Post-Xprize update

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Congratulations to Edison2, Li-Ion, and X-tracer!

Xprize announced winners today, but a spoiler came shortly after midnight last night, Aug 15th, when Ronald Ahrens gave the NYT a story they couldn’t resist publishing early: an unofficial breakdown of the winners.

Here’s a few links from today’s news:

Coming this evening:

I apologize again for the slow blog progress. Personal setbacks, front-burner goals, and the start of an additional income stream have kept me away. I’ll put another entry up as soon as I can, preferably in the next week.

My goal is to run the blog in my spare time, since I’m not paid for it, until I exhaust the content I collected at Xprize. There are more intimate, inspiring and personal stories to come including transcriptions of team interviews.

This is my “message in a bottle”, flung into cyberspace to anyone curious enough to unroll the tale. This bottle contains the only extensive first-hand, layperson account of the historic Automotive Xprize — a spark igniting the production of tomorrow’s cars, a ray of light at the dawn of America’s return to manufacturing, innovation, and energy independence.

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Day 2, Part 2: Honesty

August 12, 2010 3 comments

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I stood in the shade behind the Xprize team garage at Michigan International Speedway and listened to Edison2’s team leader, Oliver Kuttner. In all directions black asphalt broiled the air mugging our lungs. But Oliver barely noticed. Forever brooding, he snaked through a maze of subjects: the political and manufacturing climate for new car platforms, the voodoo tech of vanquished Xprize teams, setbacks for Edison2, the upcoming tests at Argonne labs, and strategies for Tuesday’s Xprize race.

The team garage is around 150 feet long with rows of garage doors on the  north and south sides. There is no air conditioning. Since my arrival the 16-foot doors have been open to keep teams from stifling in the cavernous interior. Separated only by folding tables and tool chests, Xprize teams have worked in clear view of one another and Xprize staff. It’s a community of competition and collaboration. Whatever can be hidden from a rival team remains close to the chest; the rest is open to inter-team problem-solving, which isn’t happening at Aptera. They’re located twenty yards behind the garage under a large canopy tent hooked to the side of a rented semi-trailer.

I watched over Oliver’s left shoulder as the Aptera team quietly rolled down the walls of their tent, smothering the technicians working inside. Oliver remained face-forward. A former racecar driver, he’d already caught it in his peripheral.

“You know, we’re not supposed to do any major shit [to our vehicles]. It’s not cooler in there. They just eliminated the breeze.” Aptera steamed for several minutes in their sealed tent, and Oliver continued as I recorded him, saving my brain to ferret out the obvious: Aptera had a waiver in transparency granted, for unknown reasons, by Xprize officials.

“Now nobody here is innocent,” Oliver confessed. “Everybody has done something here or there that might be on the edge, but we’re all in the gist of doing good technology.” It’s a subject he’s broached before — the need for Xprize to let teams innovate and wring the potential from their cars so they can deliver new efficiency benchmarks to science and the automotive world.

Hands emerged under the Aptera tent and rolled the walls up. I excused myself and walked over to take a look. Inside the 40×30 structure mechanics and engineers swarmed a curvaceous three-wheeled vehicle. It’s a seductive car in person, almost female in form with endless sweeping lines. In 2006, founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony shaped the hull to the limit of aerodynamics for a side-by-side passenger car. In 2009 they left the company, and the internet buzzed with speculation.

Word was, vehicle re-design had shifted far enough from the founders’ vision of low-mass, low-drag as to cause lethal friction between themselves, the board of directors and new management.

I walked to the back of the car and noticed the large belly panel, removed and lying on the ground, was not composite like the rest. The armature around the single rear wheel was more crude than I’d imagined. I lowered the camera and took a photo I knew Aptera wouldn’t approve.

A technician immediately requested I keep it to myself. “You kinda caught us with our pants down,” he said, “and there’s some tech we wanna keep under wraps.” I agreed (later discovering the photo revealed nothing) and stood up to see a new figure lounging in a chair nearby, Paul Wilbur, the current CEO.

Paul rose to greet me. “It’s a piece to our air-conditioning system,” he said. Amicable and engaging, Paul led me on a tour, discussing the finish of the car, features, challenges, changes and the many times they’ve pulled the car apart since arriving at Xprize. “We don’t really need to win the competition. For us it’s the development and if we can achieve our own objectives, we’re fine….’cause we said overall EPA cycle we wanna be at 200 [mpg equivalent]. And if we get that and we don’t win to a covered motorcycle then we’re OK. We’ll still have the most efficient car in the world.”

During our extended conversation, Paul Wilbur was a verbal version of the rolling tent walls; his word selection and cadence served like a well-intentioned smokescreen, obscuring the reasons for Aptera’s middle-of-the-pack performance. Always polished and political, both he and Marques McCammon, his head of marketing, appeared to focus every action — verbal and non-verbal — on spin and image. No team is immune to some level of factual fog. But to me Aptera, the Xprize bully of funding, seemed like the Xprize wimp of humility and honesty.

We wound down our discussion just as two men arrived with parts. Mark bellowed a greeting. The components they delivered looked nothing like minor parts or fittings, and the team was quick to whisk them into the complex underside of the car.

Later, I stood with Paul Wilber and Marques McCammon under the steel skeleton of an old shade tent next to vehicle testing. The heat of the day had finally dissipated, and the mountainous bleachers of M.I.S. threw a long shadow over the infield. Paul Wilbur managed two pull-ups on the steel frame and bragged about Aptera’s team bicycles. “We use those to get around our factory. They’re really nice. That’s a driveshaft, and those are pneumatic tires.” I couldn’t help but wonder how a fleet of expensive bicycles made it into the budget of a car struggling to stay in the Xprize and a factory yet to be tooled for production.

An Aptera bicycle whizzed by. I followed it and walked up to another three-wheeled competitor, the TW4XP, parked at the entry to vehicle testing. Vehicle testing is nothing more than a parking lot located a safe distance from the garage and separated by concrete barricades. The racing track was available, but Xprize required written permission, review and granted approval — each time — before teams could test cars, one at a time, on the oval. So instead of jumping through insurance hoops, Xprize teams gathered back like kids at a high school parking lot to test their cars. As the radical creations zipped to and from the lot, Wolfgang Moscheid, driver and mechanic for TWX4P, waited his turn and spoke about their car.

“You see here,” he said, waving a long arm over the rear wheels, “We were concerned about rolling resistance so we modify camber. If you roll through water onto dry road, the track would only be this wide.” He shaped his fingers to one third of the tire width and a devilish smile invaded his face. “But it helps a lot with cornering.”

“What’s your overall weight?” I asked.

“Fifteen hundred fifty pounds right now — five hundred pounds too much. We want it lighter, but then the calculation is also for side impact and crash test and all the assimilations fully expressed.”

“And where would you take the weight out?”

“There’s so many parts. Like the blade in the front. Later on it’s an extruded [aluminum] channel, and the motor is more than double of the weight from what we use later on when the motor assembler will give us then a new type, especially with lower weight. These are only two parts…we don’t need this big brakes [from a production car]. At reproduction, we use a disc from a motorbike and this is enough. Some parts we build from steel and then later on from al-yoo-minium. But for this, you must have a real production and maybe ten thousand pieces a year.”

Wolfgang’s turn at the lot came. He graciously excused himself, leapt into the cockpit, and waved as the electric three-wheeler shot off in near silence.

At the steel tent frame, Oliver Kuttner had joined Paul Wilbur and Marque McCammon to watch the tests. Edison2 drove into the lot and drivers Brad Jaeger and Emanule Pirro, short-shifted their cars, lugging the engines as technicians sat beside them, divining the technical tea-leaves streaming from their laptops. The throb of the Edison2 one-cylinder engines droned alone under the intermittent whine of torque-filled electric engines and the tires screaming below them.

The Aptera rolled up for another test run. Oliver and two of his mechanics crowded around it, admiring the svelte vehicle. Aptera’s driver and lead engineer, Tom Reichenbach was at the wheel, and Oliver asked about the dash interface. Tom’s reply was surprisingly candid.

“First we went to Magneti Marelli, and they said ‘we can do you a dash.’ And they talked to us for a long time about how cheap it would be. Then they gave us the quote — nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars. We said, ‘forget that noise.’ So then we went to a place called [edited out]. They said, ‘We could give you a big discount on that — four hundred and fifty thousand dollars.’ We said, ‘Get out of here.’” Tom pointed at the bright display. “That’s out of a John Deere tractor, and we gave the manual on how to program it to one of our female engineers, Joanne, and she read it. She did that in three months.”

Oliver Kuttner, a man not easily impressed, nodded and smiled in admiration, “Nice.”


Hit your xprizeroadtrip bookmark in the coming weeks for days 3 and 4, featuring trackside commentary and a unique insider perspective of Le Mans racing legend, Emanuele Pirro.

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Quick update

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

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Updates have been slow coming. Thanks for your patience and thanks for coming back. Here’s the latest:

I arrived home from Xprize July 29, did a four-hour musical performance the next night, took a couple days off, another big performance for 1,500+ people on August 3, then mother and father in-law from AZ set up their RV in my driveway for a three-week visit.

In the midst of this and booking more music gigs and catching up, I’ve been transcribing taped sessions with Xprize teams from July 20th and drafting two more blog entries. I finished transcription tonight and will move forward with writing and assembling media to upload. Stay tuned — more Xprize goodies on the way!!

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Day 2, Part 1: Thoroughbreds

July 23, 2010 5 comments

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When I break during a music gig, people sometimes walk up to the stage as I’m tuning a six-string electric guitar and ask questions like, “What kind of acoustic is that?” or, “How do you like playing that there bass gee-tar?”

Now I’m one of them. As a musician fully embedded with Edison2 and blogging about Xprize, I’m the new village idiot, the guy with the trite, ignorant questions no one has time to answer. And it’s no wonder — today twelve survivors from a field of 111 teams began work at 7am and used every minute of a two-hour extension granted by officials to tune their vehicles for nearly 14 hours. The urban efficiency test begins tomorrow. The grueling highway test is Thursday, and today is go-no-go for final performance tweaks. Every team is at the threshold of history…100mpge in the finals of the Automotive Xprize.

Lon Ballard (foreground) leader of the Spira4U team

At first I hunkered over the laptop writing and feeling inept. But unless you’re an engine mapping guru, a laptop holds no allure in the Xprize garage. I looked over the top of my LCD screen. One bay over, Lon Ballard, the leader of Spira, snipped aluminum from a Coke can and fabricated a part for his machine. To my right,  Ron Mathis poured ice into the nose cone of an Edison2 Very Light Car, fitted with a styrofoam cooler, a bilge pump, and a hose leading to a motorcycle radiator zip-tied to a fan. The “ice bucket cooler” is a conductive cooling solution for air conditioning. Xprize rules were modified less than 24 hours ago from “No AC required,” to, “Temperatures cannot exceed X amount in the cabin,” sending teams scrambling for solutions.

Spira was not one of them; their vehicle is a cooler — a giant styrofoam tub bolted onto the side of a motorcycle engine. I got up the nerve to be the village idiot, approached their bay, and looked over the low slung tub: foam walls six inches thick, a full-length cockpit canopy hinged on one side with a thick insulating layer and small windows. It wasn’t pretty. The incipient form of their creation was less refined than other teams, but  their presence so late in the Xprize spoke volumes.

“The best things about Thailand are the cheap organic food and two-hour massages,” Lon Ballard said, beaming. Doug, his brother and team member #2, smiled with him.

Shortly after 9/11 they moved to Thailand to invest in real estate. The financial glitter of a condo market at 1980’s pricing and the Americans eager to retire there was quickly dimmed by the carnage they witnessed in the deadly road congestion.

“They’re putting cow catchers on cars to keep the motorcycles from scratching them…Yea, that’s real safe huh?” Their foam car is a radical design departure, created for the safety of the pedestrian as much as the driver. I saw a product with serious potential in the right markets. As I would soon learn, many Xprize teams began with a selfish idea — a way to make a buck or solve a personal need — and soon came to realize they’d stumbled over something with potential to change the world.

Chuck, lead engineer and part time driver for Zap Alias

At another bay, Chuck, Zap Alias’ manager of engineering, grabbed his chin and frowned. His eyes wandered over fat power cables splayed like octopus tentacles out of nameless metal boxes packed into the ‘engine’ compartment. “A lot of this is evolving so quickly, and it’s all prototype stuff,” he mused. But unlike other teams, he touched nothing. His expression was flat, calm.

“Given the circumstances you seem quite relaxed,” I began.



“Al [Al Unser Junior] is gonna drive tomorrow, but then he has to leave so I have to drive the car the rest of the week…” Silence. He massaged his chin and added, “Just a little pressure…”

In the bay of Amp motors, Tim, the head of electrical, was on his knees and pointing into the back wheel well of their modified Saturn. “Look at all this space. You have to push air out of the way at 70 miles an hour for what…the air in the wheel well? Aptera and Edison2 are smart to collapse this space. Pushing our weight, we’re over 3000 pounds, and pushing all this air…” His voice trailed off, pondering their chances at making it through the range test on Friday.

Amp is the only surviving retrofitted production vehicle. It seems no one was more perplexed by this than Xprize management. From the outside looking in, they appeared more interested in seeing a magically modified, 100 mpge current production car than the cars now populating the team garage.

At first, some of these surviving teams wondered if Xprize viewed their radical creations as  amateur-hour, forced on the contest by an apparent gaggle of garage-tinkering hacks on the edge of insurability (a potential conflict with Progressive Automotive Insurance, the main sponsor). But Xprize management learned quickly, as I did with Spira’s vehicle, that appearances can be very deceiving.

The mood is different now. A subsequent tale-of-the-tape presents a story of valid data and vindication. “Viable” platforms, the common car everyone drives today, all fell prey to the harsh reality of 100mpge. Whereas “Nonviable” platforms, these radical creations from around the globe, have now become Pedigree #1 – the thoroughbreds of our automotive future.

I was back at my laptop clawing the keys when a tenor voice with an Italian accent rang through the Edison2 bay, greeting team members and growing louder. I didn’t know it, but another thoroughbred had just landed from Rome and was headed my way. I looked up from my laptop and Emanuele Pirro, 5-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, stood before me lean and energized, his outstretched hand waiting for mine. He was here to drive for Edison2.

“He wouldn’t let us pay for his plane tickets,” Oliver Kuttner said later. “He believes in this platform all the way.” I watched Pirro as he gave his family a tour of the front suspension. He was light on his feet and moved with elegant speed. When he finished an impassioned review of the front suspension, his wife said, “Could that be a new solution?”

Pirro walked to the back of the car, turned quickly and swept his hand over the shimmering surface of Edison2 #95.

The whole thing is a solution.”

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Day 1: Cram session

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Inside a shadowed garage bay on the paved plains of the M.I.S. racing oval, the aluminum decals on an Edison2 Xprize car threw light at me, and my pulse began to race. For months I’ve watched this event take shape on an LCD screen. But today as I emerged from my old station wagon and began walking to the large multi-team garage, I felt a sense of wonder — like a time-traveler hurtling back from the future into the unwritten pages of history, or slung-shot forward into the dawn of transportation’s future. When I stepped inside and saw the exotic vehicles in three dimensions all around me, both happened at once.

I walked to the largest human in the Edison2 bay. Oliver Kuttner took his wife’s hand and announced quietly, “Hey Sweetles, Eric Lane is here. Let me introduce you to some teams Eric.”

I met the teams that weren’t tied up in technical inspection: TW4XP from Germany, X-Tracer from Switzerland, Spira from Taiwan, and Western Washington University. All the Xprize teams were gathered together, working in separate bays under the long roof of garage 3. All but Aptera. The CEO chose to rent a portable facility from Pratt Miller racing and remain apart from the other teams. As Oliver and I approached the threshold of the Aptera tent, they barked, “We’re a little busy.” So we walked two building over to technical inspections, where the last Edison2 was under the microscope.

“The technical inspectors really know their stuff,” Oliver said. “This is a slow careful process. At first it was a little nerve racking, but we’re used to it now.” My ears picked up a mumble from Bobby, an Edison2 mechanic: “If you can’t duck it, f*** it.”

I walked back to the team garage and watched the teams work. These were the remaining twelve from a field of 111 teams who submitted 136 vehicles. With everything on the line, these technological gladiators survived two harrowing gauntlets of efficiency; this week is the third with the stiffest requirements yet for range, economy and emissions.

In the garage I felt an air of hard-won confidence. But as I wandered and spoke with teams, it became clear the threat of sudden elimination hung like a guillotine over everyone. I saw it in the nervous glances at unfinished details, or the way a lone sentence trailed off into uncertainty.

These Xprize competitors walk through a never-ending mine field. They fret over which trivial component will unhinge them and prepare for if — or when — the trap door will open up below. As I wandered, clueless what to absorb first, Oliver joined me: “On the last knockout, we had a sixteen dollar part fail and it cost us two and a half million dollars,” he said, alluding to the loss of their side-by-side car and a chance at the 2.5 million dollar purse for that vehicle class.

Through the hot afternoon the sun-baked German spewed information like a dike about to come apart. He discussed team car platforms, carbon ‘buckets’, precision of execution, who has the best chance, CAFE regulation, exemptions, current and past platforms and on and on and on…

Regarding CAFE standards, he said some auto manufacturers are pursuing the mileage allotments and subsidies of electric vehicles like a ‘carbon credit’ for car manufacturers — a way to offset the growing penalties of their low MPG products and a government with the political will to enforce a Bush-era removal of CAFE exemptions. That story is unfolding in California with the recent deals between Honda and Tesla and becomes more relevant as our national CAFE average is bumped up year over year.

Under Obama, standards are slated to rise ten miles per gallon by 2016. “It is my personal opinion,” Oliver said, “and that of a number of people in the industry that when standards go to 34 miles per gallon, it will be nearly impossible to meet with any car in production today.”

We walked up to an Edison2 on jacks and Oliver flicked his fingers over various components. “See this?” he said, “Obsolete. This here? Obsolete. This whole car is obsolete now,” Oliver mumbled as we skimmed over Ron Mathis’ futuristic creation. Kuttner is hitting the fast-forward button, fixated on the future.

Today we touched a brilliantly executed platform of steel and aluminum. But for Oliver and Edison2, the next car is more tangible than the one before us. Whether it exists physically is irrelevant. The evolved  Edison2 vehicle platform is already created — already machined into the minds of Ron Mathis, Oliver Kuttner, and a hardened team of race professionals who run on the high octane of victory, innovation, and imagination made real.


More to come on the other teams and the 14-hour tuning day preparing for Wednesday’s urban cycle efficiency test.

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118 miles to go

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Seeing the town of New Ulm in one day is easy to do. But escaping their Bavarian Blast and throwing ones self into the Xprize is quite another: laundry, packing, correcting insurance claims, crafting a blog, buying black pants to fit in with the Edison2 team, grabbing final supplies, locating an affordable means to get around a two mile oval racing track, and getting my car washed by a Catholic school dancing team…

New Ulm didn’t show up in the rear view mirror until well after 2 p.m.

In 2007, I worked a storm in Chicago and spent a day downtown when I finished. That day, I looked down from the deck of the Hancock tower, then the Sears Tower, then Hancock again and saw a frozen river of automotive metal on I-90 from 6 a.m. until long after dark. I remembered thinking the only time anyone could navigate that concrete channel would be late Sunday night.

Last night at midnight I snaked past the Hancock tower at full speed. An hour earlier, a toll booth operator pointed at the velcro on my windshield and yelled, “Your window man!….your window!!”  It was then that I discovered the Chicago toll transponder I dumped in the passenger door three years ago was still working.

I shoved it back onto the velcro. The I-Pass transponder, still loaded with three-year-old money, lifted toll barricades for nearly a hundred miles. The surface of I-80 went to hell after the Skyway Toll Bridge, but the jazz on the radio made up for it. Midnight became 2:30/3:30 eastern, and I grabbed a hotel room in South Bend. It was nearly five before I finished uploading media for the blog.

At 8 a.m. I went down for breakfast and found it packed with girls and teenagers. They were in South Bend for America’s Youth On Parade where 5000 baton twirlers descend on the Notre Dame campus nearby. For the last hour they’ve been outside my window, practicing on the lawn.

Just now the boom box thumping over them finally stopped. I lie down, desperate for more sleep. Housekeeping knocks at the door. A bar calls about a gig this week. The room phone rings about a late checkout. The catastrophe company calls, asking if I want to go back to Minnesota (that storm west of New Ulm did heavy damage).

Fifteen minutes of peace. The alarm goes off.

I’m not sure how tired the Edison2 team will be today after the long haul to MIS and technical inspections on three cars. But after twenty-two consecutive fourteen-hour days at full throttle, running insurance claims and running short on sleep, I know I’ll be right there with them.

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The perfect place to begin

XprizeRoadTrip Flickr photo albums and YouTube videos

A dancing peanut shaped like a mushroom head wobbles past me. On the front of it, a  jack-o-lantern face squashes and contorts. Stabbing out where the ears should be, a pair of small black arms wave the air as it bobs like a jelly fish through the crowd. Poking out the bottom, a child’s legs scrabble like crab feet, propelling it through a cavernous circus tent enveloping the mass of people around me as we baste in the hot, curdled air.

The child and a string of sweating humans parade by. Among them are masked characters from a Hansel and Gretel world: men with giant hooked noses, witches, comic elderly faces with crossed bulging eyes, and the princess of the Bavarian Blast bearing an ornamental staff and marching in time. Driving this German conga-line are the oompa – oompa blasts of Die Zweiviertel Musikanten, a horn and clarinet band from Austria who came to this small German town 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis, Minnesota to perform for their Bavarian Blast. A musician from Colorado, I spend most of the year performing myself, but  I arrived here last week to work insurance claims for a storm that pounded the area with hail and wind.

And of all the places in America, this is where my journey to the Automotive Xprize begins: here at New Ulm Minnesota’s Bavarian Blast, where three massive tents radiate music nearly twelve hours a day for three days straight, and where the bones of the people are forged from the blood of the hardy German pioneers who settled here.

I sit, barely moving in the thinnest shirt and shorts I have. My Colorado skin steams, wet and hot in the broiling vapor. Before me, sheathed in heavy costume, the wooden masked characters of the “The Narren” clap and leap and whirl and lead a long human “snake dance”. These New Ulm Germans are tough, passionate and joyful people.

In 1860, one of them started Schell Beer, the second oldest family run brewery in America and the main sponsor of this Bavarian Blast. On a hill west of town, there’s a 30 ft copper statue on a 100 ft high monument where New Ulm celebrates another German who lived long before Schell.

Against all odds in 9 A.D., Hermann (Arminius), a Cheruscan chieftain, delivered the Roman legions’ first major defeat in the forests of central Europe. Hermann’s victory gave Caesar Augustus pause and he chose not to conquer central Europe.

Under the cathedral tent, Die Zweivertel blasts their last note. In the same breath The Concord Singers begin, and a sea of people roar into song with them, drowning out the thunder in a storm raging to the west. Lighting sparks constant in the distance; the cathedral pillars of the tent sway ominously in the threatening wind; and the roar of New Ulm fortifies itself against the coming storm. Fearless.

Tonight the journey begins, an Xprize Road Trip from the heart of a German town to the heart of a German man named Oliver Kuttner, the leader of Edison2, an automotive team competing for one of the largest purses in motor sport history.

Oliver, his team, and three of his four combustion engine cars have survived an onslaught of electric vehicles in a gauntlet of efficiency called the Automotive Xprize, a ten million dollar tournament for production viable cars that get at least 100 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). The German stands alone — the team leader of the only remaining four-person vehicle platform and the second of only two remaining combustion engine teams.

In a land where the nation’s deadliest battles between Indians and settlers occured, where New Ulm, nearly destroyed, barricaded itself against Dakota Indians and brutal winters, and where the statue of “Herman the German” heaves a giant sword into the sky in victory, I can’t imagine a better place to begin.


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