South Dakodak

Posted September 24th, 2009 at 4:41 pm (UTC-4)
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If you’re like me, you sometimes look back at an earlier period in your nation’s history and think, “Those were the days!”  We romanticize the slower pace and what today seems like their relative innocence — even if reality was something else again.  I’ve already told you that I sometimes linger over old photographs — I’m thinking of a grainy one of a family posed in front of an 1870s Nebraska sod house — and wonder what those people were thinking and what their days were like. 

And even though I’ve never been much into automobiles, I love to read about the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Henry Ford’s Model T, as Smithsonian Institution historian Roger White once said, “put America on wheels.”  Ordinary America, not just big shots who could afford the fancy touring cars produced before Ford’s assembly line came along.

By the way, South Dakota is the subject of this posting, but bear with me.  It took a long time to get places in those early days, and we’re puttering our way west and will get there by and by.

With the Automotive Age came a national wanderlust that continues to this day.  People formed “touring clubs” and headed out.  Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, tire baron Harvey Firestone, and even President Warren Harding were among thousands who joined caravans of “camping cars” that stoked the nation’s appetite for outdoor recreation.  They called themselves “the Vagabonds.”  Auto enthusiasts prodded their state politicians into paving, widening, and connecting meandering roads, and auto clubs gave them enticing names like “Lincoln Highway” and “Yellowstone Trail.”

Then the federal government assigned numbers to many of them, and gasoline companies gave away maps so drivers could find their way clear across the land.

The mechanized rush hither and yon was on, and people — families, especially — needed places to eat, sleep, and amuse themselves along the way.  Thus was born a disjointed network of one-story “motor courts,” greasy-spoon diners, nightclubs and taverns, and repair shops of varying caliber whose neon signs beckoned weary wayfarers.

Hang in there.  We’ll be in South Dakota soon.

My own nostalgia — if that’s the right word, for I wasn’t yet born — peaks at the thought of offbeat and oddball “roadside attractions” of those times that endeavored to separate travelers from their money.  I’m talking snake farms, spooky caverns, mangy zoos, exotic rock and fossil collections, Christian theme parks, muddy fields where dinosaurs were said to have roamed, real and phony Indian trading posts, aquatic gardens (some with “mermaids”), “funhouse” amusement parks, and museums of every description.

Let us not forget architectural “curiosities” as varied as the entrepreneurial minds that created them: “mystery houses,” a swimming pier inside a blue Plexiglass whale, a restaurant shaped like the familiar figure on a syrup bottle, the “world’s largest” spinach can or rabbit; and what tourists were assured were the world’s smallest church or horse or man.

What does any of this have to do with South Dakota?

Well, the No. 1 motoring destination in those early days was the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone — that geologically tremulous place with the spraying geysers such as “Old Faithful,” which is still reliably erupting with a 60-meter-high column of boiling water and steam every hour to hour-and-a-half. 

Yellowstone sputters in Wyoming, the state just to the west of South Dakota.  But by 1941, the Coyote State itself had a monumental tourist magnet, literally, way out near the Wyoming border.  It was the epic sculpture of four U.S. presidents, carved and blasted over 14 years into the face of Mount Rushmore.

But to get there, or on to Yellowstone and the Pacific Northwest from the populous East, Midwest, and South, families had to cross the wide, largely empty South Dakota prairie.  Did I say “wide”?  Picture yourself in a noisy, smelly, hand-cranked Model T with the wife and kids, jostling along South Dakota’s early cracked and dusty roads for 550 kilometers — 340 miles — in search of Mount Rushmore.  

They became eager customers of some of the most abundant and creative roadside attractions in the country.  And the same can be said today, although the quality of South Dakota attractions has taken a quantum leap from the days of dairy stands and pony rides. 

Carol and I recently crossed the entire state en route to Seattle, Washington — not on a teeth-rattling, two-lane road but on a modern, high-speed Interstate highway.  And while you can’t pull over on I-90 any time you feel like it for a cuppa joe at a roadside diner, or check out an Indian cultural center or Scandinavian church without driving far ahead to the next exit, there are interesting, family-oriented, and quirky places to explore all across South Dakota’s single east-west expressway.

So many that we took to calling the state “South Dakodak” — a play on the name of the American camera-maker — because of its wealth of photogenic and fun attractions.

We started, as most visitors do, in eastern South Dakota and worked our way west.  Barely out of Minnesota is the state’s largest city, if you want to call a population of 125,000 “large.”  It’s Sioux Falls, an old slaughterhouse town where at least one stockyard and meatpacking operation survives.  The city gets its name from falls of the Big Sioux River.  Don’t expect roaring Niagara Falls.  These are pleasant cascades, but the surrounding bluffs give one a clue that the terrain is about to change.  Rocks, if not the Rockies, are no longer just our imagination away.

Sioux Falls is a sort of outdoor art gallery.  Downtown streets are dotted with 50 sculptures, loaned to the city by artists from around the world and replaced in toto every year.  Their creators are paid $500 apiece to deliver them and another $500 to come pick them up if they haven’t been sold.  About 20 percent of the “SculptureWalk” pieces DO find buyers, and you can even lease one for awhile if you like.  Talk about making an impression at a cocktail party! 

The artists can also earn up to $15,000 if their works win awards in an end-of-season judging.  End of season, meaning before South Dakota’s savage winter snowstorms come a-howlin’ down from Manitoba.

In Fawick Park stands a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s Statue of David in all his, um, glory.  He is NOT for sale or rent.  Thomas Fawick, an art collector, early automobile maker, and inventor of everything from landing-craft clutches to golf-club grips, donated David to the city and a replica of Michelangelo’s Moses, wearing a few clothes, to Augustana College across town.

Truth be told, while I admire and enjoy imaginative sculptures, I rarely let out a “wow” when beholding them.  I’m especially unmoved by most “folk art,” which to me looks like something I could have slapped together from metal squares and Popsicle sticks in eighth-grade shop class.

But I let out wow after wow on a grassy plateau about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Sioux Falls, near the minuscule town of Montrose.  My eye, like that of just about everybody tooling down the Interstate, had been caught by an 18-meter (60-foot)-high sculpture of a bull’s head.  A funky one, with horns of exaggerated height.  A modernist interpretation of the extinct Egyptian longhorn, perhaps.

So we took the Montrose exit and wound our way up to “Porter Sculpture Park,” which displays a field full of unpredictable, bizarre, and quite lovable works of a fellow named Ron Porter.  There’s a small admission charge, but we found the place unattended, with a sign inviting any and all to come on in.  Porter, who swears he can’t draw or paint a lick but is pretty handy with a welding iron, even touts the park as “a great place to walk your dog.”  I can’t begin to describe all the wacky sculptures — you can see a couple of Carol’s shots of them — but they include much-much-larger-than-life depictions of tools, schools of fish, skeletons and bugs, buzzards, and freaky looking sort-of-humans. 

A lot of people who are whizzing past Porter’s big bull are heading for Mitchell, a bit larger eastern South Dakota town, there to behold the vaunted “Corn Palace.”  Mitchell was an almost-new town in 1892 when the residents got together and built an extraordinary auditorium entirely — save for its wooden frame — of corncobs.  It was the showpiece of the fall harvest season and that year’s “Corn Belt Exposition,” and a challenger to a “grain palace” established in Plankinton, a rival down the road. 

Plankinton’s grain-clad structure lasted just two years.  Mitchell’s Corn Palace, though twice rebuilt, pulls in tourists every day of the year to this day. 

You can walk right in and stroll the corridors, looking at historic photos like the one of “March King” John Philip Sousa and his world-famous band, who performed at the corn-y opening.   The auditorium floor below holds souvenir booths until the men’s and women’s basketball teams of Mitchell’s Dakota Wesleyan University take it over for their seasons. Then the trinket-selling moves to a separate building across the street.

Several varieties of corn in eight colors — including Indian corn ears in multicolor “calico” — adorn the palace’s facade.  Each April about 275,000 ears of dry corn, for which the city pays a farmer $150,000, are cut, hauled into town, and affixed to the building in thematic designs that differ each year.  Mitchell makes its money back, and then some, on postcards and corn-related souvenirs; the Corn Palace brings in about $30 million a year in all, counting motel stays, gasoline purchased, and corn dogs consumed.  That’s a whole lot more revenue than other prairie farm towns of 3,000 people can boast.

The “palace” didn’t look so grand in years when severe drought or hailstorms damaged the corn crop.  The town stopped trying to cover the spires and minarets altogether after high winds knocked a couple down.  Hungry rats with wings (pigeons) have been known to strip a section or two of kernels, and a summer of intense prairie sunshine can dull the building’s sheen.

If you’ve never heard of Mitchell, I guarantee you’ve not heard of Murdo, South Dakota.  That’s a town, named after an early settler and cattleman, Scotsman Murdo MacKenzie, that would almost certainly have dried up and blown away had local Chevy car and John Deere tractor dealer A. J. Geisler not opened a place called the Pioneer Auto Show in 1954.  He then sweet-talked the state into putting an exit ramp at this nondescript town of 600 when the Interstate reached central South Dakota.

To call the Pioneer Auto Show an antique-auto museum would be like calling the Taj Mahal a pretty building.  True, but inadequate.  As you’d expect, there are almost 300 vintage cars of all descriptions, but also 60 tractors, 60 motorcycles, assorted jukeboxes, a Wurlitzer circus organ, slot machines, toys, an old and intact gas station, and, incongruously, shelf after shelf of rocks.  One of the astonishing 42 buildings cobbled together to make the place, you see, holds the National Rockhound and Lapidary Hall of Fame.  (As you would, I had to look up “lapidary” to discover that it relates to the cutting and polishing of precious gems.  Not diamonds or rubies, but prairie rocks and fossilized cross-sections of plants, polished to a fare-thee-well.)

Seventy-two-year-old David Geisler, A. J.’s son, presides, charming women and kids and even the men who escort them.  He walks people past the old fire engines, pausing to clang their bells; points out classics among the cars — ah-oo-guhing their horns; and spins yarns about everything he passes, including the Elvis Presley motorcycle and the “prairie town” out back.  Don’t get him started about the leather license plate or the eight-wheel “Octo Rod” car. 

Altogether, the Pioneer Auto Show — plus rocks and such — is more than anyone could comprehend in a short visit.  Which, of course, is the point.

More manageable, three exits down the road, is a place where the buildings themselves are the draw: more than 50 of them at “1880 Town.”  In 1972, ranchers Clarence and Richard Hullinger began assembling authentic structures from the Dakotas’ “Wild West” era, starting with those that a production company had moved to the nearby plains for a movie shoot.  Filled with period furnishings, the buildings include an old-timey bank, Wells Fargo express office, saloon, blacksmith’s shop, and 14-sided barn.  Costumed marshals, outlaws and a “loose woman” or two mingle with visitors, who can rent western duds for themselves and their kids as well for hammy photographs.

1880 Town is billed as “the ultimate destination for fans of ‘Dances with Wolves,’” and for good reason.  The producers of that Kevin Costner epic vehicle about a disillusioned, white Civil War veteran in the land of the Indian gave the Hullingers props and photos from their film as well.

About half an hour onward, you can detour into a different sort of Wild West: the loop road through the South Dakota Badlands.  The Lakota called these 99,000 hectares (244,000 acres) of barren buttes, pinnacles and spires that encircle the nation’s largest mixed-grass prairie maco sica — literally, “land bad.”  Now protected, or at least patrolled, as a national park, this forbidding place also holds the world’s greatest fossil beds of early mammals from — you guessed it! — the Oligocene Epoch.  (And what an epoch it was!) 

After a drive or hike through desolation, you’re ready for an ice-cream sundae or a cheeseburger and fries.  Even a glass of ice-cold water.  In the 1930s, in fact, free, chilled water was enough to pull people in to a little drugstore in the town of Wall, which wasn’t much bigger than the store.  Today, Wall Drug is so enormous and kitschy that it bills itself — with not a lot of argument from others — as “America’s favorite roadside attraction.”

It’s really no more than a big-box store for shopaholics, snack-food addicts, and people who are curious what those hundreds of Wall Drug signs along the freeway were about.  Want some cowboy boots and spurs?  Christmas ornaments any time of the year?  Gold bracelets?  “Indian” bows and rubber-tipped arrows?  A stuffed jackalope?  Wall Drug T-shirts that confirm you were there?  You’ve come to the right place.

And yes, Wall Drug has drugs — the over-the-counter kind. 

If you need a contemplative break from shopping excess, Wall Drug has even set aside a little room as a chapel.

You’ll recall that I mentioned Mount Rushmore as one of the powerful magnets that lured early tourists across the farmland and Rocky Mountain foothills of remote South Dakota.  In 1923, the state historian came up with the idea for a REALLY BIG sculpture to promote tourism.  He convinced sculptor Gutzon Borglum to take on the project, which was funded from private sources and the federal government.

Borglum envisioned granite likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt carved into the face of Mount Rushmore.  His plans called for the presidents to be depicted from the waist up, but only their faces — 18 meters each from chin to the tops of their heads — were completed when money ran low.  But the work, for which Gutzon Borglum hired more than 400 unemployed miners as laborers, continued for 14 years. 

In order to achieve correct scale, Borglum created a studio model in which three centimeters equaled four meters on the mountain.  And translating that model to giant visages required more than mathematics or hammer-and-chisel sculpting.  Using dynamite, whole boulders had to be blasted most carefully, both to protect workers and to be sure a presidential nose was not blown away.

Today Mount Rushmore, way out in the rugged Black Hills, draws more than 2.5 million visitors a year from around the world.

Those hills have long been sacred to the Lakota tribe, which bitterly opposed building the monument, arguing that the United States Government had given the hills to the tribe forever in a 19th century treaty.  But whites had won the Indian Wars, and the government brushed aside these objections.

So, on behalf of native peoples throughout the Americas, the Lakota commissioned one of Borglum’s assistants, Korczak Ziolkowski, who had completed a giant carving of his own on Stone Mountain in Georgia, to create their own mountainside memorial just down the road — sacred hills or not.  “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote in the letter of invitation to Ziolkowski in 1939. 

Together, they chose Chief Crazy Horse as the subject.  A Lakota warrior, he was infamous among whites for leading the war party of Sioux and Cheyennes that trapped and massacred flamboyant U.S. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 215 cavalrymen at “Custer’s Last Stand” along the Little Bighorn River in neighboring Montana in 1876. 

When the Crazy Horse Monument is completed a generation or more from now, it will likely be the largest sculpture in the world.  Some time this fall, I’ll be writing about it in a VOA “Only in America” feature story to which I will link in this blog.

Not far from Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore is Rapid City, the hub of the Black Hills, where you can’t help but come face to face with more U.S. presidents.  Not real ones, as you must have guessed, and not big granite guys.  These are bronze chief executives — 40 of them so far — the creations of five South Dakota artists.  They’re arrayed in memorable poses at downtown streetcorners. Ronald Reagan, for instance, appears in jeans, work shirt, and a cowboy hat, as if he’d just cleared some brush at his Rancho del Cielo in California.  Teddy Roosevelt sports his Rough Rider hat, kerchief, and sidearm.  A smiling John F. Kennedy holds the hand of his young son, “John-John.”  Three other, more obscure presidents — Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison — will join them and the others this fall, along with Abraham Lincoln. 

Just about everybody has heard of him. 

Our last stop before leaving “South Dakodak” was a fascinating little park that at last had the feel of good-old-days roadside wonders.  “Dinosaur Park,” featuring “towering dinosaurs of the size and appearance of dinosaurs that roamed Western South Dakota during the late Cretaceous Period!” sits high above Rapid City.   Kids (and spry adults) are actually encouraged to climb on the five really big, painted-concrete, prehistoric reptiles, which appeared way back in 1936. (That’s the Cretaceous Period, isn’t it?)

A paleontologist at the South Dakota School of Mines convinced the government to send Works Progress Administration crews to build these creatures during the depths of the Great Depression.  Even the curator of the National Museum of Natural History, far away in Washington, D.C., consulted to be sure the beasts looked plausibly like Stegosaurus, Tricerotops and their ilk from eons ago.  Now, of course, they look like cartoon characters or Thanksgiving-day parade parodies. 

All the better to create a delightful diversion after a long drive across a wide state.

I’d like to, but can’t, close by telling you that you’ll find lots of even-quirkier roadside attractions elsewhere, along the narrow state highways that survived the sprawl of Interstate expressways.  The truth is that except in a few short or remote stretches, including some remnants of historic U.S. Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles, most little “tourist traps” that thrived in the early days of motorized travel died of visitor starvation when the Interstates passed them by.  Pockets of development beside exits off the superhighways are now the place to grab hunks of travelers’ cash, and there’s no room there for Indian arrowhead shops or snake farms. Unfortunately.

One Dakota, Two Dakota

If you’re curious, South and North Dakota lie in what was once land traversed by nomadic Plains Indians.  The Dakota branch of the Sioux tribes gives it its name.  The United States claimed that land in 1803 as the northernmost part of the “Louisiana Purchase” of vast inland territory from France, even though few French or Americans had dared to live there.

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills, plus the coming of the railroad, prompted a settlement boom that led to the creation of a defined “Dakota Territory in 1861.  And one gigantic state it might have been had the territorial capital not been moved from Yankton in the southeastern corner, near Nebraska, to Bismarck, far to the west and north.  Sectional squabbling ensued, making two distinct states almost inevitable.  They entered the Union together in 1889, separated by a long, straight boundary just below the 46th Parallel.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

By and by. At some time or occasion in the future.

Jackalope. The fanciful combination of a jackrabbit and an antelope, with horns as well as long ears Newcomers (or “tinhorns”) to the U.S. prairie were often sent out to hunt the nonexistent jackalope, whose doctored photos they had been shown.

Kitschy. Lowbow or quirky, but deliberately so.

Tremulous. Quivering or trembling.

Vaunted. Famous, renowned.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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