There are now more nutcrackers than people living in Luverne

A person walks through the Nutcracker exhibit
Gary Kessler from Sioux Falls walks through the Nutcracker exhibit on display at the Rock County Historical Society In Luverne, Minn., on Thursday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Luverne is a small southwest Minnesota town of almost 5,000 people. But, now, as the result of an exhibit at the Rock County History Center, there are more nutcrackers than people in the town. 

Thousands of nutcrackers line the shelves and cabinets at the museum. From miniatures to eight-foot statues, the are no duplicates on the shelves stretching around the rooms. There’s even a whole section dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s 1892 Nutcracker Ballet with musical dolls. 

There are even local artist-designed sculptures of nutcrackers scattered around Luverne. Mae and Mark Lovik of Sioux Falls, S.D, came by to the museum to take a look. For Mae, they remind her of childhood and the holidays. 

“That was one of the things that every year at Christmas my dad went out and bought mixed-nuts,” she said. “And we had a bowl on the table with a nutcracker on it.”

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Many of the nutcrackers in the collection
Many of the nutcrackers in the collection of over 5,000 amassed by Betty Mann at the Rock County Historical Society are grouped into similar themes, such as this group of patriotic nutcrackers.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

And Mark was surprised by the variety.

“They’ve got some of the hunting and fishing guys and it’s kind of interesting to see that,” he said. “And I’m just looking here at some of the Spaceman and things like that. Ones that I guess I never would have thought would have been available.”

It started with one…

Luverne’s nutcracker collection started with a personal donation of more than 2,500 nutcrackers by former historical society president Betty Mann in 2016. Since then, the Rock County Historical Society had been trying to see if they could collect more dolls than people living in town. 

A person unboxes nutcrackers
Betty Mann unboxes nutcrackers brought in by Robert Black at the Rock County Historical Society. Mann compared the newly donated nutcrackers to the current collection for any duplicates.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

According to the 2020 Census, Luverne had 4,946 people. The collection surpassed that number earlier this month and donations continue to come. 

In 2000, Mann lost her husband and oldest daughter. The holidays were tough, and the following year Mann visited the Cracker Barrel in Sioux Falls where everything Christmas-related was half-price. The first nutcracker she bought there was for six dollars and her collection began. 

Decked out in a holiday sweater with a nutcracker, compete with nutcracker earrings, Mann often shares stories behind some of her favorite dolls. Some come as far as Germany and were around when the Berlin Wall fell. Some had personal memories attached to them. 

“This little one here, it doesn’t look like a nutcracker does it?” Mann, 92, said. “But my great grandson 10 years ago was an eight-year-old. And when he whispered in my ear, ‘Grandma,’ he said. ‘I made you a nutcracker out of my Legos.’”

A nutcracker-shaped hook

The wooden nutcracker dolls originated in Germany in the late 17th-century. Mass production of the dolls started in 1872 and they spread throughout Europe. 

While they’re usually seen as wooden soldiers, over the decades, they now can look like different occupations, animals, rock stars or even Darth Vader from Star Wars. 

Darth Vader alongside his nemesis Yoda
Amongst the 5,000 nutcrackers in a display case at the Rock County Historical Society is the iconic Darth Vader alongside his nemesis Yoda. The collection contains almost every type of figure imaginable; Minnesota Vikings, pirates, masked Mexican wrestlers, policemen, Wizard of Oz characters, animals and Santa Clauses.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

But Mann said her donation was never about just making a designated Nutcracker museum in Luverne. 

“I gave the collection to get people to come into the museum, because I heard people say, ‘Let’s go see the museum,’” she said. “Next person says, ‘Oh, you’ve seen one museum, you’ve seen them all.’”

Mann saw the nutcrackers as a hook to bring traffic into Luverne, while also drawing guests to the museum. Wendel Buys, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society, said about two-thirds of visitors usually come because of the nutcrackers. 

“Then once they’re in the door, so to speak, we’ve caught their eye,” Buys said. “And they go see all the other exhibits. We have a lot of really interesting smaller items that you don’t see. It’s just very cool that way, but then also the fact that it’s local.”

‘Just blossomed’

Betty Mann talks with Robert Black
Betty Mann, left, talks with Robert Black from Sioux Falls who donated 1,300 nutcrackers to the collection amassed by Mann that now tops 5,000.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

A while back Robert Black of Sioux Falls, donated around 1,300 nutcrackers from his own collection. Some he bought while stationed in Germany. He swung by the history center on Friday to drop off another several boxes of nutcrackers. Black’s proud to see some of his own dolls on display and being enjoyed by others. 

“This has just blossomed, you know, in the last five or six years from when I brought them over,” Black, 82, said. “It was easy to pick out some that I brought over. It’s much harder now.”

Mann never thought that her nutcrackers would become such an attraction for Luverne. Now, it’s on permanent display for everyone to enjoy all year-round and they’ll keep taking nutcrackers — as long as they can find the space.

“There are people in Luverne who were not very fond of the nutcrackers and that’s fine,” she said. “It’s their personal feeling. But for me, I did it to draw people into the museum, and it has done that job.”

A person poses for a portrait
Betty Mann, 92, poses for a portrait with a collection of over 5,000 nutcrackers that she has amassed at the Rock County Historical Society.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News