THE STORY OF
THE FEED BAG KICKIN’ CHICKEN NEON SIGN
AND ITS 37 YEAR JOURNEY TO BECOME A PERMANENT DISPLAY AT
THE MARTIN COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
BY WARREN NELSON
The late great Feed Bag drive-in on old highway 15 south of Fairmont, Minnesota was a popular stop for drive-in lovers including my family. I was born in Fairmont in 1947 and I remember going to the Feed Bag in the early 1950s on Sundays after church for the Chicken-In-The-Basket dinners fried perfectly with tater tots.and delivered with frosted glass mugs of nickel root beer. The lot would be packed with families fresh out of church.
My dad would park the ’50 Mercury, roll down the window, and a waitress, most likely a high school student, would take our orders. The window, of course, as so many of you remember, would not be rolled down all the way. You must leave at least five inches of it up so the tray can be secured to the glass. “Hello, can I take your order?” It was always the chicken on Sundays. I can still smell the baskets, filling the automobile with the delicious fragrance of the deep-fried. My sister Sharla and I waited anxiously for the baskets to be passed to the backseat.
Ah!!!! Ahh!!! Yum! Done! The paper crunched up, the mugs empty, the baskets were passed to Dad in the front seat. To the waitress-“thank you.” A dollar bill tip on the tray. And there it was– The Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign, (with lights off in the afternoon), standing ready for the night.
The greatest day in a young man’s life happens when he gets his driver’s license. It is freedom to pack the car with your classmates, better yet girlfriend. The Fairmont thing to do on Friday or Saturday nights was to drive North Avenue, main street, up and down, repeat, repeat for hours, passing other high schoolers you knew. The north end turn around was at Rippe’s feed mill. Then it was to time to hit a drive-in. The six most popular in the 50s and 60s in Fairmont were the A & W, the Toot ‘n Tell (we called it the Beep and Bitch), the Dairy Queen, The Dairy Freeze, The Westside (was that its name?) and the Feed Bag. Four had carhops. The Dairy Queen and The Dairy Freeze, still operating in the same locations, were walkup.
The Beep and Bitch (Toot ‘n Tell) was famous for little hamburgers, six for a buck I think. (can’t remember their special name). The A & W was famous, of course, for Root Beer but also for Swiss Burgers which my mom, Clestle Nelson, was addicted to. The Dairy Queen, we all know, was renowned for the curly top soft ice cream cones and their malts, shakes and sundaes. The Dairy Freeze had the best malts and a menu that included homemade sandwiches. I loved the hot pork and the hot beef. The Westside had your basic everything. The Feed Bag specialized in the Chicken-in-the-Baskets, coney dogs, tater tots, root beer and hot Danish beef sandwiches with thin sliced dill pickles on moist steamed dark bread wrapped in white paper, 55 cents. That was the favorite of my friend and classmate John Larsen.
The Feed Bag menu was painted on a big white sheet of plywood. In those beautiful southern Minnesota Fairmont summer nights, with all windows down, crickets chirping, mosquitoes buzzing (why didn’t Noah just swat those two mosquitoes?) and the lake breezes whispering, it was heaven to hit the drive-ins. Teenagers got out of the cars and sat on the hoods, boys all spruced up, girls lookin’ good in pedal pushers. And there, beside and above us all, stood the Kickin’ Chicken kickin’. It was brilliant in the night. The neon glass tubing drew the perfect chicken and scrolled the name Feed Bag. Both sides of the sign operated. A horse with his head in a feed bag was painted beside the name. But the magic was in the feet. The design made it seem like the chicken was running. I should say the Kickin’ Chicken sign IS brilliant as it is still kickin’ in the museum home of the Martin County Historical Society.
PART TWO: SAVING THE SIGN
On May 3rd, 1975, my 28th birthday, Betty Ferris and my brother Mark Nelson were driving south on old Highway 15 when they noticed the Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign lying in the ditch in front of the drive-in ready to be picked up by the trash man. I had written a song entitled “Minnesota Summertime” four years before which included a verse on the Kickin’ Chicken-
I go Shoreacres Drive south I turn left on Lair Road
East a little ways to old highway 15
South again a mile or two straight until I see
The electric Kickin’ Chicken sign the Feed Bag is for me
I get the hots for tater tots and a Coney Island wiener
How I love those relish greens down between them chili beans
I get my fun in a Wonder bun and I always ask for pickles
Tickle my throat in the good old days when a root beer was a nickel
The Feed Bag sign was the best birthday present I ever received. We picked it up and hauled it to 667 Shoreacres Drive, my family home. It was faded, all the neon glass broken; a bird’s nest was perched on top of the sign. The next day I drove to Fairmont Signs to see about getting it repaired, up and running and kicking again. They had serviced the sign for years and were highly amused that I wanted to have it restored. I was living in Colorado at the time. I left it with them. They estimated the cost at between five hundred and a thousand dollars. The final cost was $1,200 as I remember. Totally worth it to me, the delight of my life. John Larsen gave the sign a fresh coat of paint, outlining the artwork. I had both sides restored.
I left town. I returned a few months later as I was writing a show entitled “Lost And Found Fairmont Histories: A Martin County Hornpipe.” The show sings and tells stories of Fairmont’s history, backdropped by historical photos of Fairmont all through the years. I chose the sign as the closing surprise in the show. At the very end I told the audience that historical preservation was very important to the community. We should save Fairmont and Martin County history however we can, leave a legacy for our children. Drum roll please. The sign was wheeled out on the stage and the cover removed. There, as the band played the Chicken Reel, the Kickin’ Chicken kicked again. The lights from the sign exploded throughout the auditorium. The crowd went wild.
The “Hornpipe” was enormously successful. I could give you many miracle moments that occurred during its conception and performance. After the show, I returned to Colorado. I had received permission from the High School to store the sign backstage until I could return.
When I returned a few months later, I went to pick it up. The glass tubing was broken in several places. A group called Up With People had played the High School Performing Arts Center and somehow they broke it. I was dismayed but took it immediately back to Fairmont Signs to have it repaired again. The cost was $500 so now I had $1700 into the sign.
We moved it to the basement of my parents’ house. What a private joy to go down in the basement, plug it in and watch it kick. It remained there for years. Over time, the neon gas needed to be re-charged and we had broken some tubing in transporting it so I took it again to Fairmont signs. It cost $400 so now I have $2100 into the sign. It went back to the basement.
My musical group, the Lost Nation String Band, performed in concert at the newly saved Fairmont Opera House. The sign needed neon again and glass repair–another $400. Now I had $2500 into the sign. We plugged in at the end of the concert while singing the Feed Bag verse from my song and once again the crowd went wild. Eleanor, the owner of the Feed Bag, was in the audience. As the chicken was kickin’, I introduced her and asked her to stand up. She got a warm round of applause.
A couple of years after that, I was driving by the Feed Bay and got the idea that something was missing at the drive-in. I called Eleanor and told her I would like to remount the sign, this time on top of the drive-in. John Larsen, Dave Nordby and I put it in a truck and spent a couple hours setting it in place. It was working beautifully and once again kicking at the Feed Bag! I was living in Madison, Wisconsin then and when I came back to visit my parents I would immediately drive out to the Feed Bag. There it was in full glory! Ah! Once again, I sat in my car, ordered a coney dog and tater tots and admired the great spectacle. How privately proud I was of saving and restoring the historic artifact.
Every time I came back home, I drove to check it out. No! No! On one of my trips I returned to find The Feed Bag closed, boarded up. The sign was gone. Gone. Gone. Where was it? I called Eleanor and she told me she had sold the property and retired from the drive-in business. Where’s my sign? “I sold it to a farmer who lives further south, close to the Iowa line.” She gave me his name. I was insulted she never called me to tell me she sold the property. I called him. “Yeah, I bought the property and I have the sign in my barn.” “Well, I’m coming out to get it.” “I own it now, ” he replied.
I drove to the barn. That’s my sign. “I’ll sell to you for $400.” I wrote out a check for $400 to buy my sign. It was broken again. Again I took it to Fairmont Signs to repair the glass tubing $500. Now I have $2,900 in the Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign. Totally worth it. There isn’t a price on Earth that was too much for keeping the chicken kickin’.
So back it went to Al and Clestle Nelson’s basement on Shoreacres Drive.
A year or so later, I received a phone call from a guy who said he grew up in Fairmont and wondered if I still had the Feed Bag sign. I said I did. He and his pals were at their hunting camp in North Dakota. I could hear other voices in the background. They were partying hardy. “Would you consider selling it to me?” he asked in a slurry voice. Well, I never thought about it. I told him the long and goofy story of it, telling the cost of having it repaired all along the way. “I’ll give you $5,000 for it.” I paused. I said no, not for sale. “Are you sure? $5,000 dollars cash.” No deal. I thought to myself, well, I could sell it and hold $5,000 in my hand but that would just be a handful of money. The money would soon be gone AND THEN I WOULDN’T HAVE THE FEED BAG KICKIN’ CHICKEN SIGN!
The Kickin’ Chicken’s next stage appearance was as star performer in the “Martin County Hornpipe” performances at Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in the mid 1990s. It needed a shot of neon and repair so I put another $450 bucks into it. (Now it’s $3350 I have in it). Rick Borchardt of Fairmont, a good friend of mine and my brother, trucked it up the 380 miles to Bayfield, Wisconsin. The Big Top was (and is) a magnificent tent show I founded along the south shore of Lake Superior, 3 miles south of Bayfield on a ski hill. It stole the show as it always had. The show closed and Rick trailered it back home to Fairmont and to Al and Clestle’s basement where once again it stood a few years. I always plugged it in first thing when I came back to Fairmont. Its glory grew in the glow of my mind and heart.
The Fairmont Opera House celebrated its centennial in 2001. The “Martin County Hornpipe” was booked for a 2-night run at the Opera House to help celebrate the wonderfully gorgeous restoration of the theatre. Of course, the sign came again to the stage. I assumed the neon would glow when I plugged it in but no. The neon again needed help. Where to go? Who to ask? The man at Fairmont Signs told me they no longer did neon. They told me the guy who always handled neon was retired and living in Jackson. “Here’s his name and number.” I called him. It was Saturday the morning of the show. He did a double take on the phone. He laughed delightedly. “Can you come right now?” “I’ll be there in an hour.” He arrived at the Opera House with an enormous smile. We introduced ourselves. He shook his head laughing as he approached the sign. “I worked on this sign for years. That was a good while back. I had no idea I’d ever see it again.” He pumped it full of neon and it lit up in its old glory.
We were both speechless for a while, grinning ear to ear. Thank you thank you thank you I told him. How much do I owe you? I mean you came on short notice on a Saturday out of the blue. Our show wouldn’t have the grand ending. How much? He stared at me with even a wider smile. “No charge.” I gave him two tickets to the show. He came.He was in the front row. As the chicken kicked, we gave each other the thumbs up.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce the star of tonight’s show— The Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign. As it was gloriously rolled out, the crowd went super wild as we sang my song “Minnesota Summertime.” People in the audience came on stage after the show to have their pictures taken in front of it.
For an hour after the show, people came up to me thanking me for saving the sign. They told me stories– “My dad took our family there for the Chicken-In-The Basket when I was growing up.” “I worked as a carhop there for three summers when I was in high school.” “My goodness, I loved the tater tots and coney dogs.” “I can’t believe this.” “How did you ever get it?”
It travelled back to the basement after the “Hornpipe.”
The reactions of the people got me to thinking. Everyone with Fairmont roots should be able to see the Kickin’ Chicken. A light went on in my head (was it neon?). It should be at the Martin County Historical Society’s museum.I called Lenny Tvedten, Executive Director. He was all for it from the get-go. John Larsen and I moved it to the museum where it quickly became a star attraction. Volunteers at the Museum restored it, put a plexiglass front on it to protect it. They did wonderful work. It was on loan from me. I’d go to the museum when in Fairmont to see it. Lenny put it center stage in the big room you come to when you first walk in. It rules.
One beautiful spring day when I was in Fairmont (sometime around 2006-7), Nina Archabal, Executive Director of the Minnesota Historical Society, travelled down from St. Paul to give the keynote address at the dedication of the Red Rocks Center which sits across the street from the Martin County Museum. I had met Nina in St. Paul at the state museum while I was researching my show “Old Minnesota: Song Of The North Star.” We played the show at the Minnesota Historical Society auditorium in 2008, the year of Minnesota’s Sesquicentennial. After her speech at the Red Rocks Center, in which she lavishly praised the incredible story of the dedicated volunteers who dreamed of an old church being saved from destruction and made into an arts center, she followed Lenny across the street to the museum. I tagged along. Upon entering the museum, she immediately saw the Kickin’ Chicken which was kickin’ full bore. She stopped in her tracks. She laughed a grand laugh and said, “Now that’s preservation!” I meekly said to her, “Nina, saving that sign is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” I think her estimation of me rose considerably from that moment on.
For the past few years, the Chicken has delighted thousands of visitors to the Martin County Historical Society Museum. I would see it in their newsletters as groups of school kids would pose in front of it– seniors, tourists, visitors from foreign countries, Fairmont and Martin County citizens. I always smile when I see the Chicken in the newsletters.
Forward to late fall, 2012. Unbelievably, I got a call from a man in Illinois who said he grew up in Fairmont, had seen the sign at the Museum. He noticed it was on loan from Warren Nelson. He made me a generous offer. He wanted to buy it for his wife, a Fairmont girl who carhopped at the Feed Bag, as a surprise birthday present. I emailed Lenny and told him of it. I told him I was only considering selling it because I needed money (who doesn’t) but would hate to see the sign taken out of Fairmont and out of the Museum. I told Lenny it really belongs where it is. He agreed.
Well, thanks be to generosity, an anonymous donor has bought the Feed Bag Kickin’ Chicken sign for the Martin County Historical Society. It is home forever. I think of years from now, when I’m gone. Unlike me the Chicken will still be a kickin’. I sure am hungry for Chicken-In-The Basket right now. Continue reading