Once the mighty Mississippi disappears in the rear view mirror, there’s not much to look at for the next thousand miles except corn. An insane amount of corn.
It goes on and on and on and then, the corn turns to wheat. An ocean of wheat. Amber waves of grain. Then, a few hundred miles farther West, the wheat turns to tumbleweeds and we can drop the “mid,” we are now in the West.
To break up the monotony along the way, or perhaps because of it, there are signs. Millions of signs. This is the home field of the billboard.
Every business garishly competes for attention. Out there, you’ve got to
have a gimmick.
See the World’s Largest this, five-legged that, First Ever this or two-headed that. Almost any collection becomes a museum, farm implements, “bob” wire, cars, signs and… well, just about anything. Of course, some are more legitimate than others.
When we spied the signs for The Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, we jumped at the chance to canned-ham it up!
Like moths to a flame, soon we were pulling off the highway toward the light.
Situated right next to the Spam packing plant, the first thing we (or anybody with a working olfactory organ) noticed was the unique and not-so-savory smell.
A whole museum dedicated to a canned meat? Our wondering eyes had to see, we never pass up a cheesy tourist diversion.
Passing by the bronze pigs being led to slaughter, through the front doors, we were greeted by three thousand Spam cans stacked in a stunning display in the lobby.
This museum is no cheesy collection.
The Hormel folks have done a fine job of capturing the history of their preserved meat-food product through displays of packaging, ads and pop culture references.
Hall after hall of the stuff while the infamous Monty Python Spam-Spam-Spam-Spam song plays over and over (and over) again. Ah memories… the dancing can ads, the smell of frying mystery meat, the bloody fingers nearly severed by the twist key top’s ribbon of razor sharp metal… good times.
Special attention is given to the love-hate relationship between
GIs and Spam.
From what we could gather, the good ole US of A would never have had a chance back in WWII if not for this magical blend of ham and pork by-products shoved into wind-up cans.
An entire exhibit is dedicated to an unseen soldier in a tent bitchin’ about all the spam he and his fellow men-in-arms must consume in the field.
Seriously folks, if an army moves on its stomach and Spam was keeping those bellies filled… it follows that we would all be speaking German if not for Spam.
Something to ponder as we headed towards the next roadside distraction, I mean attraction.
Rumor had it that The Jolly Green Giant resided in Blue Earth, Minnesota.
Once again we found ourselves veering off the interstate and down the exit ramp to investigate.
Catching a glimpse while scanning the horizon for the towering vegetable spokes-model, we made our way toward the green Goliath.
In 1978, the town of Blue Earth, Minnesota paid $43,000 to erect a 55-foot fiberglass statue of the Jolly Green Giant.
The erection was to commemorate the linking of the east and west sections of Interstate 90 and the local Green Giant plant (now owned by Seneca Farms). It was unveiled on July 6, 1979, much to the delight of all future I-90 travelers.
Back out on the super-slab we headed into the Dakota territory to get plumb western. But before we could put on our hats and boots, we had to see one more tribute to corn country, the World’s Only Corn Palace. Mitchell, South Dakota has held the honor of home to the Corn Palace for over a century.
Back in 1905, the townsfolk of Mitchell made a play to wrestle the state capitalship away from those uppity bastards up in Pierre.
Their big idea? Build a Corn Palace, that’ll show ’em! A cornucopia castle complete with domes, towers and murals all covered with kernels of corn depicting scenes from a new theme each season.
The corn crazies are coughing up $130,000 each year to decorate the mansion of maize much to the delight of the half a million Palace Subjects visiting each year.
The Palace doesn’t just sit around doing nothing while wearing its corn coat.
The hall is the home court of the Dakota Wesleyan University Tigers and the Mitchell High Kernels basketball teams as well as the host of the Corn Palace Festival, the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo and (we saved the best for last) the Corn Palace Polka Festival.
Personally, we are surprised by the lack of other corn celebrating venues… what’s wrong with Iowa? Where’s their freaking Corn Coliseum? Something to think about as we pulled back out onto the west bound side of the big road.
If we were ever going to make it across the vast expanse of the great plains we had to put some miles behind us. We simply couldn’t stop at every Ride the Jackalope, See the Two Headed Snake or World’s Largest Prairie Dog that we passed along the way.
But one thing had demanded our attention for many hundreds of miles, it had to be seen.
The signs for a place called Wall Drug begin more than a days drive from the place. In a region infested with signs, Wall Drug sets the gold standard.
Back in 1936, Ted Hustead’s wife Dorothy got the big idea that they could draw travelers off of the highway into their drug store with signs offering “Free Ice Water” and it worked. As time went on, the billboards were put up further and further away from the store in Wall, South Dakota.
At their peak in the 1960s, there were highway signs in every state of the union, over 3,000 in all.
Fans have since spread the signs literally around the world. The mileage to Wall Drug is posted at The Taj Mahal, bases in Afghanistan and even the South Pole.
Metro riders in Paris, bus passengers in London and rail commuters in Kenya have all seen signs for Wall Drug. The phenomenonhas subsided a bit these days but the billboards still cover over 500 miles of Interstate 90, stretching from Minnesota to Billings, Montana. Wall Drug spends an estimated $400,000 on the signs every year, always on wood because, as Ted always said “Painted wood isn’t as fun to shoot at as enameled metal.”
All of this hoopla leads to the mother of all crap shops. In addition to the free water (yup, they still serve it) there are a couple restaurants and more crazy souvenirs than any tired tourist could possibly ponder.
Wall Drug is quite possibly the premiere place to buy all things Jackalope. Stuffed Jackalopes, Jackalope banks, Jackalopes holding a shot glass, Jackalope post cards, it’s a veritable Jackalope jackpot here.
Of course, no western crap shop is complete without the usual candy rocks, rattlesnake eggs, outhouse Christmas ornaments, Buffalo bobble heads and such, and Wall Drug does not disappoint.
After contracting a severe case of tourist trap overload, we rode off into the sunset, out of Wall and into the Badlands.
David & Veronica,