowering the light to replicate the glow from a miner’s lamp, along with a brief period of total darkness.
There are two research labs on the same level as the mine tour, although only one is open for tours. Each four-story lab is the size of a football field.
The two main experiments at the labs are searching for dark matter and proving that neutrinos have mass.
Visitors get to see the neutrino detectors, which are hundreds of 25-ton, 26-foot-square steel plates suspended on racks like hanging folders in a file cabinet.
“The detectors capture neutrinos from the Fermi Lab in Chicago,” said Essig. “It takes them .0025 seconds. They shoot trillions and trillions a day at us. What they want to prove is whether these very tiny particles have mass.”
Sacred red rock
The area of southwestern Minnesota near the South Dakota border where the rare soft red rock known as pipestone is found is considered sacred by Native Americans, who have quarried the stone for centuries to use in carving prayer and ceremonial pipes.
“It is the only national monument in the state,” said Mary Ann Steen, group tour manager for Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism office. “Only Native Americans can quarry there. You can see them at work extracting this red rock.”
Native Americans spend weeks during the summer months laboriously using traditional tools and methods to extract the rock, which often lies several feet beneath the area’s hard quartzite.
Inside the visitors center, Native American craftspeople carve pipestone at the Upper Midwest Indian Cultural Center. Many of the carvers and quarries are third- and fourth-generation and gladly answer questions from visitors.
The national monument also includes a waking trail through the distinctive coteau prairie to Winnewissa Falls.
The area offers another contrast in ancient and contemporary technologies with more than 1,000 wind turbines taking advantage of the high winds from the prairie.
A company that manufactures wind turbine rotor blades and nose cones is located in the nearby town of Pipestone, whose downtown has more than 20 late 19th-century buildings made from the region’s quartzite.
Established in 1942 by Jay Hormel in his marble-floored horse stable in Austin, the Hormel Institute has become a leading biological research facility in the areas of medicine and agriculture.
Now housed in a large modern facility that underwent a $20 million expansion in 2008, the Hormel Institute, where omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids were discovered and named, is focusing its research on cancer.
The institute, a research unit of the University of Minnesota and a collaborative research partner with the Mayo Clinic, less than an hour away in Rochester, has also joined forces with IBM to use its super-fast Blue Gene/L computer.
“The Blue Gene/L does 1.1 trillion calculations per second,” said Angela Himebaugh, marketing and group tour coordinator for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“All the labs on the first floor have windows, and you can look in and see scientists doing
research. On nonbusy days, groups are able to see the Blue Gene/L.
Himebaugh said guides also give groups a history of the institute in its lobby, where a large photo montage on the wall, created by the graphics department at the Mayo Clinic, also traces its history.
The late Hormel was a former president of the Hormel Co., founded by his father, whose most famous product is Spam. The local Hormel plant turns out 21,000 cans of Spam an hour.
The Spam Museum in Austin gives an entertaining and informative look at the history of the iconic canned meat, developed in 1937, and its innovative marketing campaigns over the years.
“You can’t go far in the area without running into Spam” said Steen.
Illuminating the Bible
Careful, meticulous and loving care has gone into producing the Saint John’s Bible, which is expected to be completed this summer, more than 13 years after it was started.
“About 1998, the monks of St. John’s Abbey contracted with Donald Jackson, the scribe for the queen of England,” said Michelle Verkuilen, marketing manger for Liturgical Press in Collegeville, just west of St. Cloud, which publishes reproductions of the Bible.
“It is the first hand-written and hand-illuminated Bible in more than 500 years. It is actually done using all the tools the monks used way back then in the medieval times.”
Jackson has supervised a team of scribes in his offices in Wales, where they used hand-cut quills from goose, turkey and swan feathers; ground ink from 19th-century Chinese ink sticks; and mixed vermillion, lapis lazuli and other cakes and pigments with egg yolk and water to make paint.
Six of the Bible’s seven volumes have been completed. Jackson will finish the last volume, “Letters and Revelations,” by himself. He is expected to be finished this summer.
The manuscripts and illuminations are produced on two-foot by three-foot pages of calfskin and are flown to St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville with their own first-class ticket.
Verkuilen said some of the original pages are always on display at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University, where groups can watch a video of the process and see some of the tools and materials that were used.
“It’s quite impressive,” she said. “The gold leaf and silver foil laid upon the pages make them look illuminated. They actually glow from the beautiful pigments used.”
Verkuilen said the completed seven-volume Bible eventually will be permanently housed at the university. “It’s hoped this eventually will be a pilgrimage site to come and see all the volumes, which are meant to be used in liturgies.”
She said the text is from the “New Revised Standard Bible” and is meant to have an ecumenical appeal.
Some volumes of the Bible have been on a national and international tour since 2005. This year they are scheduled to be at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark.; Westminster Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa; St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Benet Hill Monastery and Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Big shoes to fill
Groups visiting Red Wing have been able to marvel at the world’s largest boot, the 638½ size D version, at the Red Wing Shoe Co.’s downtown store and museum. Now, through the persistence and persuasion of Kathy Silverthorn, executive director of the Red Wing Convention and Visitors Bureau, they can also see smaller versions of the boot being made.
“The Red Wing Shoe factory now gives tours; they had never done that before,” said Steen.
“I had been trying to talk them into it for quite a while,” said Silverthorn. “They didn’t know how much people enjoy that. It’s a huge hit for motorcoach people.”
After watching a 20-minute video about the history of the company, groups get a walking tour through the entire plant.
“It’s an interpretative tour,” said Silverthorn. “They talk about what this person is doing and that person. One cuts out the leather by hand, another puts grommets in for laces, another one puts the soles on.
“There is a balcony area that overlooks the whole plant. It’s like Santa’s workshop with people in different sections doing their thing.”
Groups must arrange the tours, which take about an hour, through Silverthorn’s office.
Mohair and more
Some 21 years ago, when Ada Austin decided she was burned out and needed to stay at home, it only took a few months before her husband “came up the stairs waving the checkbook and said I was spending too much on the grandchildren.”
Since they lived in the country near Harmony in southeastern Minnesota’s Amish country and raised animals, Austin got some angora goats and sold their wool.
“I sheared them twice a year and got two checks a year,” she said. “For six years, I made really good money; I was on a roll. That’s when the market crashed, and the price of wool went to zero.
“Here I sat with 200 goats and couldn’t sell an ounce of hair.”
So Austin decided to make things out of the hair and sell them, and Austin’s Mohair has been a success. Austin uses a group of local mothers, none of whom are Amish, to make a wide range of items from the angora hair, including sweaters, rugs, hats, mittens and scarfs.
But it is her mohair socks that are the biggest hit. “They are my bread and butter,” said Austin. “I sell more of those than anything.”
Austin also sells varied colors of yarn, goat meat and cheese and even soap made from goat milk.
You can’t miss her place. “I painted all the buildings and benches purple,” she said. “It stands out like a sore thumb. When you come over the hill, it goes boom.”
Austin steps on arriving motorcoaches and tells her story. “I take people to the barn and show them goats and sheep, and then take them into the shop and give everyone a sample of goat meat. Hopefully, they will buy something,” she said.
“I’m just an old goat woman and having a good time.”
Steen said the feeling is mutual.
“People love her from the moment she steps on the bus. She is so colorful and such a character.”
Researching your trip
Explore Minnesota Tourism
For more on Minnesota:
With due haste in Minnesota
WEB EXCLUSIVE! More on the Soudan Underground Mine