Thursday, 1 October 2009

Something out of nothing

South Dakotans seem to be very good at making something out of nothing. Whether it’s because they have a particular knack for advertising, or because the tourists need a break from the rather monotonous Interstate 90, which runs the length of this 380-mile state, I do not know.

Either way, they manage to lure relative hordes of tourists to towns that normally wouldn’t interest anyone.
All along the interstate are billboards – often hand painted and usually weather beaten, and sometimes adorned by old vehicles – heralding the glories of kitschy attractions.

As a tourist working West towards the Badlands and Black Hills, or East towards the Midwest, you know you shouldn’t fall into the trap. But you inevitably do, having seen it advertised for the last 150 miles at least.

We were first trapped by the (World’s Only) Corn Palace at Mitchell, which has declared itself a excellent stopping point. The city, aware of the cheese factor, did not hold back, beckoning motorists of ‘a-maize-ing sights’ and ‘can’t wait til you get ear’ type signs.
When you arrive, having been guided through most streets in the municipality’s business district, you are immediately disappointed at the sight of a structure built more of manmade materials than cornhusks. However, it has to be said, that once you stand back and take a look, an enormous number of hours has been put into creating a multicolored scene out of straw, 275,000 ears of corn plus straw and other agricultural materials. Once inside, the visitor is met with a wilting snack bar (though it has to be said that their prices are really low) and a walk through a high school basketball court (featuring a corn theme).
What later becomes interesting are the photos documenting Mitchell’s annual corn palace, which started out as a way to demonstrate that South Dakota had farm worthy soil and went on to commemorate harvest season, drawing crowds in the thousands – the town’s citizens prided themselves on selecting a local artist to invent decorative themes. The themes depicted often reflect current events, such as the building of Mount Rushmore or one of the World Wars. One scene, which includes a swastika, helpfully notes that the symbol is a Native American one.

The next big attraction is in the tiny town of Murdo: the Pioneer Auto Show, a higgledy-piggledy compendium of autos of all makes and years, which Daniel enjoyed. Funnily enough, over the free breakfast at the Super 8 Motel, we overheard a conversation between founder A.J. ‘Dick’ Geisler’s daughter and another motel guest, who by chance shared a table. We learned that they were both very distressed about the Lutheran Church’s narrow vote to allow the ordination of non-celibate gay pastors, so much so that each was considering whether to leave the Church. Desperate to learn more, Daniel and I ate waffle after waffle, allowing more time for eavesdropping.
Here’s an article on the crisis threatening to split the Lutheran Church.

Thirty miles down the road is 1880 Town, which is a mock-up of an old West town using actual buildings shipped in from all over the region as well as a real homestead that housed settlers desperate for a new chance in life. There, we enjoyed imagining ourselves as pioneers downing drinks at the saloon, mailing letters from the post office, working at the local newspaper, attending the one-room school, catching the train, and hopefully not getting jailed. Whipped around by the gale-force wind, we were glad not to live at that homestead – even if it did come free of charge – in South Dakota. As an aside, the state is described as the potential Saudi Arabia of wind energy.

Next up is Wall Drug, a drugstore founded in the Badlands bordering town of Wall, South Dakota in 1931. Distressed by the lack of business, owner Ted Hustead started advertising the store by offering free ice water to all customers. Inevitably, everyone was parched, having traveled through the hot, dry prairie, and many of these people ended up buying other things as well.
Today, Wall Drug brings in thousands of people in cars, tour buses and on bikes. They charge through the shop, hungrily buying up t-shirts and Wild West themed trinkets, stopping only to take photos at the allotted spots.
One day while we were camping in the Badlands, while Daniel was painting a picture of the stark, eroded mountains, Sophia, Lulu and I made the prescripted drive to Wall – because we actually needed a number of drug store items.
Wall Drug is no longer really about the drug store, so we eventually left the warren-like emporium rather disappointed. On a positive note, though, I would highly recommend the homemade ice cream – Sophia and I shared an extremely generous double scoop of strawberry.

Finally, the mother of all tourist creations: Mount Rushmore. Dreamt up by South Dakota State Historical Society head Doane Robinson in 1923 as a means to attract visitors to the fresh, green Black Hills, the monument featuring the faces of US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt was carved into granite during the years of the Great Depression and eventually finished in 1941, shortly after sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s death.

Mount Rushmore is a fantastic half-day excursion, with stepped walks (don’t bring a stroller/pushchair!) around the monument, talks on its conception and construction in Borglum’s studio and views of mountain goats.
For more on the history of Mount Rushmore, see


  1. you missed the best "nothing" tourist attraction of all in South Dakota - Crazy Horse. It's literally nothing. It's a sculpture that isn't there. Highly reccomended! they started it like 60 years ago, and there is no completion date!

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