When Jim’s Apple Farm re-opens for the season this weekend, the big yellow barn on the side of 169 in Jordan will be bigger and more yellow than ever. Jim’s, of course, is otherwise known as MINNESOTA’S LARGEST CANDY STORE, and is probably the most familiar landmark along the stretch of state highway between Minneapolis and Mankato. Countless hand-painted signs running the length of the entire building extol the wonders contained within: “MINNESOTA’S LARGEST CANDY STORE / WORLD’S LARGEST SODA SELECTION / 155 KINDS OF ROOTBEER.”
The painted signage goes beyond merely depictions of soda and root beer, though: There are paintings of the jerky, jams, bacon, pies and jigsaw puzzles also sold there, both outside the barn and once you set foot inside. The sizes run the gamut from tiny aisle displays for each of the 85 varieties of saltwater taffy to an 80-foot billboard over the parking lot. Also making appearances are maps, apiaries, farm animals, diagrams, visual jokes, and big, bold marquee lettering – it’s a catalog of popular rural American imagery, with a sense of playfulness, and a touch of wry amusement. There may be no commercial enterprise in the state of Minnesota that utilizes more handmade signage per square foot than Jim’s Apple Farm.
All those hundreds of signs, it turns out, are painted by one person. That person is Jessica Barnd, painter, Jordan High School art teacher, and “secret weapon” — as she’s called by some of the staff — at Jim’s Apple Farm for the past seven years. She is quite possibly right at this moment with her family under a cloudy blue sky in the barn’s new addition, finishing up the details on a mural that spans the ceiling of the entire room, pieced together on 60 4’x10’ panels.
Jessica is the painter, but the whole Barnd family – her parents, Steve and Bonnie, and her brother Josh – have roles to play. When I visited over the past weekend, Steve and Josh were testing out the wiring on 10 hot air balloons that methodically rise and fall from pulleys in the ceiling, controlled from a panel in the wall. Owner Robert Wagner wanted hot air balloons, it was decided a few months ago. Hot air balloons that went up and down, with no visible fixtures. So the Barnd family and some local engineers and contractors set about solving the problem, and then fabricating 10 seasonally themed hot air balloons, painted with images of turkeys, floral arrangements, rabbits, apples and candy, with macramé baskets by Bonnie. They do indeed silently and asynchronously rise and fall on wires from nearly invisible slots in the ceiling. There are no fixtures to be seen.
“The Barnd family has the right dynamic,” says Jessica. It’s that easygoing, collaborative and witty dynamic that’s created an environment of pure pleasure and wonderment.
The new wing was built over the winter, and the expanded building will indeed be more yellow. The entire barn is being repainted, it’s explained, but there’s a hold-up.
“They ran out of yellow paint,” Steve told me. “Not just in Minnesota. They’re out of this shade of yellow paint in the entire Midwest.” I wasn’t sure if I’m being told a joke or not, but it seems plausible.
The new expansion is much lighter and higher than much of the rest of the building – the aerial theme of the ceiling is wholly appropriate. A series of windows near the ceiling face 169, and when the room is lit up at night, you can see the mural from the highway through them. Jessica has painted a biplane flying across the wall, pulling a banner emblazoned with Jim’s Apple’s Farm’s motto and its unofficial name: “MINNESOTA’S LARGEST CANDY STORE.” Picture windows beneath the biplane frame the DNR-protected wetlands behind the building. For the cold months when the store is closed, Jessica painted the swirling cotton-candy clouds on individual panels on the floor, switching out the background blue a few times, piecing the whole image together – “the winter project of the century,” she called it. In the past month, those 60 panels have been flipped and mounted on the ceiling, created an unbroken skyscape over the aisles of candy.
The Barnd family and the Wagner family, which owns the nearby apple farm, had known each other for years — Jessica now lives in Chanhassen but grew up in Jordan, and the rest of the family is close by. Jessica had a background in theater and set design, and about seven years ago tried her hand at making some signage for the store. People liked it, so she kept making more.
She really hit her stride a few years later, though, after owner Wagner realized she wasn’t particularly sentimental about the signage – a holdover from her theater background, when sets are made, put up and then taken down again in short order. “No time for tears,” says her brother Josh. “Just give us a budget and a due date, and we’ve got it.”
From there, the signage multiplied exponentially. New signs, bigger signs, and more every season. “Some of the original signage from six or seven years ago doesn’t exist anymore,” says Jessica. It’s in a state of constant addition, revision and flux. “There are people only make it out here once a year,” she says. “Every time they’re here, they can notice something new. There’s always a new flavor.” Metaphoric flavor, sure, but also literal favor – there are always new flavors of candy that need new signs.
Jessica’s paintings suit the eccentric, analog quality of the candy store. Jim’s Apple Farm is a place, after all, that attracts thousand of visitors despite not accepting credit cards, and not having a website, Facebook page or even a public phone number. It’s bold, colorful, whimsical, somewhat unconventional, and funny without being silly, all made with a sense of wonder.
If you’ve been to the store before, you’d probably recognize Robert Wagner as the guy with the headset and the red suspenders walking the aisles and helping customers locate specific brands of regional soda pop. Toward the end of my visit this past weekend, he stops by, and sees the balloons in action for the first time. There’s a little bit more work to be done, but the effect of these objects that have been engineered to mimic a sense of weightlessness is mesmerizing.
The sense of theatricality in the display, in all of Jessica’s paintings and signage, and in the many other details engineered by a member of the Barnd family isn’t a coincidence. The displays and props are sort of like a set, meant to be lived in and project a utilitarian quality. It’s meant to handle some degree of interactivity from restless, underage clients. “[The fixtures] are meant to take some abuse,” says Wagner. He doesn’t want a hands-off quality in the store. “That’s so negative,” he says. “You’re not going to break a Tootsie Roll.”
Everyone stops for a moment to watch the balloons against the painted clouded sky, with the wetland visible through the picture windows beneath them. It’s a perfect tableau of natural beauty and artistic ingenuity. Wagner tells the story of the wetland out back – 60 years ago, he says, the owner of the property went down to the local hardware store to buy some dynamite, with the intention of blasting out a duck habitat. And so he did. (“Apparently you could hear the explosions for miles,” notes Wagner. “It was a real free-for-all.”) That landowner’s handiwork is now beautifully framed by the new windows.
“There are things you can do with space out in rural Minnesota that are hard to do anywhere else,” he says. His store and Jessica’s painted handiwork are a testimony to that ideal.