In defense of 'Thor,' Marvel picks an unheroic fight with a Minnesota apple orchard

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Thor Aamodt founded Aamodt's Apple Farm in 1948, and four generations have been involved in the family business since then. Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Thor Aamodt’s retirement plan was to do hard work. In 1948, the University of Minnesota professor of horticulture and entomology bought more than 100 acres in Stillwater and began converting the property into an apple orchard.

Aamodt had a theory that the Twin Cities could shield the farm from hailstorms, potentially ruinous to an apple crop. Most storms move west to east, and Thor thought the heat bubble of the cities would break up cold air fronts before they reached Stillwater. In six decades, Aamodt’s Apple Orchard has been hit with only three hailstorms.

Thor ran the orchard until 1972, when he sold it to son Tom, who’d followed his father into the horticulture/entomology fields. The training did not prepare Tom for another kind of plague: the farm crisis of the 1980s, when property values dipped as farmers took on debt. Some 20,000 Minnesota farms closed.

In 1988, when Tom sold the orchard to two of his sons, they inherited $1.6 million of debt. Chris Aamodt had grown up taking early-morning rides around the orchard with his grandpa Thor, “an amazing man.” In 1990, the family business almost vanished, as a rival orchard bought the defaulted $600,000 mortgage from the bank holding it.

Chris filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It bought just enough time for a lifeline to appear. A husband-and-wife team who owned three golf courses wanted to open a fourth, and thought the Aamodts’ pristine plot looked just right.

Chris sold off 115 of his 160 acres, enough to make good with the bank and save the family business. The deal kept a couple thousand trees on what is now Applewood Hills public course. The trees and their fruit still belong to the Aamodts, though there are stories of golf bags swelling with funny-looking bulges.

Unlike his scientist father and grandfather, Chris Aamodt studied business, and has always been open to new ventures. He is a founder of St. Croix Vineyards, which grows grapes at the orchard; his wife offers hot air balloon tours of the St. Croix Valley.

When it comes to their son, Alex, the entrepreneurial apple did not fall far from the tree. For the past half-dozen years, Alex and friends experimented with hard cider, testing how various apples, yeasts, and processes yielded different flavors. “We had some good batches, we had some bad batches,” says Alex.

Last fall, they went big. The Aamodts worked to restore a mid-1950s apple press, which Thor used when Aamodt’s became the first licensed (non-alcoholic) cider distributor in Minnesota. Alex and his partners named their product after Thor, who he “vaguely remembers” as this funny old man making apple cider on a massive old press.

The first batch of Thor’s Apple Cider, 5,000 gallons produced from 200,000-some apples, started pouring at the orchard and two bars in Stillwater this summer. Bottles for take-home went on sale in August. They’re nearly sold out, and work on next year’s production is underway. “It’s kind of cool,” Chris says. “When you look at the history of the orchard, there are these big moments. … Thor’s Hard Cider, this is really the fourth generation’s gig.”

Back in April, the Aamodts attempted to register a trademark for Thor’s Hard Cider. Marvel Comics, printers of a Thor comic book series—which has inspired a blockbuster Hollywood trilogy about the hammer-wielding Norse god—filed for a 90-day extension “to file a notice of opposition” against the cider trademark.

Marvel apparently thinks it’s entitled to challenge the use of the name “Thor,” despite the fact that Stan Lee created his comic hero more than a millennium after the Vikings did. 

Marvel’s protectionism, as demonstrated through filings with the United States Patent Office, is almost superhuman. Its numerous trademarks for Thor: Ragnarok prohibit anyone from making clocks, candle snuffers, ping pong balls, barbecue mitts, tortillas, “cheese and cracker combinations,” and legion other products or acts which Marvel thinks could infringe on its trademark. (Marvel, and its attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.)

The Aamodts are not backing down. “Our story is our story,” Chris says. “We love our story and my grandfather’s.”

To block the trademark, Marvel would have to convince a review board that Thor’s Hard Cider will confuse customers, or that its existence is “diluting” their product.

“It’s a Scandinavian name, and in Minnesota probably a not terribly uncommon one,” says Tom Cotter, a University of Minnesota law professor. “It’s an interesting case. On one hand, Marvel cannot claim a monopoly on the name ‘Thor.’ On the other, their character is very well known nationally.”

On its face, Cotter doesn’t see a compelling argument for Marvel, adding that it’s “fairly common” for corporations to fight any proposed patent that even remotely resembles theirs. “Sometimes, it’s a legitimate claim. Other times, it looks like bullying.”

Perhaps Marvel should consider the hero whose name it claims to own, who surely wouldn’t have sided with publishing monoliths or corporate lawyers.

The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle described the Thor of Viking legend as a “peasant’s friend” who “engages in all manner of rough manual work” in tales of “great humor.”

In one, the Norse god of thunder partakes in a drinking contest after he is challenged by a giant. In another, Thor travels “almost to the end of the earth,” then uses his legendary hammer to slay numerous multi-headed giants… all for the sole purpose of finding a cauldron big enough to hold all the ale the gods wanted to brew.

Ask yourselves, Marvel: What would Thor do? According to legend, he’d eat up all the “cheese and cracker combinations” he could find, and look for something to wash it down.

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