Journey Through Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota Urban Legends

Urban legends tell of UFOs, duck headgear and molasses floods: Internet Scambusters #582

Six months have passed since we last hit the road on our alphabetical, state-by-state round-up of urban legends.

So this week, we’ll take you through some of the better-known tales of the weird, whacky and mysterious in Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota.

In our research we encountered stories relating to the wearing of ducks as headgear while driving — yes! — college links with famous cartoon characters, ancient runestones and UFOs.

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Let’s get started…

Journey Through Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota Urban Legends

We’re traveling through the north for this week’s episode of our ongoing alphabetical urban legends tour of the US, with visits to Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota.

On this trip we encountered the usual crop of haunted houses and Bigfoot variations (“Dogman” in the case of Michigan), so we’ll give those a miss this time around.

Even so, we still uncovered some weird stories of space aliens, college mythology and crazy laws. Read on to learn more.

Massachusetts Urban Legends

Let’s plunge straight into the college legends.

In other states these have tended to focus on ghostly campus prowlers and subterranean tunnels.

But the Five College Consortium (as it’s known) of Western Massachusetts has a much more lighthearted claim to urban legend fame — the suggestion that the colleges, and the reputation of their students, inspired the main characters of the cartoon series Scooby Doo!

Wikipedia reports Daphne represents Mount Holyoke College, Velma is Smith College, Fred is Amherst College, Shaggy is Hampshire and Scooby himself is UMass Amherst.

No one seems to know where this claim sprang from but the authors of the series have firmly denied the rumor, saying the show was based on another TV series called “I Love a Mystery.” Also, one of the colleges — Hampshire — didn’t even open until after Scooby Doo was launched on TV.

One urban legend that does at least have a factual basis is the claim that in the summer, the smell of molasses drifts across the streets of Boston’s North End.

Although there’s no evidence to support that, the rumor is based on a real incident — the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, when a cast-iron tank containing 2.5 million gallons of the sticky stuff burst, flooding the streets and killing 21 people.

Surely, one of America’s weirdest disasters?

Finally, staying on the streets of Massachusetts, comes an untrue story relating to a particularly challenging series of circular roadways known as “rotaries” — similar to but not the same as roundabouts.

According to this tale, motorists entering a rotary can ignore Yield signs and enter the system, taking right of way over those already on the rotary. This is not true and obviously a potential danger.

Different states have different driving rules, so always make sure you learn them first. Find out more by reading about driving on rotaries.

Michigan Urban Legends

Highway urban legends also abound in Michigan, where attorney Peter Keenan created a whole blog entry of supposed prohibitions that are untrue.

They include mythical bans on driving barefoot, riding in a trailer, wearing headphones while driving and use of knobs fixed to steering wheels (to make steering easier for people with certain handicaps).

Says Keenan: “Some of the things that many folks believe are prohibited by law are, in fact, not covered by the specific provisions of the Motor Vehicle Code. It bears keeping in mind, however, that in the case of a collision, the police investigators will always assess the circumstances.”

Now, let’s zoom out to the skyline because it turns out that Michigan is quite a hotspot for UFO sightings.

Naturally, we’re not going to enter into the debate about whether or not UFOs exist. But if they do, Michigan seems the place to see them.

Sightings go back as far as 1897 when a fleet of 300-foot long blimps, some with flapping wings, supposedly floated across the state.

Sightings were also reported from other states, but in Reynolds, Michigan, a tall alien was said to have disembarked and treated the gathered crowd to a deafening sing-song.

Other incidents include the mysterious disappearance over Lake Superior of a UFO-chasing jet from Kinross Air Force Base.

A few years later, a UFO was said to have hovered over a highway outside Vicksburg, Michigan. Its powerful motors created a full force gale, blowing a passing car off course. No alien singers this time though.

By the way, if you’re interested in the subject of UFO sightings from any state, check out the National UFO Reporting Center’s listing at

Minnesota Urban Legends

We’re back to earth, motoring through Minnesota now but that doesn’t mean everything is as it seems.

For instance, was that a driver we just saw with a duck on his head? No, it can’t have been because we read somewhere that it’s illegal in this state to drive with a duck on your head.

This crazy story has been doing the rounds for many years. It was recently posted again on Twitter by a user with 3 million followers.

It’s even frequently referred to the Minnesota Legislature for clarification, where assistant deputy revisor Jeff Kase is reported as saying: “We actually get this question more than you’d believe… I can’t say definitively that there was never a law… but I seriously doubt it.”

In fact, the legend probably relates in some way to the use of “cotton duck,” a fabric originally called “doek,” a Dutch word, which refers to a sort of canvas. Sale of the fabric was controlled by a statute implemented in 1913 (and still on the books) but it’s never been illegal to drive with doek on your head either!

But perhaps the best-known urban legend from Minnesota is the so-called Kensington Runestone, supposedly unearthed on a farm in nearby Solem in 1898. It claims to be an account of the massacre of a Scandinavian exploration group on the site in 1362, long before Columbus.

Although largely dismissed as a hoax, there is some basis for a possible historical explanation as part of an oft-repeated claim that Vikings visited the United States, which they called Vinland.

Read the Wikipedia Kensington Runestone account — or see the stone at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota — and decide for yourself!

Okay, it’s time to head for home.

As always, the roots of our tales are buried in the mists of time.

Some, like the molasses and duck wear stories, even have a factual basis. But other urban legends are just plain crazy — isn’t that so, Scooby?

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!