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Six essential Minnesota facts that will wow your family over the holidays

The best facts gleaned from a year of data reporting.

Minnesota's native trees are pretty well adapted to the cold.
Minnesota's native trees are pretty well adapted to the cold.

And so, after nearly two years of pandemic, plus fights over medical masks and vaccines and a U.S. Capitol insurrection — to name a few of the things that have happened this year — it’s the holidays again.

That means you might be visiting family, whose views you might or might not agree with when it comes to the aforementioned events.

In service to you, our readers, here are some interesting facts about Minnesota to wow your family and steer talk away from COVID-19 or politics.

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1. Christmas trees are shaped the way they are for a reason

Consider a fir tree. Or maybe a spruce. Whichever conical tree you may have recently dragged in your house, strung with lights and filled with ornaments, did you ever wonder why it’s shaped the way it is?

The small-top, big-bottom shape helps these trees survive in extreme climates.  Specifically, these trees’  shapes help them maximize light intake in latitudes where sunlight is limited and shines at extreme angles for parts of the year.


2. Minnesota has more Targets per capita than any other state

When talk turns to holiday shopping, supply your family with this factoid: Minnesota is the most Target-y U.S. state per capita.

In a sense, it’s not surprising. Target was born in Roseville in 1962, part of a wave of new discount retail chains across the country that also included Kmart and Walmart.

California, the most populous state, has the most total Targets, with 200 locations. But it only has 0.51 stores per capita. As of August, Minnesota’s 73 Target locations worked out to 1.28 stores per 100,000 residents — the most of any state.

3. Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has a horse (kind of)

Public officials in Minnesota are required to file economic interest statements. The disclosures are aimed at revealing any potential conflicts of interest in officials’ decisions and contain information like where the official earns income, any securities they own, real property — and whether they or their immediate family members have any interests in horse racing.

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As it turned out, that last asset category applied to an official who has had a very high public profile during the pandemic: Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. His name is Big Boy McCoy, he’s four years old, and he’s never won a race.

“I mean the whole idea is the horse is supposed to pay for itself by winning races but so far, we’re underwater as they say,” Malcolm told us, laughing.

Also, he’s actually Malcolm’s sister’s horse; Malcolm just helps with costs.

4. The Edmund Fitzgerald probably wouldn’t have sunk today

The legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the massive Great Lakes freighter that sank in a storm in November 1975, lives on, thanks at least in part to the Gordon Lightfoot song that memorializes the wreck.

But did you know it’s highly unlikely a wreck like that would happen today? Experts say that with improved forecasting, it’s easier to pinpoint where a big storm will hit with enough time to get a ship like the Ed Fitz to safety.

5. Under certain conditions, it might be okay to swim in the Mississippi in the Twin Cities

Under no circumstances is swimming in the Mighty Mississippi recommended in December, temperatures being what they are. But what about in warmer weather? Given the currents and pollution levels, can the Father of Waters  be safe for swimming?

It depends. As far as currents go, the river has some really fast and unpredictable ones, and people drown in it pretty much every year, so you should be careful and choose your spot wisely.

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Pollutant-wise, the river is much cleaner than it used to be. That doesn’t mean you should drink the water, but if you go at the right time — i.e. not immediately after a rain, and are careful, you probably won’t get sick from bacteria.

6. St. Paul’s Ramsey Hill is the most brutal incline for cyclists in Minneapolis or St. Paul

For the most part, the Twin Cities are vertically challenged. That said, it doesn’t always feel so flat on a bike.

So which hill is the worst one to climb on a bike? Using data from a topographic tool maintained by the Minnesota DNR and street-level impressions from a crack team of reporters, MinnPost determined that Ramsey Hill, which rises from the West Seventh neighborhood to Summit. Still, it has a bike lane, tempting you to try!