UNITED STATES

Austin, MN

Spam Museum Hits the Spot on a Long Road Trip

Display of souvenirs at the Spam Museum, Austin, Minnesota

Spam, Spam, Spam...The Spam Museum gift shop offers many souvenirs of your visit.
ANNE GARBER/Meridian Writers’ Group

FOR ALL ITS wide-open spaces between the West Coast and Chicago, the I-90 can be a mind-numbing highway at times, and the prettiest section is probably not the stretch through Minnesota. There’s a natural inclination to let the mind wander, which is what we were doing when we both spotted a billboard that led us to the high point of the day: a museum devoted to Spam.

Spam, said to stand for either “shoulder of pork and ham” or “spiced ham,” is a precooked meat product that’s become the stuff of legend. Since its introduction in the 1930s more than seven billion tins of it have been sold.

The 1,530-square-metre Spam Museum is in the town (pop. 23,000) where George A. Hormel started his meat-processing empire in 1891. Austin is your classic company berg, where just about everyone owes his or her living or a karmic debt to the Hormel brothers. The museum, celebrating the family, its business acumen and its most successful product (Hormel is now a Fortune 500 company), opened in 2001 in a renovated red-brick building not five minutes from the Interstate.

In the course of wandering through the galleries, greeted occasionally by tour guides known as Spam-bassadors, we absorbed a succinct history in American labour law. We learned that founder George Hormel was instrumental in promoting the first child-labour laws in the United States. (He was forced to work when he was a young boy, and he wanted no child in future to be exploited as he was.) Other factoids: originally called “Hormel Spiced Ham,” Hormel Foods held a contest to create a new name for the product in 1936. In South Korea, Spam is considered a gourmet treat. The comic duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen were hugely popular pitchmen for Spam. Their photos—and enlargements of advertisements from the 1930s and ’40s—adorn the walls. There is even a mock broadcasting centre playing loops of Spam commercials from yesteryear.

Everyone to whom we showed our photos from the museum immediately burst into the Monty Python song, and, wouldn’t you know it, the entire three-minute Python sketch runs on a continuous loop on a big video screen in the museum, complete with props and the insistent “Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spamity-spam” refrain. We find it refreshing to visit a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet still has lots of interesting stuff to discover and enjoy. There’s also something appealing for every age level. And mobility is no obstacle. Virtually everyone we have recommended the Spam Museum to responded with initial skepticism and ended up delighted.

All told, the entire self-directed tour could take an hour or more, depending on interest level. Finally, there’s a really whiz-bang gift shop, full of all kinds of Spam temptations, ranging from inexpensive key fobs and plastic mugs to pricier aprons, pot holders, squeezy Spam pigs and many logo’d garments. Yes, it’s all advertising, but for a tired family on a long drive across the country, it can sure hit the spot.

 

ACCESS

For more information visit the Spam website at www.spam.com.

For information on travel in Minnesota visit the Minnesota Tourism website at www.exploreminnesota.com.