The Holy Grail of Saint Paul

Six medallion hunters talk about the year they found fortune

Every winter since 1952, thousands of pick- and shovel-wielding loonies have descended on the river bluffs, parks, and streets in and around St. Paul. Their goal is to find the St. Paul Winter Carnival medallion, and they do everything in their power to unearth it--including waiting in line at midnight outside the St. Paul Pioneer Press offices, so as to buy the next day's paper and the clues to the hunt.

Over the years the prize money has increased from $1,000 to $10,000, but the winners will tell you they're not really in it for the money. The medallion hunters do it for the glory and the thrill of the chase. Here are six who've touched Minnesota's version of the Holy Grail.

 

Merrilla Paulson
1955
found at Seventh and Robert Streets
I was 37; I'm 85 now. I went out the night before and got the early edition [of the St. Paul Dispatch] on Rice Street. And I came back and my children--the boy was 14 and the girl was 12 and the baby was two months--they said this lady down the street called me and she said she didn't drive but she knew where it was and would I drive her. So I did.

But when we got there, it wasn't where she thought it was. I went to where I thought it was and there it was. Magnetized in this big condo [electrical] pipe underneath a little mailbox on Seventh and Robert.

"Oh! A bat!" I hollered, because this thing just flew off. It fell down on the street. And this woman came running and she picked it up and she hollered, "Ooh! I found it! I found it!" And these people came running, and I was like, "How am I going to get it back from her?" because she had it.

These people were following us and talking to us and we'd walked a while and so I walked up to her and I said, "I found it." And with that, she handed it back to me.

I got in a cab and I looked like a lumberjack. I had the scarf around my head, and this lantern, and this big condo pipe, or whatever you call it. And I went to the Dispatch building. I had it in my pocket, and the certificate that [said] I found it was there. I wanted to go to the police station, because I was scared someone would take it. My picture was in the paper the next day, and it was just the biggest splash.

I was a housewife. We had just built a new home in Midway Park. There was some big talk that came out, "Oh, they've got money, they don't need the money," and all this stuff. I went to church, I had a fur coat, but my husband worked at the Ford Motor [company] and bought the fur coat for me for Christmas, you know? I just ignored all that and was just happy I found it.

It's still exciting. I've been looking for it since the first year, and I still go out looking every year. When your paper comes out, I'm going to underline it and give it to my grandchildren and say, "That's your grandmother."

 

Mary Jane Hilsgen
1964
found at Beaver Lake (Lincoln) Park
I was with Lucy Hansen--she was a friend of our family--and her five-year-old daughter, Donna. Her husband and my dad were policemen, that's how we knew each other. It was in a brick. We both found it; it was pretty exciting.

The night before, my parents and I had gone out looking. The clue that gave us the location was Leave It to Beaver, and we knew it was at Beaver Lake. It was a beautiful day, in the 40s, with the snow melting. We found it at about nine in the morning, just after Lucy sent her kids off to school.

I was a freshman in high school at St. Joseph's Academy. Back then, $2,500 was a lot of money. You were a celebrity for a day. The [St. Paul Winter] Carnival was very exciting at that time. I had always gone out with my dad, looking. We went back to Lucy's house, and my parents came over, and we were interviewed by the radio and the newspaper. They took our pictures and gave us the money. I bought a set of encyclopedias and banked some of it and later used it for nursing school. I'd compare it to the birth of my three children or getting married.

We don't look for it so much now, having moved out of St. Paul. We're in Woodbury now, and as you get older, it's not as interesting. You don't have the time when you're working. Lucy lives in Arizona now; we haven't been in contact for years. They were friends of my parents. I don't even have her address.

 

Chris Bunde
1973
found at Phalen Park
My cousin [Todd Bunde] and our friends Mike [Hurley] and Jim [Zielinski] had looked for it with our parents 10 years before, when we were kids. That's how we got the bug. I've looked for it every year since.

We were in college at Mankato State at the time. We didn't have any classes Friday, so we came up on Thursday. We knew from the previous clues it was at Phalen. They got down to the last clue and it was a beautiful Saturday morning. There were still two papers in those days; the Dispatch came out at 10:30.

In those days, there were no cell phones or [medallion] internet [blogs], so you had to go to the paper and get the clue. Jim and Todd went and got a paper, and Mike and I stayed in the park. I saw Mike and Todd running across Phalen Lake, pretty much ahead of everybody else with the first [copy of the] paper.

They handed it to me, and I read the clue. It talked about "13 paces northeast from the number 13 pole." And in that instant, everybody knows the clue, but they all went to the wrong pole, because the numbers had been pulled off the pole.

Jim and Todd had gone off and collapsed somewhere, and I said to Mike, "They're going to the wrong pole." I backed my back up to the pole and lined it up northeast, took what I thought was 13 paces, and knelt down. There was only about two inches of snow. I pushed it back, and it was right there.

A couple of people jumped on my back, but I was 21 years old and I just got up and ran. It was $2,500 at that time, which doesn't sound like a lot of money, but we split it four ways and my share paid for two quarters of tuition at Mankato State. It was good, because my financial well was pretty dry at that time.

 

Bill Gough
1977
found at Irvine Park
I was 21, a student at Macalester, and a friend of mine and I had been planning on going to a park that night to look for the medallion. I was between classes and I saw the morning clue and I thought, "What the heck, I'm gonna get in the car and go look around anyway."

I had been looking for it since I was a kid, but this was my first time out that year. I wasn't down there more than 15 minutes when I saw a little piece of litter, a bit of cardboard sticking above the snow pack. I reached down and it felt heavy. It was an Eric cigar box. I opened it up and inside, in plastic, was the original bronze medallion.

It was dumb luck. There might have been about 10 or 15 other people there at the time. I saw that thing and my heart just raced. I ran to my car and I wasn't sure what to do--celebrate by myself or take it to the paper or what. I was working part-time downtown at the St. Paul Public Library at the time, and I went into the library, into the reference room, and showed the librarians. I thought they'd get a kick out of it; they were all pretty excited. I just flashed it in front of them.

The paper gave me $1,000 and the Winter Carnival Association was supposed to supplement that with $1,500 if I had a registered [Winter Carnival] button. So I went over to get the check, and they said I hadn't registered on time. Evidently, it was a day late, so that mistake cost me $1,500. I was a pretty lazy college student at the time and I just didn't pay attention to deadlines as closely as I should have.

I have to admit, I go out looking every year. Once the bug bites you, it's hard to let go. I'm more of an armchair hunter now, but my son, who just graduated from the U and has a job in Michigan right now, comes back and looks for it. And I've got two boys who are 14, and they're nuts for it, and we all go out. The most fun about it is, you get out there and see all these people with blank looks on their faces, with shovels, and...it's just humorous. People are crazy.

 

Cookie Howard
1995
found at Battle Creek Park
I found it with my friends, Rachel Olson and Kay Anderson. Actually, Rachel is the one who picked it up. Every year we go over the clues. In those days, everything was simpler. Everything is so complicated now. I wasn't doing anything in 1995. I was retired. In my day, you worked until you got pregnant and you stayed home and raised your family. It's just totally different now.

We went over the clues and figured out B-A-T-T-L-E, and the next day we went to Byerly's and walked around and had a few [food] samples and drove out to Battle Creek. And that was it. It was in the cards. It was fate.

Everyone is so friendly during the treasure hunt. Kay and I were visiting with this really friendly man when Rachel motioned and yelled for us to take a little walk someplace. As soon as we got up close to her, she said, "I've got it." And we said, "Yeah, right."

She's the calm one of the three. She wouldn't take it out of her pocket until we got back to the car, and Kay and I were out of our minds. We really exploded.

I mean, we have hunted forever. And been so close so many times. We'd looked since the first one. I'm 74: I've been a hunter for a long time. We had phone calls from absolute strangers saying they were so happy that we'd found it. They knew from the paper we'd been looking a lot of years. And we're still at it.

We're in the same bridge club and we love every minute of treasure hunting. We go out every day. We start out early; we have a lot of good lunches. We don't go out Sunday, the first clue. But by Monday, we're getting itchy.

 

Cathi Hogan
2001
found at Como Park
My family has always been real involved in the Winter Carnival. We always took part in the events. When we were little there were ice castles and there was a toboggan ride where they'd close the streets in St. Paul. And we always looked for the treasure. I probably wasn't quite as obsessed as I have become as I've gotten older.

When I had kids, that was part of our ritual. I really burned them out because none of them were very interested. I have four kids and at first they started in the front pack. They'd have a plastic shovel and pail. It was out of necessity: I couldn't afford a babysitter, so they had to come along. My oldest daughter, who is now 23, lives in California and every day she calls and asks what the clue is. But the other three and my husband just kind of put up with me. They know it's an obsession.

I look all day and all night. At first, my husband would wait up for me. Pretty soon, as we were married longer, he'd just say, "See you in 10 days."

In 2001, one of the first clues said, "a peaceful bird." So I was pretty sure it was in some "dove" something. So I went to the grocery store and bought Dove candy bars and Dove ice cream bars and Dove soap, and brought them all home. And the only thing that wasn't wrapped in a dark wrapper was the Dove soap, so I was sure it would be in a box of that.

I was pretty sure it was in Como. I'd looked all day and all night. I knew I was close. But I went home and went to bed and got up that Monday morning and made myself a lunch. I went at about nine. Got out of the car with a shovel and a hoe and walked up to the area where I'd been looking. It was really dug up. So then I just found a spot that hadn't been dug, and aligned myself with the road and the swing set that had kind of marked clues. And I started digging. On the third shovel, there was a Dove soapbox.

I was by myself, and I dropped to my knees. I could hardly walk. I opened the box. It had been taped and inside was a sock that said "Iron Man" on it. One of the clues had said, "man of steel" in it. I knew I had it.

So I put it in my pocket and started walking out of the park. This lady stopped me and said, "Are you okay?" because I was crying. And I said, "I think I found it." She looked at me like I was an old lady who didn't know what I was talking about.

So then I just turned and screamed into the park--I bet there were 50 people there--"I think I found it!" And everybody put their shovels and digging things down and started running at me, and my heart started beating really fast and I took off for my car. Everybody was so nice. I got in the car and shut the door and opened the box. And there it was: the medallion. It was awesome.

The money was never on my mind. But when I found it, it was awfully nice to have. I split it with a woman who was going to meet me there that day, who I looked with for years. So I gave her $5,000, and some to the kids and my husband, and I bought a mattress for our bed. We'd always had hand-me-downs, so that was big-time.

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