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St. Urho celebrates spring, saving the local wine crop, grasshopper annihilation

Private "Pissant," also known as Lee Vry, dances during the changing of the guard ceremony. With a dwindling population, he said he's recruiting more "Knights of St. Urho" if anyone is interested. Shyness is frowned upon, as public disrobing might be required. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Saints usually evoke benevolent thoughts of Mother Theresa surrounded by destitute children. But every March, Menahga plans a boisterous weekend to celebrate a giant sainted Finn with an even more ginormous grasshopper impaled on a pitchfork.

All hail the festival of St. Urho. His saintness is alleged, in Finnish folklore, to have eradicated a locust of grasshoppers feasting on the country's sparse grape crop.

Because of the short growing season, Finish grape farmers were also alleged to have injected vodka into the crop to enhance the alcohol content of the wine.

That folklore pretty much sets the tone of Menahga's annual tribute to a saint decked out in purple and green. Although St. Urho Day is officially March 16, Menahga schedules the festival on the weekend as close to the grasshopper annihilation as possible.

For his benevolent deeds and saving the careers of the Finnish vineyard workers, Urho was elevated to sainthood, although it's doubtful he's one of the Pope's litany of the holy.

Urho supposedly uttered "Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen" (roughly translated: "Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to Hell! in some languages or "scoot" in others.") That phrase is inscribed on the plaque under his statue in Menahga.

"You do know this is fictional?" a worried King Urho queried, then regained his composure. "But he is the Pope's most chosen."

This year's royalty, anointed honorary Urho and "Lena," were twins Leo Tomperi and Lori Elmore, whose claim to royal blood (and tin foil crowns) was that they turned 50 the night before, on Friday the 13th.

At high noon Saturday, they met their court, "high" being the state of mind of the participants, not the sun's direction.

A troupe of grasshopper groupies bowed to the royalty under the statue of Urho and the changing of the guard began once a green-and-purple clad rag-tag parade wound its way down Highway 71 for the signatory event, waving a Finnish flag and pitchforks.

The changing of the guard is actually the "changing of the underwear," and the "Knights of St. Urho," decked out in lavender union suits and wearing clusters of grapes and tiny green shot glasses around their necks, began the ritual "trou dropping" to hoots hollers and wolf whistles.

"We bought white long underwear and dyed it in the washing machine," explained Private Pissant a.k.a. Lee Vry. "Don't try it unless you really want to piss off your wife," he suggested.

Once the ceremonial undressing was over, the crowd moved up the street for the parade, then to Spirit Lake for the bar stool races and hilarity.

In homage to the sainted Finn, Menahga commissioned a carving of Urho in 1982 from a chainsaw artist, using a 2,000-pound block of solid oak. Time and Mother Nature eventually ravaged it.

It's been replaced with a 12-foot fiberglass replica that is supposed to withstand winters such as this one. There is also a statue in Finland, Minnesota.

Saturday night the Menahga VFW served up the traditional meal of mojakka and flatbread.

"I'm not sure what it is," said a convenience store clerk. "It's a cross between stew and soup but it's really good. It has meat and potatoes in it."

Now if Minnesotans can convince Urho to tackle the mosquito problem, he'll really earn his sainted status.