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Cold winds, and a chainsaw artist, deliver Norse god of thunder to Milan

"Thor," a work by chainsaw artist Mark Kurtz, now watches over downtown Milan in place of the Viking statue which had guarded the community for more than two decades. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune1 / 3
Cold winds blew April 14 as Mark Kurtz, at right, and helpers placed his chainsaw work "Thor" on its pedestal in downtown Milan. The Viking stands 11 feet from the tip of his ax. The god of thunder is made of white oak and replaces a Viking made of cottonwood that had succumbed to the elements. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune2 / 3
Mark Kurtz affixes Thor's ax in downtown Milan on April 14. Known as the "chainsaw man," Kurtz was selected to create the new work to replace a Viking originally sculptured for the community by the late Butch Olson of Bird Island, a Milan native. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune3 / 3

MILAN, Minn. — Far be it from the intentions of the mayor of the tiny community of Milan in Chippewa County to get his town into any sort of rivalry with the far larger town of Alexandria in Douglas County when it comes to matters of Norse heritage and pride.

Milan Mayor Ron Anderson said nothing of the sort when asked why he persuaded his local Lions Club to bust its budget and help replace the town’s iconic Viking statue.

After something like 23 years in the elements, the big Viking statue carved of cottonwood had seen its days. It had to be removed from its perch overlooking Main Street last year, Anderson said.

The community has long celebrated its Norse heritage, and it didn’t seem right to be without its most visible symbol. This was the home of the Milan Vikings, he explained.

Besides, the old statue had always attracted visitors with cameras to the downtown, just like "Big Ole," the Viking standing outside the Runestone Museum in Alexandria.

Milan’s new Viking is sure to continue bringing visitors with cameras. “Thor” stands 11 feet high to the tip of his ax. He holds his ground just where the original Viking had stood. He guards the city library and downtown from a small park right across from the Arv Hus Museum. It's Milan’s own answer to the Runestone Museum in Alexandria.

The Norse god of thunder arrived as winter-like winds blew on April 14. He was delivered by his creator. Mark Kurtz is known as the “Chainsaw Man” and operates a gallery where he creates chainsaw art known throughout the state and beyond. His works grace the homes of celebrities including Vikings great Scott Studwell.

Milan’s original Viking was sculpted by the late Butch Olson, a Milan native who had lived in Bird Island and was well-known for his chainsaw works. The thought of replacing the original work by Olson with a fiberglass knockoff like that found in Alexandria never came up in conversation in Milan. Anderson said the goal was to replace the big Viking with a chainsaw work by an artist with abilities matching those of the late Olson.

It was last fall that the mayor, along with Billy Thompson, the founder of the Arv Hus Museum, and fellow Milanite Gary Kleven paid a visit to Kurtz’s gallery along Interstate 94 in Avon to see if he measured up to the task. In answer to that question, Kleven can point to the eagle chainsaw sculpture made by Kurtz that now complements his front yard.

Kurtz sculpted Thor from a single limb of a white oak tree he had harvested years ago at a location south of St. Cloud. The massive tree grew not far from the church where he had been married, he said. Lightning struck the church steeple the previous night, and he and the wedding party had to sidestep bricks strewn all about to enter the church.

“Don’t even say it,” Kurtz said he told his father-in-law of the seemingly ominous sign. The marriage lasted five years, he added.

Thor comes to Milan with promises for a much longer life span.

Other than being sidetracked for a while as a professional wrestler, Kurtz has been a wood carver and chainsaw artist for about 34 years now. He allows the wood to season for two to three years. The final works are coated in a sealant used on log homes.

“Professional” is how Mayor Anderson described the work.

The local Lions are continuing to raise funds for the statue. The mayor said the pandemic has made it more difficult.

He had hoped to see Thor’s arrival celebrated in the coming month when Milan would be hosting its annual Syttende Mai celebration. To the mayor’s disappointment, the celebration as well as the international gathering of spoon carvers hosted by the Milan Village Arts School and a Milan all-class reunion have all been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

If Thor is to match the fame that Alexandria’s 28-foot tall Big Ole enjoys, it will have to start its rise to stardom without the first-stage rocket boost of these big community events.

The Douglas County community is also celebrated for the Kensington Runestone, a rock slab with runic inscriptions purportedly telling of Viking visitors in 1362. It was unearthed several miles away from Alexandria in 1898 and its story is told today in the Runestone Museum.

While the mayor did no bragging, Milan has very similar claims to fame.

Milan’s local history includes the story of an 1875 discovery of an iron hatchet 7 miles northeast of town. Local lore claims it dates to a 13th century visit by Vikings.

As for matching up to the Runestone Museum, Milan can point proudly to the Arv House Museum. Billy Thompson has assembled a one-of-a-kind collection of photographs, videos of his own making and local artifacts telling the history of his family, Milan and the Lac qui Parle Lake area.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335