In 1968, the Dow Jones Industrial Average at year’s end was 943. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was the highest grossing film of the year at $56.7 million. At the start of the year, the Green Bay Packers won Superbowl II. In Belle Plaine, the Skunk House was born.
“The Year That Shattered America,” according to Smithsonian Magazine did no such thing to Belle Plaine, and in that year the Skunk House, now a local institution, was created; this year marks the novelty’s 50th iteration.
Walking into the home of Jon and Brenda Hallgren, one would see not one or two but several Christmas trees. An elf on a shelf, at least as of Monday, Dec. 3, sits on a hanging light in their kitchen. Semi-nostalgic and contemporary holiday décor covers large portions of the walls of their Robert Circle home. But for the people of Belle Plaine, who have known and loved the Skunk House for the last 50 years, it is not what is inside their home, but what’s outside that signals the quintessence of the holiday season.
When Dr. Roger Hallgren, Jon’s father and Brenda’s father-in-law who lives with the couple, had practically just begun his private medical practice in Belle Plaine in 1964, his late wife, Shirley, came home with a set of life-sized animatronic skunks from the now defunct, then still fledgling Toys R’ Us company in the Southdale Shopping Center in Edina.
“She called and said, ‘Do you care if I buy some skunks?’ These were the things that appealed to her,” Roger said from within the den at the Robert Circle residence, which overlooks an open yard and ravine. “So we put them all together.”
The skunks made by the Dayton Toy Company, which were designed to be window models and draw in children to their stores, needed a new home. So the Hallgrens commissioned Edberg Construction to build the roughly 8x5x3 foot structure known today as the Skunk House.
The seven skunks, which include adults and children, were given three rooms—an upstairs attic, a den complete with a miniature Christmas tree and a bathroom in which a young skunk is getting a bath from its mom. Also included is an enclosed pond on which to skate outside the house proper, with everything wrapped in a transparent layer of Plexiglas. Passersby are granted a vignette into an idealized classical depiction of the holidays immortalized by stinky pests.
“These skunks don’t bite though,” Dr. Hallgren said with a grin after explaining that he, in fact, does not like skunks.
Since its inception in 1968, the Skunk House has gone off virtually without any snags, Jon and Dr. Hallgren noted. Every year the house has been put together piece-by-piece, and every year it has been taken apart piece-by-piece. Storage and setup locations have changed—the house was once stored at Dr. Hallgren’s clinic—as the family moved from Cedar St. to their current south side of town residence, but the floor plan, scenery and outfits have remained the same. Aside from the motors burning out several years ago and the occasional freshening up of paint, nothing about the Skunk House or its residents has changed. This is by design, Jon said.
“You don’t need anything else,” Jon said.
As one might imagine, finding replacement parts for toys made over half a century ago is a task that is virtually impossible, according to the Hallgrens, but thanks to the sharp mind of a friend in maintenance who repairs the motors using aftermarket parts and went so far as to draft wiring diagrams for the critters, the family does not need to immediately worry about the skunks breaking down permanently, at least mechanically.
“We haven’t done anything with the fur or anything like that, but it’s starting to show wear,” Dr. Hallgren said. “But how the heck do you fix that? It would be a taxidermist, I guess.”
The Hallgrens noted that, as soon as the fall season approaches, neighbors typically begin asking questions about when the Skunk House will be erected. The answer is the same every year. It appears the Friday after Thanksgiving until the first of the year, except for a few years ago, when the family got a special request from a woman whose sister was out of town to keep it up for a week longer than usual so her family could keep up a family tradition of viewing the Skunk House upon the sister’s return.
Jon, who with Brenda has taken over the setup and take down of the Skunk House, admits there have been times in which the elements have nearly deterred him from doing so. Except for one year when the Hallgrens did not set up the Skunk House because Dr. Hallgren was out of town, the house has remained a Belle Plaine staple since its inception, and Brenda stated there are no plans to stop.
“We’re afraid of what would happen if we didn’t put it out,” Brenda, who has been involved with the Skunk House since 1995, said with a chuckle. “It might not end well for us.”
Dr. Hallgren stated that attention from younger people has been waning due to what he called “too many distractions.” But the Hallgrens believe that the Skunk House will be a Belle Plaine tradition for the foreseeable future.
“So when we die, do we bequeath the Skunk House to somebody?” Brenda posed to her husband, Jon, with a smile. “Or we’ll sell the Skunk House and you get our house for free.”