The trip from Oacoma to Mitchell was 72 miles. We originally planned just a whistle stop there to see the famous Corn Palace, but reading further, we decided it was worth a couple of days. Little did we know that we would have the time to extract every piece of history the town had to offer.
The Ides of September
On the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11, a bad guy snuck into our house, stole Dot’s pocketbook and my wallet, and took off in Dot’s car. On the eve of the eighth anniversary of 9/11, I suffered the back injury that caused a major disruption of the beginning of this trip. Now, on the eve of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, I sideswiped a concrete column in the Walmart parking lot that hid in a windshield blind spot. Fortunately, we were able to locate a collision center in Mitchell whose quote was as financially gentle as possible and promised reasonable turnaround. He loaned us a nice Ford Taurus to use at no expense, without a piece of paper signed or exchanged. And we were at a campground subscribed to Passport America, under which we got a 50% discount for all seventeen days of our stay.
Visiting The Corn Palace was our original reason for stopping here. It’s the only structure of its kind in the world, and it’s sometimes billed as the world’s largest bird feeder.
For the uninitiated, The Corn Palace is a large meeting hall that also serves as an arena for numerous events, including school basketball and volleyball tournaments, concerts and the like. It is the third such building to serve this purpose; the current one was built in 1921, a few blocks north of the original.
So what’s the big deal? Simply this: the entire exterior of the building is decorated with real corn. Yes, real corn. Well, there are a few additional crops thrown in. But the primary focus is a series of huge murals that are displayed across the front and down the south side of the building. Designed by a local artist, the panels support an annual theme. They are outlined on black backing paper with white chalk. Then they are literally constructed by cutting fully-kernelled corn cobs in half and nailing them in place, almost like paint-by-number. One grower supplies all the corn; he has bred it to produce thirteen different colors.
The first Corn Palace was opened just two blocks away in 1892 as a meeting hall. The second was inaugurated in 1905. The current structure was opened in 1921 without the striking turrets on its roof, which were added in 1937. Originally made of concrete, the turrets were replaced with fiberglass versions after a major fire in 1971. It was also at that time that the athletic floor and equipment were installed. There are pictures of every version ever created. About fifty of them are on display down the corridors on each side of the building. It was not unusual for the designs to include the swastika, a prominent symbol not only in American Indian culture but in others throughout the world. A note on one of the portraits clearly stated that it did not contain a Nazi symbol. I remember being trained as a child to recognize the Nazi and Indian symbols as facing in opposite directions, but I now understand that that’s not always true. The murals are themed. The 2009 theme was America’s Destinations; in 2010 it’s Through the Ages; and in 2011 it will be American Pride. On our first visit, one of the 2011 murals has just been begun – you can see men on a scaffold in the picture below left just beginning their work. The picture at right was taken about a week later; they’ve finished and moved on to another panel.
Now it’s time to introduce Oscar Howe. Howe (1915-1983), a Yanktonai grandson of chiefs, is arguably one the best Native American artists in the world. He grew up on the Crow Creek Reservation (see preceding Chamberlain chapter), living in poverty and suffering physical and emotional setbacks. But when his talent was recognized, he was enrolled in the famous art program at the Santa Fe Indian School (1933-38). Upon his return, he painted the dome of the Carnegie Library (story below) in 1940, and this work led to a commission to paint ten panels for a new auditorium in Mobridge, some 200 miles to the northwest. He served in combat zones during WW II for 3½ years, and during that time, he met the love of his life in Germany. And in 1947, two years after he returned home, he spent the money he earned as winner of a competition in Oklahoma to bring Adelheid (“Heidi”) to America. Married on July 29th of that year, they are survived by daughter Inge Dawn.
Howe attended Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell and earned his BA in 1952, serving as the school’s artist-in-residence even while a student. His MFA was granted two years later at The University of Oklahoma. OU almost turned him away because the “Santa Fe” school of Indian art had become passé, but they allowed him to study and define his own innovative style.
Oscar Howe persevered in the art world in part through the many honors bestowed on him. He was acting head of the art department at DWU in his senior year. He was Director of Art at Pierre High School for three years. In 1957, he began 25 years of service at the University of South Dakota, serving in both teaching and administrative positions. He was also appointed Artist Laureate for the State of South Dakota. He’s participated in countless solo and group exhibits, won numerous national awards, and is represented in galleries and museums throughout the world.
So why am I telling you all this? One of the first accolades came in 1948 when he wascommissioned to design the murals for The Corn Palace,an honor he held from 1948 through 1971.
I’ll touch upon Oscar Howe several more times, but now let’s return to the Palais de Maïs!
The full width lobby includes numerous displays, a gift shop and two snack food counters. Oh, and popcorn in every shape and form. Stairs lead up to the stands, and the back wall, above the stage, features additional corn-created panels. The interior panels are changed once every two years. The exterior panels are changed yearly, but there have been a few exceptions, due to wars and pestilence (the later referring to bad weather that denied the crops to produce the murals). The centennial exhibit was also a two year affair.
On the second Saturday of our stay, we headed downtown to witness an annual tradition at the CP: the Polka Festival. It’s a three day affair, running from noon until evening each day, with thousands of participants from all over the country. In fact, there are fifty notebooks in the lobby, and attendees are encouraged to pen their names in the one for their state. The only empty one we saw was Rhode Island!
Across the street, in front of the Mitchell Visitor Center, is a commemorative statue honoring Oscar Howe. The sculpture, Reconcile with Them by Margaret Wounded Head, features a bird atop a person represents the “coexistence of man, animals and societal and physical environment.”.
On to the next adventure. Two “work-campers” ran our campground; one couple, Thelma and Roy, made arrangements for us to join a group on a very unique tour: the Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop, about 2o miles north of Mitchell.
Getting there was half the fun. We headed north on Rte. 37 and the GPS told us to turn right on 245th street. Well, we missed it at first, because it was a dirt road. Backtracking, we traveled about half a mile down the “street” to a complex of large barns. John, the manager, gave us the total inside track of this incredible unique company.
Some are workshops, while others are warehouses. Hansen’s business is the delivery of pristine old fashioned wagons of every imaginable configuration. The most prominent are stagecoaches. They create their gems in three ways. First, they make them from scratch. Second, they are retained by the owners of old but distressed rolling stock to put them back into displayable and/or working shape. Finally, they have amassed — not only in an on-site warehouse but several others — hundreds of old vehicles of every imaginable variety and requiring every level of restoration. Thus, if a customer calls up and says, “I’m interested in something to display on the front lawn of my colonial inn and have this much to spend,” Hansen has the potential to come up with just the right answer.
The skillsets in this building are remarkable. When is the last time you watched a wheelwright in action, fashioning a hub from a block of wood, creating and inserting the spokes, hewing the wooden rim and then compressing the entire unit into a wrought iron rim, assuring its ruggedness and symmetry? Or hand making the intricate cabinetry of a turn of the century chuckwagon? Or sewing the fabric seats and installing the hand-made brake shoes on a buggy? What a throwback!
You can suspect that Wells-Fargo Bank is a good customer. You can also surmise that Budweiser Clydesdales have pulled Hansen wagons — that is, up to the time that Amstel took over that venerable institution. The Hansen Company is doing fine as one of the very few suppliers in this niche. Check out their website at www.hansenwheel.com. You too can have the stagecoach of your dream – but plan to shell out high five figures, without the horses. (PS: Hansen will help you find them, too.)
Mitchell is the home of Dakota Wesleyan University, whose most famous alumnus is Senator George McGovern. The University’s library is named for McGovern and includes the George and Eleanor McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service. Outside the library stands a lovely bronze statue of its honorees. The Visitors Center lies to the right inside the entrance.
I walked through the McGovern exhibit noting the plethora of tributes and honorary degrees, the incredible success in Food For Peace, his impressive credentials as a bomber squadron commander, and the support of so many issues that I respected then — and still do. Nevertheless, I felt a profound sadness seeing what I considered an aura of regret and apologia. There is no question in my mind that this prolific statesman lived a life of genuine contribution. Yet, cynical lyrics from Tom Lehrer’s Folk Song Army ran through my head: Though we may not have won all the battles/We had all the great songs. Nevertheless, I am so very glad to have an opportunity to visit his University and reconnect with his greatness.
Across the street was another of Mitchell’s gems: The Dakota Discovery Museum. Operated by Friends of the Middle Border, the museum was the dream of Leland D. Case, author, journalist, magazine editor and co-founder of Westerners International, an organization dedicated to spreading western history and tradition. The first floor depicts episodes of area history, including the Plains Indians, fur trade, Dakota territorial expansion, railroading, farming, ranching and the Great Depression. The lobby features a giant statue of Lewis and Clark, and the first interior exhibit is a 30 foot mural depicting all the people who supported Case in this endeavor, including Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Hamlin Garland who wrote about the Middle Border – the Dakotas, Nebraska and surrounds. Other names of national note include Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Sandburg, John Dewey and Case’s brother, Senator Francis Case.
No photographing was allowed upstairs, and no flash downstairs. Pictures below are the following: L&C standing guard in the lobby; mural of Case’s friends; a giant ancient threshing machine; the “chuckwagon;” indigenous beadwork; stagecoach sculpture by Charles Russell (there was also a beautiful piece by Remmington); mural of Custer at Yankton (G.A.C. is at lower right in buckskins); and the wagon/home of Archer B. Gilfillan. Archer who??!!?? Gilfillan was a PBK Ivy League scholar who spent 19 years on the South Dakota as a shepherd. His definite book, Sheep: Life on the South Dakota Range, remains in publication today.
The second floor of this beautiful and unique interior includes three permanent art galleries: the Leland and Josephine Case Art Gallery, the Charles Hargens Studio and Gallery, the Oscar Howe Art Gallery. A fourth rotating gallery featured a striking series of nine works entitled Sustenance by Hilda Esperanza Langle. I thought they were beautiful but missed the connection until I realized that I had started with Panel 8! The meaning became very clear the second time through. The grounds of the museum include four relocated buildings of note. The Italianate styled Beckwith House was built in 1886 for Louis and Mary Beckwith, he being the co-founder of The Corn Palace. Listed in the Historic Register, it was moved here in the 1970’s. The 1914 Dimock Depot is neighboring Dimock’s second train station; Dimock was a critical waystation as the railroad took over the western migration from the prairie schooner. The Sheldon School is an all-grade learning institution that opened its doors in 1885. And the Farwell Methodist Church, built in 1908, served its congregation for over 75 years, depending on circuit riding ministers in its earliest days.
Just north of town is the Prehistoric Indian Village. The site is a Native American village that dates back about one thousand years, when the inhabitants was an agrarian community of earth mounds. In the middle of the village is the Archeodome, a large structure that encases the primary archeological excavation area. The dig is worked only when funding permits, and the only sure time is in the summer when students and professors are on the scene. It has a spiral walkway inside and is well documented. And there are associated exhibits, including one that discusses the historic origins of the maize (corn) agriculture that is so critical to the area today. One fascinating exhibit shows the progress of digs – note the archeologist’s shoes at the top of today’s soil level (right, below)!
Before going outside, one is treated to the Boehnen Museum, where a replica of the earth lodges at the excavation is exhibited full size. Along with the replica are multiple exhibits of the activities of the residents, including hunting, trading, agriculture and the like. The gift shop offers Indian craftwork of the later settlers, the various Sioux tribes, rather than the Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara that occupied the lands when the village was constructed. Here one also finds yet another taxidermed bison (though no L&C statue!). Other exhibits adorn the field through which you pass to get to the dome, including a stainless steel sculpture by renowned Mexican artist and sculptor, Leonardo Nierman. Titled Flame of Wisdom, it depicts “the enrichment of the human experience through learning.”
Back in town, we took in the Carnegie Resource Center. Now the home of both the area’s genealogical and history societies, the building was one of many small town libraries financed by the steel magnate’s trust around then start of the last century. When the library moved up the street into a larger modern building, the Carnegie went through tough years for a while until deeded to the two societies within this decade. They are tenderly restoring it.
In 1940, the interior of its dome was muralized by Oscar Howe. His Sun and Rain Clouds Over Hills, a prayer for rain in those drought-stricken times, brought notoriety that led to his commission from the city of Mowbridge, SD to create ten 16 x 20 foot murals featuring Sioux ceremonies and history in the City Auditorium. And it further led to his long relationship with The Corn Palace.
I didn’t lie on the floor of the lobby and take a picture of the entire dome, but I shot one in their display. Oscar had his USD students repaint the dome some years ago. When they finished, he looked up in horror. “Where are the feathers?” he asked. The background was decorated with ten thousand tiny light gray feathers that the students had ignored and painted over. Oscar painted them all back in (see right picture above).
The main level has a large room dedicated to Corn Palace history. Just outside the door is a model of the original version built by the great grandson of the original builder, Andrew Jackson Kings. The model even has a generator that lights tiny chandelier lights inside the building. History in the room takes on two flavors: the celebrities who have performed there and the celebrity of the building itself. The former includes an impressive list of names: Lawrence Welk, Tennessee Ernie Ford (biggest draw ever), all three Lombardo brothers, Red Skelton, Kathy Mattea, Kenny Rogers, Paul Whiteman, John Phillip Sousa, Tommy Dorsey, LeAnne Rimes, Brad Paisley, Three Dog Night, Neil Sedaka . . . I don’t know where to stop! Oh yes – even William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, JFK and RFK, Barack Obama and certainly George McGovern.
The upper rotunda around the dome hosts other Oscar works, this time with no restriction on photography. I actually felt nervous about shooting them, but here are a few. My favorite is the monotone graphite image (far right) of Big Foot at Wounded Knee. The Great Chieftain is being supported by the last survivors of the battle to afford him the dignity of dying standing as a great warrior. Howe did this work as his proposal when a move was afoot to build a commemorative memorial at Wounded Knee, but it has not materialized.
The Carnegie told another story as well. Israel Greene was born in 1824 in Plattsburg, New York but migrated west to Minnesota. He was a member of the crew when Commodore Peary sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853. He led the contingent of Marines that stormed and captured John Brown in Harpers Ferry in 1859. He “tossed away his oath” and joined Lee’s army during the Civil War, likely because he and his wife, the daughter of a planter, lived in Virginia when the war broke out. Around 1870, he and Livonia joined his brother in Minnesota, and they proceded westward to the area where Mitchell now stands, staking and surveying claims. Israel lived for 36 years on his commodious farm in Mitchell, where he died in 1909 at age 86. He is described locally as a man who influenced History but was largely ignored by it!
Obviously, we accomplished these visits over a long period, giving us time to a absorb all of the wonders we were seeing. And we caught up on many chores in between. We also enjoyed a visit to the best-selling Cabella’s in their chain. It was so opulent that it contained major exhibits of the animals and birds indigenous to the area with dozens of original specimens in huge settings. I suspect we were in the best hunting/fishing preserve in the country!
Joel finished the truck right on time. It looked better than new. We spent a day loading everything back in it and undoing ourselves from “extended stay spread.” Then it was outa-there.