Monthly Archives: June 2015

Prehistoric Indian Village Museum

Despite the fact that this is a National Historic Landmark, you may discover that your GPS can’t get you to this place. Fortunately, if you just drive north on Main St. a couple of miles from the Corn Palace, you’ll see a sign at 23rd Avenue (left turn if you’re heading north), and that will at least direct you to the right road: Indian Village Road. Turn right at Indian Village Road and drive until you see a parking lot on the right, with a few signs suggesting that something is nearby.

Hike down the hill, past information signs with Native American symbols and some very interesting information, cross a little bridge over an inlet of lovely Lake Mitchell, and follow the path up the low hill on the far side. This will bring you to the Prehistoric Indian Village Museum. It’s worth the small effort required to find the place.

What you will reach first is the museum, where you will be introduced to the culture of the people who inhabited this point of land around AD 900–1000. There is a short, excellent movie on the people who once inhabited this area, followed by a docent-led tour, and then you can explore on your own. It is not a large museum, but the exhibits are rich with artifacts and information. Roughly 1.5 million artifacts have been found at this site, and many of them are on display in the museum. A full-size reconstructed lodge, like the ones that housed the original inhabitants, offers insight into what living conditions were like.


Wood poles make up the roof of the lodge, and it was these that eventually required that the people move. There is very little wood on the Great Plains, so after about 100 years, there was no source of wood left, so the people migrated northward. It is thought that they were the ancestors of the Mandan, people who hosted Lewis and Clark when they arrived a few hundred years later.

Abundant maps and signs help establish where people settled and how they moved around, where languages originated, and what trade goods passed through.


The people who lived here were part of a vast trading network. The patterns on the pottery can be traced to Cahokia in Illinois. Only broken pots have been found, however, because they would have taken unbroken pots with them when they moved.

The trade good that was produced here appears to have been pemmican, a handy “energy bar” made of dried meat (generally bison), dried berries, and fat, that was great for travel or to get through a rough winter. The evidence that suggests this as an important trade good includes a disproportionately large number of broken buffalo bones—far more than could be consumed by the people in the village—along with equipment and supplies that would be used in creating pemmican.

Evidence of pemmican making

Evidence of pemmican making

Corn had come north with these people, as well as squash and beans, and these were in evidence in the exhibit, as were tools used in farming these crops. A hoe made of the shoulder blade of a bison and a rake made of deer antlers were propped up near the lodge, and it struck me that they looked remarkably like tools used in so many other parts of the world, both then and now.

Lots more to learn and see, but I figure I had better leave something for you to discover on your own. Off next to the Archeodome, across the broad, green lawns that border Mitchell Lake.


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Corny Town

While there are interesting things to do and see in Mitchell other than visiting the Corn Palace (things I shall post on shortly), there is a definite focus on corn in town. After all, there are other places with good museums and interesting archaeological sites, but there is only one Corn Palace.

The first thing I noticed, as I rounded the corner on my first visit to the Corn Palace, was that the decoration cast into the base of all streetlights is an ear of corn.


Across the street from the Corn Palace, there is a gift store that has displays about how the murals are created. In the open courtyard area adjacent to that gift store, there is a large, cheerful ear of corn named Cornelius. I was told that almost everyone who comes to Mitchell gets their photo taken with Cornelius, and even as I waited for a chance to take an unobstructed view of this corny mascot, I was repeatedly asked to take photos of visitors posing with Cornelius (which I was, of course, happy to do).


So the Corn Palace may be the corniest thing in town, but clearly the whole town appreciates what this iconic and historic building has meant, not just in terms of tourism, but in its representation of the agriculture that built and sustains the region.

And if you have any interest in visiting the Corn Palace (it’s right off the highway, so easy to access even if you’re just passing through), you can get more info on their website:

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Oscar Howe

Oscar Howe in front of the Mitchell Corn Palace

Oscar Howe in front of the Mitchell Corn Palace

While Oscar Howe is closely associated with the Corn Palace, his career extended far beyond it, and I saw things he’d done in several other locations I visited in Mitchell.

Howe’s story is one of success despite an inauspicious beginning. Fortunately, South Dakota has long been a state that valued and recognized artistic skill, which led to Howe’s not only being able to pursue art, it also resulted in his eventually being named Artist Laureate of the state.

Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux, was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Reservation of South Dakota. Poverty haunted his childhood, but his youth was also enriched by the stories of the history and legends of his people shared with him by his grandmother. His love of art emerged early on, and he would draw with whatever medium he could find, from drawing with twigs in the dust to using charcoal from the wood-burning stove. His talent was recognized and he was enrolled in the famous art program of the Santa Fe Indian School. Here, he was not only instructed in art but was also encouraged to take pride in his cultural heritage.

Upon returning to South Dakota, Howe taught for a while in the state capital before being selected to paint murals under the Works Progress Administration’s South Dakota Artist Project. He then served in North Africa and Europe during World War II. After the war, among the art projects he took on was designing the murals for the Mitchell Corn Palace—a relationship that would last from 1949 until 1971.

During this period, Howe also earned both a B.A. (at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, where he also taught as Artist in Residence) and M.F. A. (at the University of Oklahoma). The Howe Gallery not being open yet at the Corn Palace, the majority of his work that I saw, other than in photographs, as at the Dakota Discovery Museum (about which more in a later post), which is located on the grounds of Dakota Wesleyan.

A collection of Howe’s work can also be seen at the University of South Dakota, where he was a member of the art faculty and artist-in-residence from 1957 to 1961.

Howe received numerous honors, local, national, and international, and in 1954, he was named Artist Laureate of South Dakota. Other important awards include the Waite Phillips trophy for outstanding contributions to American Indian art from the Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966; the South Dakota Governor’s Award for Creative Achievement in 1973; and the Golden Bear Award from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, in 1970.

Howe’s work became widely recognized, both for its style and for its interpretation of themes from Howe’s heritage. He is also widely credited with leading the way for other Native American artists to break away from stereotypes of “Indian Art.” I found his work to be accessible and evocative. I also loved the fact that he recognized the remarkable opportunity afforded by association with the Corn Palace—which continues the tradition of highlighting the work of local artists.

After a remarkable, influential life, Howe succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in October 1983.

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Ongoing Corn Palace

While the new overhaul was expected to be completed in April 2015, renovations were not quite finished when I was there in May. This did not, however, detract from how impressed I was.

The massive new domes, which will be illuminated with colored lights, were sitting on a side street, awaiting the completion of all the other changes on the roof (which will now include wind turbines, as well as merely decorative elements).


I was too early to see art in the new Oscar Howe gallery, but I did at least get to see the large, bright space where it will be housed. The lobby was nearly finished, with the tiled columns (looking handsomely corn-like) finished and most of the timelines in place, but final touches were still being put on.


All that said, while there are more dramatic changes being made at present, as the Corn Palace is updated, there is a degree to which it spends much of the year in transition. In late May (just when I was visiting), the rye, other grains, and native grasses that frame the corn murals begins to get replaced. Then, at the end of August, the corn murals themselves come down, and, coinciding with the corn harvest, new ones begin to go up, generally completed by the first of October. (In other words, September is pretty crazy busy.


So while the Corn Palace wasn’t completely pulled together when I arrived, I was pleased that I wasn’t there in September, as the corn murals really are a highlight. That said, having seen videos of the murals being made, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad time for a second visit.


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Inside the Corn Palace

You don’t want to just stand outside, taking photographs—head for the entrance. There is no charge for entering the Corn Palace, and there is plenty to see inside. In the lobby, the walls are covered with historic photos and timelines of Corn Palace history, along with photos of the mural themes through the years. The support columns are shaped and tiled to look like giant ears of corn.


As mentioned in the previous post, the murals on the inside have much longer lives than those on the outside. However, they are as impressive as the murals outside.


Around the periphery of the main arena, there are great exhibits on corn through the centuries, including background on harvesting, whiskey-making, and processing–plus an opportunity to test out Native American tools for grinding corn. (Here, you just see the sign explaining grinding, but near the sign, you’ll find the large and heavy equipment that once represented the only way to make cornmeal.)


There are also videos running constantly about the Corn Palace, Mitchell, and South Dakota in general (especially all the dramatic stuff out west, such as the Badlands and Mount Rushmore). While it wasn’t yet opened when I visited, they are currently creating an art gallery on the second floor, dedicated to long time mural designer and South Dakota artist laureate Oscar Howe (more on him in a later post).

Of course, free entry doesn’t mean you won’t have the opportunity to part with a little money. When there are no basketball games or concerts, the main floor is taken over by a nearby gift shop, and the array of stuff for sale is astonishing—and while some is kitschy, there is much that is wonderful.



There is also an abundance of food, both among the souvenirs (popcorn being especially abundant—and great, I can happily report) and from the “corn-cession” stands, which offer snacks and beverages.

So definitely come inside when you visit Mitchell.

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The Corn Palace

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I recently embarked on a driving trip through the northern section of the greater Midwest. I covered a lot of territory and learned a lot of fascinating stuff. Now I get to share some of that with you.

This was not my first time in South Dakota—I’d seen Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore on a previous trip—but it was my first visit to Mitchell and the famous Corn Palace. I would discover that Mitchell had more to offer than this famous venue, but this was what drew me there.

I cover the history of this Corn Palace and others in Midwest Maize, so I won’t repeat that all here, but there is a lot more to know about this iconic Heartland destination than its general history. First and foremost is that it’s a lot more impressive than I had imagined based on the photographs I’d seen. It’s a huge venue, with a massive concert/theater stage and full-size basketball court, plus all the seating needed for those who are drawn here. However, even more surprising to me were the corn murals. In photos, one sees the images, but in person, one can see the staggering amounts of corn and the craftsmanship and hard work that go into creating the murals.

More than 275,000 ears of corn, all in natural colors, are grown each year to create the murals. Each ear has to be sawn in half lengthwise, so that there is a flat side to affix to the palace wall. Everything is done by hand. And it’s fabulous.

Those numbers are just for the outdoor murals. The indoor murals represent even more corn. However, because they are not exposed to weather and hungry birds, they only have to be replaced once a decade, as opposed to once a year for the outdoor murals. (More on the inside of the palace in the next post.)

This year, 2015, is the 125th anniversary of South Dakota’s obtaining statehood, so the theme for this year’s murals revolves around aspects of state history, from Native Americans to settlers to the State Capitol. Since the Corn Palace is more than 120 years old, that means it got started very early in the state’s history. It was being renovated when I was there, so the domes were not in place, but there was still enough magic to make me glad I’d gone.

I hope these photos help demonstrate how large and how remarkable the Corn Palace is.

Corn Palace down the street--a little perspective emphasizes its size.

Corn Palace down the street–a little perspective emphasizes its size.

Large mural on the front, showing both history and the use of corn.

Large mural on the front, showing both history and the use of corn.

Smaller murals highlight details of life in South Dakota.

Smaller murals highlight details of life in South Dakota.

More South Dakota history in corn.

More South Dakota history in corn.


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June on the Farm

Another month on a Kansas farm, thanks to the Peterson Farm Brothers.

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Corn from Oaxaca

Historically, all corn is from Oaxaca, a southern state in Mexico. That’s the region where corn/maize first arose, before spreading through the Americas. However, while I was in Oaxaca, learning more about how and when this remarkable grain first arose, I discovered a local application for sweet corn that became a minor addiction.

In Mexico, sweet corn, often still on the cob, is called elote, while the word maíz refers to the type of corn dried for grinding. In the city of Oaxaca, the place I most commonly saw the word elote (or, sometimes, elote exquisto) was on the sides of carts belonging to street vendors who were selling corn on the cob. Near the center of town, these vendors were common, and each one would have his own little spin on how he prepared the elote—but they all had the same basic ingredients. They would pull several fresh, hot ears of sweet corn out of their steamers and let me pick the one I liked best. They would poke a short wooden handle in the end of the cob I’d chosen, and then they would set to work, preparing what became my favorite light meal while I was there. The ingredients may surprise you, but this is absolutely wonderful. Enjoy.

Mexican Corn on the Cob

Fresh, sweet corn on the cob, cooked and hot
Sharp, crumbly cheese, shredded or grated (cotija would be the cheese used in Mexico, but if you can’t get it, Parmesan works well)
Chile powder
Lime wedge (optional)
Salt to taste

You’ll need to figure out the handle issue before you get started. In Mexico, the handles are made of short pieces of wood cut to suit, but a blunt knife or maybe a fork could be stuck in the end of the corn cob if you don’t have a piece of wood. (You do need a handle for this. If you don’t have any other way of doing it, you could trim the pointy end of the corn so that you could use those little “corn holders” they sell for eating corn on the cob. However, it’s unlikely those would work if you only had them stuck in one end. So definitely figure this out before you start.) Alternatively, I’ve been to one Latino restaurant where they cut the corn off the cob and just mix the other ingredients into the corn kernels, thus eliminating the need for a handle. You lose the fun of eating corn off the cob, but it is much tidier and still delicious.

Spread a layer of mayonnaise—enough to coat—over the hot corn, then roll the corn in the cheese or sprinkle the cheese over the corn while turning it. (My favorite vendors would always put the corn down in the cheese and heap it on top, to make sure the ear got well coated, then they’d let the excess fall off.) Then sprinkle with chile powder and salt to taste (though you may not need salt, as the mayo and cheese are salty — so try it first). A few vendors finished this off with a squeeze of lime, which is a nice, fresh touch, but I didn’t find that this appreciably altered my enjoyment of the dish, and it can make it drippy, and thus messier to eat.



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The Little Popcorn Shop

My interest in corn extends to all forms of corn: field corn, sweet corn, and, of course, popcorn. In my book, there is a more detailed history of popcorn (which was actually the first kind of corn to evolve but the last to reach us in North America), but I also enjoy some of the whimsical aspects of popcorn. For example, the Little Popcorn Shop in Wheaton, IL.

The Little Popcorn Shop began selling popcorn in 1921. It has, in the nearly 100 years since it opened, become a Chicagoland icon. The shop was once merely an alley between two older buildings, until a gentleman named E. Claire Brown decided that it was the perfect location for selling popcorn and candy. The alley, which was only 49 inches wide but 60 feet long, was roofed over and named the In-Between Shop. The shop changed hands, as well as its name, when Brown died, but the Little Popcorn Shop still focuses on buttered popcorn (freshly popped throughout the day) and old-fashioned, dime-store candy. It is also still only 49 inches wide. Fans are numerous and faithful, and delighted that the shop hasn’t changed.

It’s easy to see how the shop got it’s first name—the In-Between Shop. WhLittlePopShop-2-B

In this long view of the narrow store, you can see the racks of old-fashioned candy and, at the back, the shop’s owner Bill Wakefield, who is, as usual, popping up fresh, fluffy popcorn in the store’s old poppers. Little-Popcorn-Shop-longvie

You don’t have to wonder what size bag you’ll get when you’re ordering.



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