Humor main ingredient in Spam Museum

Monday, September 12, 2005
The Spam Museum

The Hormel name and Austin, Minn., have been closely linked for more than 100 years.

Though no Hormels have been actively engaged in the operation of the plant, or have even lived in Austin for more than 50 years the townspeople of Austin still speak of the family, George, the founder of the plant, his wife Lillian, their son, Jay (the man who introduced Spam to the world), and his wife, Germaine as neighbors who happen to be on vacation from Austin.

Waitresses talk freely of "George and Lillian," and willingly share Germain's recipes for Spam products, even though George and Lillian moved to California in 1927 and Jay and Germaine joined them there in 1953.

The Hormel Historical Home, the place where Jay grew up, has become a principal tourist attraction in Austin. When George and Lillian left in 1927 they gave their home to the Austin YWCA.

The home has been beautifully restored and maintained. The rooms of the main house look much the way the Hormels left them. The adjoining carriage house has been remodeled into a large room where the Girl Scouts and Women's organizations have their meetings. It is also a place where tourist groups meet for coffee and rolls before touring the home. Local and area groups hold their meetings there. Until quite recently rooms in the upper story of this building were rented out to young workingwomen.

The yard outside the home is where young Jay Hormel entertained his friends. It has been transformed into a formal "Peace Garden," which has become a prized location for weddings in the last few years.

Jay and Germain's home, just outside Austin near Interstate 90, with its many rooms, is generally referred to as a mansion. After Jay's parents moved to California in 1927, Jay built an entire home on the property for his parent's numerous visits to Austin. That home is now joined to the main house by a covered breezeway.

In the years since Jay Hormel passed away, the home has had a number of uses, and today serves as a residence for troubled youths. It is not open to the public, except for a one-day a year Open House, at Christmas time. At this time the home is brightly decorated with lights, as it was when Jay and Germaine Hormel lived there.

At one time the home was very visible from the highway. But one doesn't see anything of the Jay Hormel estate from the highway anymore. Jay liked trees, and during the time he lived at his home he planted trees --thousands of trees, of many varieties.

After 50 years these trees have flourished and have blocked all view of the buildings, and this part of the estate has become the Jay Hormel Nature Center -- 300 acres of restored prairie and woodland habitat, home to white tailed deer, grey and red foxes, coyotes, even bears. There are hiking trails, and a resident ranger that conducts scheduled nature talks and coordinates nature projects for the schools.

The Hormel Meat Packing Co. has grown to be a huge corporation with plants worldwide. Forbes Magazine named Hormel as one of the 400 Best Big Companies in America.

The Austin plant is over 1 million square feet and employs 2300 people. The company takes its responsibility as the city's largest employer seriously -- recently providing the push for the new library and downtown improvements. The Hormel Company conducts scientific research at the Hormel Institute, which began on the Hormel Farm in the 40s, and has grown into a world-renowned research center, which studies the relationship between fat in the human diet and various health concerns.

One of the key products in the Hormel line of foods is Spam, the canned meat product in the distinctive little can, and the whole Austin community has embraced Spam as its identifying feature. The largest town celebration is Spam Day, in July, with parades, races, concerts, and fireworks, all of which extol Spam to the world.

In 2001, the Hormel Co. opened the Spam Museum, surely unique in the field of museums, 16,500 square feet of exhibits devoted to one product. In the years since the museum opened, it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Minnesota.

Along the highways leading to Austin are billboards inviting people to visit the museum. The billboards are funny, almost like the old Burma Shave signs, with messages like "So who's laughing now --," "We're as surprised as you are --", "Come on in, we'll even tell you what's in Spam," and the like.

Inside, the light-hearted approach is followed throughout the museum.

A visit there is meant to be fun. Inside the front entrance the wall is made of some 3,400 cans of Spam with a revolving globe of the world revolving in the middle, signifying the worldwide scope of the product and the name Spam. A conveyor belt runs along an outside wall, endlessly carrying 800 cans of Spam around the museum.

There are a number of hands-on exhibits; one which allows kids to take a turn putting a Spam label on a can. Then a sign pops up telling how many hundreds of cans could be labeled in the plant in that same amount of time.

There is a whole section devoted to the contribution of Spam to the military during World War II, including a letter from Gen. Eisenhower thanking the company for its war work. But they also give voice to the gripes of the GIs about Spam.

(Note: Contrary to the speculation by GIs we learned that Spam means SPiced hAM, and is made from ham, shoulder meat spices and water -- nothing else!) Throughout the museum there are jokes about Spam, including the funny commercials for the product by George Burns and Gracie Allen from their radio and TV shows.

At the gift shop one can buy books, i.e. "The 100 Best Spam Jokes" -- or T-Shirts with snappy Spam sayings. One I liked, "Sturgis is not the only Hog Heaven! (and in small letters), Spam Museum. "

Though GIs made fun of Spam, International visitors to the Museum make it very clear that they truly believe that Spam was a lifesaver after World War II.

In South Korea, and other Asian countries, Spam is considered a delicacy. Spam is almost the favorite dish in Hawaii, which leads the US in consumption of Spam. One booth shows a chef making the Hawaiian Spam dishes. These recipes, along with recipes from locations all over the world, are freely shared with museum-goers.

George Hormel took pride in the fact that his company utilized every part of the hog in some way.

Even the Hormel House paper was and is titled, "The Squeal."

One of George's mottos was "Don't Imitate, Initiate". In 1937, Jay Hormel was following his father's motto when he dreamed up "Spam," as a way using up surplus shoulder meat, and of course, selling it at a profit.

Spam has been in production for almost 70 years. Today, some 122 million cans of Spam are sold each year, worldwide.

One would have to agree that Jay Hormel succeeded admirably in following his father's directions.

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