Pierre stands tall but now mostly aloneGary Swanson admits that as a 21-year-old, he didn’t have much interest in history, even as he worked on what has become an enduring icon in Two Harbors, the 20-foot statue of Pierre the Voyageur. “My thoughts weren’t about voyageurs. They were probably more about cars and girls.”
Gary Swanson admits that as a 21-year-old, he didn’t have much interest in history, even as he worked on what has become an enduring icon in Two Harbors, the 20-foot statue of Pierre the Voyageur. “My thoughts weren’t about voyageurs. They were probably more about cars and girls.”
Stanley Nelson could have said the same, with a much different meaning. Creating Pierre in front of his new Voyageur Museum and Voyageur Motel was all about cars, girls, boys, and anyone who wanted to stop by the roadside attraction on Highway 61 and 13th Street on the city’s west end. Nelson wanted people to stop not only as a businessman but also to learn more about Two Harbors and its history.
Swanson, who worked with Art and Emery Carlstrom on the stucco covering for Pierre and the motel, said Nelson was “clever” and would do anything to “boost the town.”
Nelson sold out of his trucking business in 1958 and began collecting artifacts from area residents, Terry Johnson said. Johnson married his childhood sweetheart who also happened to be Nelson’s daughter, Louise. The couple eventually purchased the museum, motel, trailer park, and Pierre in 1975.
Johnson said Nelson’s brainchild came “spur of the moment” after he had so many artifacts that he “pretty much had a museum.”
Nelson had to “get bigger or get out” when it came to the trucking business, Johnson said. He got out and started the roadside attraction. The museum opened in 1959 to great fanfare. Nelson and promotion partner Charlie Erickson were set on getting Two Harbors designated as the “Gateway to Voyageur Country” and had a Fourth of July grand opening that included many history demonstrations and even a powwow.
The museum housed oddball stuff from resident’s personal collections and had live animals, including bears, a popular Minnesota attractant back then.
Over the first winter, Nelson decided to expand with a motel and then the coup de grace, the giant Pierre statue.
The big man talked via speaker and a worker hidden in a booth. His head swiveled. His eyes were lit up and a machine next to him doled out souvenir coins. The place was a hit, Shirley Martinson said. She was another Nelson daughter and grew up on the property. “It was a going place.”
All in the family
By 1975, Nelson “wanted to get out and we wanted to get in,” Johnson said. Owning the place had been in the couple’s plans for a while. Terry still worked as a supervisor at Reserve Mining – he was the last to leave the property when it closed in 1986 – and the couple strove to keep the business thriving despite social changes.
The animals had been long gone, too difficult to manage, Terry said, but most things remained the same. They moved some of the museum items around, did some painting. “There was no reason to change it,” he said. “A lot of people were still stopping.”
But there were tough economic times ahead and changing leisure habits, Terry said. People were “going somewhere else” by the 1980s, he said, calling it a “video world” where going out and seeing things on the road was losing out to home entertainment.
By 1990, the couple was ready to sell. They had tried to make a go of a variety store in place of the museum. In 1990, there was an auction, scruffy stuffed animals and all, and they sold the place.
If he had to do things over, Johnson said he would have sold the motel first and not the museum property. Gigi Aae took over the motel in 1996.
Not much happened on the site until the rest of the property was purchased by two developers in Duluth. Mike Polcaro and Jon Kalkbrenner of Prime Properties had big plans in 2003 to surround the statue with a mini-mall. The Pierre’s Plaza idea generated plenty of buzz in Two Harbors but it soon was quelled when parking space became an issue and permits to build weren’t allowed.
The two had already bulldozed the museum building and the lot space was leased for a short time as a car dealership. Aae at the motel was glad to see that enterprise fold up.
Polcaro said the property is now in the hands of a real estate company. A new sign went up last week.
“We want to keep him, restore him,” Polcaro said of the lonely Pierre statue. He said it has always been his wish to keep Pierre on the property and build an attraction around him.
Johnson laments the loss of the museum building and the big empty space around Pierre that only reminds him of what once was.
Moving on over?
There’s been talk of moving Pierre to a possible new information center farther west on 61, near the Culver’s restaurant. Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce President Gordy Anderson said there hasn’t been much official conversation about Pierre. “He’s certainly a part of the community,” he said.
Polcaro said “I don’t think it’s the wise thing to do,” when it comes to moving him. It isn’t about logistics, it’s about customer memory, he said. “People know it’s there.”
Aae over at the motel says the asking price for the lot is too high and things will likely remain the same for a while. But the scruffiness of her favorite voyageur and the emptiness of the lot doesn’t seem to discourage the curious, she said. “There’s a good half dozen people there every day taking pictures.”
Pierre could help get the lot sold, Aae said. “I would love to see him fixed up,” she said. “I think the guys could sell the property faster.”
Polcaro would agree. He wants to sell the land and make sure a new owner will “take care of Pierre.”
Polcaro talks to Johnson now and then about the status of the property and Pierre. He called last week about the new realty sign going up. “Someone made an offer,” Johnson joked. “Putting up a store, restaurant.”
It’s a big dream. As big as that oversized voyageur standing kitty-corner from his house. Gary Swanson remembers working on the motel and then being asked to work on Pierre. “One day we were just there,” he said. There was no notion that they were doing anything special, or even lasting. Fifty years later, their oddball creation remains.
Reporter Sonja Peterson contributed to this story.