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Finding Minnesota: Otto The Big Otter

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. (WCCO) — When you’re the county seat of Otter Tail County, with Otter Tail Lake nearby and The Otters as your school mascot, you better be into otters.

They seem to be, in Fergus Falls — judging by the affection they have for an enormous creature on the east edge of town.

Otto is a 40-foot otter statue in Adams Park, and it’s become part of the experience of being a child in this town — climbing on top to enjoy the view.

“It’s just a quirky piece,” said Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, “and it’s set next to the lake here, and it’s just a beautiful setting.”

Otto has been overlooking Grotto Lake since 1972, when a group of teenagers built it — teenagers whose hair has since gone a little gray.

Tim Overland, 56, was one of a handful of high school students in machine shop, assigned to the project.

“Yeah, we knew it was going to be a mascot,” Overland said, “and we kind of thought, ‘Boy, if this thing doesn’t turn out, I really don’t want my name on it.'”

His shop teacher was Tom Willett, hoping to turn a pile of rods, pipes and cement into a nice centennial gift for the city.

“For a long time, it didn’t look like it was going to go,” Willett said, “but it did. It took shape.”

He credits a local metal artist, Steve Jaenisch, for stepping in to save the project, when the students’ first attempts didn’t really resemble an otter.

Now, it’s an icon.

“Must have been 100,000 kids photographed on top of this thing,” said Jaenisch.

It’s been the backdrop for picnics, reunions — even a few weddings. And the guys who were just kids when they built it can now bring their own kids and grandkids.

“When you’re young, 18, you’re kind of thinking ‘well, no big deal,'” said Overland. “And now, as I drive by, I thought ‘well, you know, that turned out pretty cool.'”

The men who helped build Otto said they were nervous the first few years afterward.  They were afraid his head might fall off, or he might collapse in the middle.

But as he approaches his 40th birthday, Otto is holding up just fine.

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