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SPECIAL REPORT: SPAM: History in a Can

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The exterior view of the brand new SPAM Museum, located in Austin, Minnesota. The exterior view of the brand new SPAM Museum, located in Austin, Minnesota.
AUSTIN, Minn. (FOX 47) -

More than likely, you've purchased it, seen it or walked passed it time after time in your favorite grocery store. 'That' is referring to SPAM: the product produced by Hormel Foods that has found the hands and stomachs of consumers more than 8 billion times.

But now, the heritage of SPAM has a new home. FOX 47's Nicholas Quallich recently traveled to Austin where he discovered the history of the blue and yellow can and what's in it.

Shirts, sleepwear, golf towels and oh yes, even wine glasses: that's just some of what can be found at the brand new SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota. Of course, there's a supply of its namesake product in stock as well. But, the museum wasn't built just because it needed a bigger gift shop.

"It was time to update. Our old museum had been built in 2001. So, we really needed to create a new fresh space for our guests and our visitors," said Nicole Behne, Marketing Director of Legacy Brands at Hormel Foods. “We have so much more to showcase now, than we did 15 years ago.”

From groundbreaking, to soft opening in the spring of 2016, the work on the new museum has taken exactly one year. The new museum, 1,400 square feet in size, is full of interactive displays, fun facts and multiple 'looks back' into history.

Speaking of history, have you ever wondered how the term SPAM come about? Behne says it all happened at a party.

“SPAM was actually created by Jay Hormel, who was our founder's son. He created a canned luncheon meat and decided he needed to brand it. On New Year's Eve of 1936, he had a party and the price of admission was everyone had to come in with a name for his canned luncheon meat.”

While at the museum, we ran into former longtime Sparta, Wisconsin golf coach, Joan Olson, who was some unique ties to that fabled get-together.

“A good, close friend of mine, moved back to Austin now. Her father had the Square Deal in town, the big grocery store. But, her parents were at that party,” explained Olson. “Now rumor has it,” said Behne, “that an actor named Kenneth Dagno came in with the name SPAM. He took the s-p from spiced and the a-m from ham and put it together to make SPAM.

SPAM is now not only known all over the country, but worldwide as well: from Japan, to South Korea and, of course, to England, where it's been seemingly immortalized by Monty Python's Flying Circus.

With all its history, however, says Behne, a Minnesota native herself, SPAM has its lovers and those who raise a questionable eyebrow when the idea of eating lunch-meat out of a can is mentioned. So, that begs the question: Of what exactly is SPAM made? The answer is six ingredients: pork, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate.

Those who have visited the old and new museum often ask where in the museum they can see SPAM being made. Truth be told, that process is not done at the museum, but rather, at the Hormel plant, just a few minutes away. That's something with which Joan Olson and her family are very familiar.

“My mom was a young widow and started working at the Hormel company during World War II and continued working there for 30 some years,” said Olson. “Part of the time she worked on the SPAM line.

Because of her longtime service to the golf community in Sparta, Olson now has a golf tournament named in her honor. In that tournament, there are no cash prizes, just those trophies bearing the colors of yellow and blue. “That's why we come to the SPAM museum and get spam prizes for the women,” Olson pointed out.

Undoubtedly, it was workers like Olson's mother who packed the SPAM that helped feed our troops of the last century and gave them the edge during the second world war.

“We actually sent over 100 million cans of SPAM to our troops in World War II. “Protein is a very important part of a soldier's diet,” said Behne, “and we were able to supply the troops with protein that was used to help sustain their energy; whereas our opponents were unable to get protein that was convenient and portable to troops that were in remote locations.”

That history and much more are on the display at the brand new, admission-free museum. It's a place which Minnesota natives and first-time visitors like the Cheney family say is worth the drive.

“The whole museum is pretty cool,” said Kris Cheney, who was there with her husband Kevin and their son, Kevin Jr. “I'm really glad that this is open again and that we got to come down and see it.

But, it's not about the learning experience to everyone. “Well, pretty much the gift shop...mostly,” replied Cheney Jr., when asked what he liked most about his experience at the museum.

Whether you decide to make the pilgrimage to the site that honors this canned meat is up to you. One thing is for certain, though. The shelf-life of this new museum and the SPAM legacy is yet to be determined.

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