The area’s first European settler, a trapper named Austin Nichols, built his cabin along the Cedar River in what would become the city of Austin in 1853. The city became an important regional rail center in 1867, though it could be said that the modern town was born in 1887 when George Hormel opened his butcher shop.
This trivial operation grew into the Hormel Foods Corporation, maker of SPAM and much more. Hormel, now a Fortune 500 company (the only one in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities  metro area), is still headquartered here and also keeps its research and development arm in town.
Spend even a moment here and it will become evident just how proud the 23,000 residents of the Mower County seat are to live in the land of SPAM: The Hormel name pops up all over town, the high school athletes are Packers, SPAMtown USA banners line the streets, and you’ll even find the mystery meat on many restaurant menus.
Learn everything you always wanted to know about SPAM (but were afraid to ask) at Hormel Foods’ humorous SPAM Museum (1101 Main St. N., 507/437-5100 or 800/588-7726, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun., free admission), just north of downtown along Main Street.
Believe it or not, this celebration of America’s luncheon meat is one of the best-executed museums in the state. Following the 15-minute film SPAM, A Love Story, the endless conveyor belt of navy and yellow cans will lead you past interactive multimedia displays on George Hormel’s first butcher shop, SPAM at war, historic ads, including those by George Burns and Gracie Allen, and much more.
One of Monty Python’s greatest achievements airs continuously, and you can also show off your SPAM knowledge by playing the SPAM Exam game show. At the end you can purchase a SPAM-emblazoned doll, necktie, basketball, or wine glass in the gift shop.
The rest of the town’s history—plus more about George Hormel—is told at the Mower County Historical Center (700 12th St. SW, 507/437-6082, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Fri., $5 adults), a collection of historic buildings, including a log cabin, blacksmith shop, and one-room schoolhouse, plus an M-4 Sherman tank and steam locomotive. None of the buildings are left open, so if you want to visit them you’ll need to be led around by a volunteer.
The SPAMtown Belle (507/433-1881, 5:30–8:30 p.m. Fri., 1–4 p.m. Sat. and Sun., $2 adults), a toy-like miniature paddlewheeler built in 1956, chugs around East Side Lake during the summer.
Although it’s now an events center, not a museum, if you stop by the Hormel Historic Home (208 4th Ave. NW, 507/433-4243, 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., closes 4 p.m. summer, $2 donation recommended) you can look around the luxurious former residence of the meat plant’s founder. It was built in 1871 and has been restored to the glory of the 1920s, when the family moved out.
Cycling fans will enjoy a look at the nearly 90 bicycles dating back to 1868 on display at Rydjor Bike Shop (219 Main St. N., 507/433-7571, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily.).
Although it doesn’t happen every year, Hormel hosts SPAM Museum Jam, the town’s biggest bash, in mid-June. There is music (including the harmonies of the SPAMettes female quartet), celebrity appearances, a classic car show, SPAM cooking contests, and much more.
Another noteworthy event is the Minnesota Storytelling Festival the first weekend in March. Storytellers from across the United States come to spin yarns and lead workshops, and there are opportunities for audience participation. Many events take place at the historic Paramount Theatre (125 4th Ave. NE, 507/434-0934, www.paramounttheatre.org ), a 1929 Spanish Colonial gem.
Most of the city’s hotels line I-90 on the north side of town, including the Holiday Inn (1701 4th St. NW, 507/433-1000 or 800/985-8850, $105), easily the city’s best. There’s a pool, whirlpool, sauna, fitness center, game room, and putting green under the dome.
The Countryside Inn (3303 Oakland Ave. W., 507/437-7774 or 800/277-7579, www.countrysideinnaustin.com , $45) further west is a good value. It has a whirlpool.
Austin has a good variety of restaurants. Jerry’s Other Place (1207 Main St. N., 507/433-2331, www.jerrysotherplacemn.com , 6:30 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 6:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., $3–25), a family-style restaurant near the SPAM Museum , seems to always be busy.
For a table with a view there is The Old Mill (54446 244th St., 507/437-2076, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5:30–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 5:30–10 p.m. Sat., $9–30) north of town. Known far and wide as much for being in an 1873 flour mill—the dining room overlooks the waterfall cascading down Ramsey Dam—as the food, the Old Mill has been a restaurant since 1950. The supper-club menu is mostly steak and seafood at night and sandwiches at lunch.
Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que (323 Main St. N., 507/434-8485, www.piggybluesbbq.com , 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Fri.–Sat., $7–22) sauces up hardwood-smoked meats.
White’s Tendermaid (217 4th Ave. NE, 507/437-7907, 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat., $2–4) is a classic closet-sized lunch counter. The Tendermaid burger is not so much a burger as a pile of seasoned ground meat on a bun. Once you get used to the concept, you’ll love it.
You can relax with deli sandwiches and caffeine at Coffee House on Main (329 Main St. N., 507/433-1200, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–midnight Sat., $4–6).