Travel Time with Roger Tweed: Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, and the Minnesota State Fair

Travel Time with Roger Tweed

In August of 2010 I had the chance to visit Mount Rushmore for the first time.  I had always wanted to visit this national icon, and since I had just retired, I finally had the time to take the trip.  I flew into Minneapolis on the next to last Monday in August, picked up the Ford Focus that was part of my “fly and drive” package booked through Orbitz, and made my way to my friend Cam’s home in the St. Paul suburb of Mounds View.  Cam grew up in Minnesota and had not been to Mount Rushmore since he was a kid, so he was going to accompany me on my travels.

Earlier in the year I had read an online article about “weird travel destinations” that mentioned the “Darwin Ball of Twine,” the world’s largest ball of twine collected by one individual, located in Darwin, MN, west of the Twin Cities.  Darwin would be one of our stops on the way back from South Dakota.  Other stops during my visit were going to be the Minnesota State Capitol complex, and the Minnesota State Fair.

On Tuesday we headed from Mounds View through St. Peter, MN (the home of Gustavus Adolphos College) where we bought some snacks for the road.  Continuing to the west we finally met up with Interstate 90 which we would take all the way across South Dakota to Rapid City.  As we entered South Dakota (for only the second time in my life) we stopped at the Welcome Center.  In addition to giving us South Dakota highway maps, the man behind the counter told us that there was a Chevy Impala Show going on at the Convention Center in Spearfish.  We didn’t know where Spearfish was, but Cam’s family had owned a few Impala’s, so we filed that piece of information away. 

Mitchell Corn Palace Façade, Mitchell, SD

Mitchell Corn Palace Façade, Mitchell, SD

The eastern part of South Dakota looks just like the western part of Minnesota – flat and very non-descript.  Our first stop was at the Mitchell Corn Palace in Mitchell.  I have seen many television stories about the Corn Palace, which is a large Moorish Revival auditorium/arena used for entertainment and civic activities (it is the current home for Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell High School basketball games).  There has been a Corn Palace in Mitchell dating back to 1895.  The 1905 version of the Corn Palace was built in an effort to have Mitchell become the Capitol of South Dakota.  The present Corn Palace was built in 1921 and had its domes and minarets added in 1937.  The Corn Palace has over 500,000 visitors each year, and has had its façade decorated with murals made from corn kernels and other grains every year since 1937.  The murals depict different aspects of the theme chosen for each year.  The theme for 2010 was “Transportation”, and scenes of railroad locomotives, motorcycles, trucks, aircraft, and automobiles were depicted in the many murals.  The Corn Palace Festival, which takes place every August, was set to begin that week, with Kenny Rodgers appearing the following night.  We wouldn’t be able to catch Kenny, but we did get to go inside and see the auditorium itself along with the pictures depicting the history of the Corn Palace and its evolution and decorative murals over the years.  With a façade covered in grain, the Corn Palace is a big hit with birds.  The Corn Palace is quite an impressive structure and was a welcome break from South Dakota’s wide open spaces.

After putting gas in the Focus, we were back on I-90.  Soon, we crossed the Missouri River, and the topography changed completely.  The monotonous flat land gave way to rolling hills.  As evening was approaching, we saw signs for the Golden Buffalo Casino on the South Brule Lakota Sioux Reservation.  The complex includes a motel and restaurant in addition to the casino.  The signs along the interstate advertised “Prime Rib Dinner Special, $7.95.”  That was all we needed to see.  The Casino is about 13 miles from the Interstate, but signs direct you to the complex.  The parking lot is near the banks of the Missouri in the middle of the reservation.  The complex looks like a typical motel with a large restaurant building at one end.  However, the large building houses a casino filled with slot and video poker machines along with a small restaurant area.  The prime rib and make your own salad bar was pretty good, and since we were on tribal land there was no sales tax.  Not a bad deal at all.

Back to the Interstate and on to Rapid City.  Now in the Mountain Time Zone, as night fell, the traffic seemed to disappear.  Here we were on the major east-west Interstate Route in the northern U.S., and yet it seemed that minutes would go by between before you would see a car heading east.  There were only a handful of cars going west bound as well.  We found that, in general, the further west in South Dakota you went, the less traffic you would see.  Finally, we arrived in the Rapid City area, and after a few wrong turns we made it to the Super 8 on Mount Rushmore Road at 10 pm.  We had been on the road for 11 hours, so sleep came easily for the both of us.

On Wednesday we ate our complimentary breakfast at the Super 8 and gassed up the car (and cleaned the bugs off the windshield and front of the Focus) before traveling the 25 miles to Mount Rushmore.  Along the way you pass through a few tourist trap-type towns and then up a great hill.  A sign along the side of the road says that a scene from the Hitchcock film “North by Northwest” was filmed near that spot (but not at the Memorial itself).  A short time later, we were at the parking area.  Admission to the Memorial itself is free, but parking costs $10 and was not covered by my Inter-Agency Pass.  The parking lot is in a very large multi-level garage built along the side of the hill.  As you enter the Memorial you walk through a courtyard with the flags of every state lining the middle of the walkway.  Shops and visitor centers go off to either side as you approach the first viewing point for the Memorial.  When you can finally see all four faces at once, it is very impressive.  I don’t care how many times you have seen the Memorial on television, in pictures, in movies or on stamps, nothing can compare to seeing it in person.

Mount Rushmore Memorial, east view

Mount Rushmore Memorial, east view

The Presidential Trail takes you below and along the base of the Memorial.  Picture taking venues seem to favor George Washington, but there is at least one venue where the focus will be on each respective President.  One of the reasons Mount Rushmore was chosen over the Needles of the Black Hills for the site of the Memorial was that Mount Rushmore faces southeast allowing maximum sun exposure.  The faces shown in a very brilliant white on the day we visited, still glowing from the complimentary cleaning they received in 2005.

Conceived as a way to promote tourism to the area, Mount Rushmore received Federal funding in 1927 and construction began.  The 60 foot sculptures of the four Presidents were completed between 1934 and 1939 by sculptor and designer Gutzom Borglum.  Gutzom Borglum died in March 1941, before the Memorial was completed, and his son Lincoln continued the project until funding was depleted that October.  The National Park Service has managed the Memorial since 1933.  The project cost $990,000.  No workers died while constructing the Memorial.  The Memorial draws approximately 3 million visitors each year.

The Presidential Trail also takes you to the Sculptor’s Studio where you can see the various tools that the Borglum’s used, models and drawings of the Memorial, and tributes the Memorial has received.  Park Rangers give Ranger Talks at the studio several times a day and the one we heard, focusing on the tools the Borglums used, was very interesting.  As we proceeded on the scenic walk we noticed a small group that was having a tour guided by a Ranger.  Eventually I noticed that the Ranger was carrying a notebook from the Make A Wish Foundation.  All the children in the group were having a very good time.

As we were leaving Mount Rushmore, we decided to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, a private project funded by the Lakota and other Native American Tribes.  This work in progress is being sculpted on Thunderhead Mountain about 17 miles from Mount Rushmore.  In 1929 Lakota Sioux Elder Henry Standing Bear conceived the idea of a sculpture of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills to depict a great Native American leader.  The sculpture will show Crazy Horse with his left arm extended in a representation of his purported statement that “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”  The original designer and sculptor for this project was Korczak Ziolkowski who had worked with Borglum on Mount Rushmore.  Work started on the Crazy Horse Memorial in 1948.  Korczak Ziolkowski died in 1982, and his wife Ruth and seven of their 10 children continue to work at the site.  The sculpture of Crazy Horse’s face was completed in 1998.  The project has no fixed completion date, but folks on site guess that at the present pace there is another 35 years worth of work remaining.  The project refuses to accept Federal funds and is funded by Tribal donations, entry fees ($20 per car), and proceeds from gift shops and attendance at advertised blasting events.  We paid $5 to take the guided bus trip to the base of the sculpture.  There may have been one or two people working on the sculpture itself that afternoon.  Crazy Horse’s face is big (87 feet tall), and when completed the Memorial’s dimensions are planned to be 563 feet high and 641 feet wide which would make this the largest sculpture in the world.  The project has a long way to go.

Next, we drove on the Needles Highway around Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park and found several excellent opportunities for taking long shots of the Memorial.  It is also a lovely drive with one lane tunnels and expansive meadows.  The highway gets the name “needles” from the spire-like granite formations that are common in the area.  Since it was still early in the afternoon, we decided to go to Deadwood to see the sights.  And after seeing Deadwood, if there was still daylight remaining, we would go on to Spearfish to see that Chevy Impala show.

Saloon #10, Deadwood, SD - where Wild Bill was killed

Saloon #10, Deadwood, SD - where Wild Bill was killed

After a brief drive, we parked in Deadwood right next to the obelisk commemorating Wild Bill Hickok.  The monument says that Hickok’s grave is on the hill above, which is the site of the Mount Moriah Cemetery.  Deadwood looks like a typical small town, albeit a small town that has a large sandstone United States Courthouse and Post Office, and a very impressive City Hall.  But when you get to the old, restored Main Street, you are transported back to the days of the mid-19th Century.  The store fronts on Main Street look much the way the must have looked in 1873, and the #10 Saloon, the place where Hickok was murdered, is right where it was then.  The very fancy Hickok’s Hotel/Casino was a Montgomery Ward at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Little did we know that “Kool Deadwood Nights” was going on at this point in August, and a classic car rally was scheduled for Main Street.  So, after we soaked in as much of the Wild West as we could, we figured that we had enough time to get to Spearfish to see those Chevy Impalas at the Convention Center.

It was an easy trip to the northwest through Spearfish Canyon from Deadwood to Spearfish.  Scenic Byway US 14 affords very nice views of Spearfish Creek with its waterfalls and the lovely flora of the area, where plants from the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, eastern woodlands and northern forests all converge.  We didn’t have time to do justice to the scenery, so we took Interstate 90 into Spearfish.  The town and the creek get their name from the local Native American practice of catching fish from the creek with spears.  The town was founded to support the mines and miners of the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876.  Black Hills State University is located in Spearfish.  We located the Convention Center just off the interstate, and found the Impalas lining up in the parking lot.  As it turns out, they were going to parade through Spearfish Canyon on their way to Main Street in Deadwood as a part of that evening’s Kool Deadwood Nights!  But this gave us the opportunity to see all the Impalas at rest and then as they headed for Deadwood.  I took a lot of pictures of the beautifully maintained Chevys, mostly models from the 1960s.  We stopped for dinner at Seven Steak and Pasta Grill at Grant and Scenic Byway 14 before leaving Spearfish and getting back on Interstate 90 for the trip back to Rapid City.

Wednesday had been a very full day, filled with iconic and interesting sights.  We would have a full day of traveling on Thursday.

You know that you are in the west when you drive all day and don’t seem to have gotten anywhere.  Even driving at 80 miles per hour (the limit on South Dakota Interstates is 75), it just takes forever to get from Rapid City to Sioux Falls.  Along the way we stopped at Wall Drug, because you have to.  Although I half expected something along the lines of the tourist-trap kitsch of “South of the Border” in South Carolina, and Wall Drug is certainly a tourist trap, it had a much different feel.  Although the roads that ran through Wall, SD in the mid-1930s (US 14 and US 16A) were the main roads back then, with US 16A being the road leading to the just opened Mount Rushmore, now Wall Drug sits well off the Interstate and it takes up both sides of several city blocks.  The free ice water, the idea that Dorothy Hustead came up with in 1936 to get travelers to stop at the family drug store, tasted really good on this hot August morning, and it is just as effective today at drawing visitors.  Over 2 million people visit Wall Drug every year.  The Wall Drug complex includes knick-knack and curio shops, restaurants, a post office, a western art museum, a chapel designed after the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, IA, an Apatosaurus and other larger than life animal sculptures including the mythical Jackalope like the ones made famous in Douglas, WY and by tourist stops along old Route 66 in Arizona.  We thoroughly enjoyed our stop at Wall Drug.  You have to give the Husteads a lot of credit.  Wall is in the middle of nowhere, and there is absolutely no reason to stop at Wall Drug.  Yet, due to Dorothy’s great idea more than 75 years ago, billboards advertising free ice water and five cent coffee for hundreds of miles in either direction, and the bumper stickers and signs that can be seen around the world, Wall Drug continues on as a tourist phenomenon.  If you are in South Dakota, you have to go there.

Darwin Ball of Twine, Darwin, MN

Darwin Ball of Twine, Darwin, MN

After making a gas stop in Kimball, SD, we got to Sioux Falls and proceeded north on I-29 on our way to Darwin, MN and the Darwin Ball of Twine.  This is where things got a bit tricky.  Summer is road construction season, especially in the upper Midwest.  No matter what road we took, we managed to find detours and two lane roads with slow moving trucks.  Using my GPS, we did find some interesting back roads through endless fields of very tall corn.  In Pipestone County Minnesota we drove through a wind farm with the giant windmills on the bluffs alongside the road.  At one point, a Union Pacific freight joined us in meandering through the wind farm.  Each time we’d come to a crossroads or town that was a milestone on our trek to Darwin, the GPS would inform us that the next milestone was another 50 miles away.  We never seemed to be getting any closer.  Through Marshall and Granite Falls, through Yellow Medicine County, Lyon County and Lincoln County, and finally through Wilmar and onto US 12, we arrived in Darwin a little before sunset.  The symbol for the town of Darwin is the famous ball of twine, and it appears on the “Darwin” signs at the town limits on US 12.  There is no sign on eastbound US 12 for the “monument” as the ball of twine is known in Darwin, but after seeing that we had left Darwin behind us we turned around and got some pictures with the eastern Darwin sign before heading back to find the monument.  We figured out that First Street was the place to turn (to the south from US 12), and just passed a closed bar and across the street from the Darwin water tower and park was the ball of twine, sitting in its own gazebo, with the Twine Ball Museum (closed when we arrived) just behind.

The Darwin Ball of Twine was put together by Darwin native Francis Johnson.  It is the largest ball of twine collected by one individual.  Johnson, the son of U.S. Representative Magnus Johnson, began rolling his ball of twine in March 1950, and he continued until his death in 1979.  The ball grew so large that Johnson had to use jacks designed to lift railroad cars to move the ball while working with it.  The ball weighs 8.7 tons, is 11 feet high and 40 feet wide.  After Johnson’s death, the ball was moved to its present location inside its specially made gazebo.  Darwin celebrates Twine Ball Day each year on the second Saturday in August.  Having missed Twine Ball Day, we got our pictures and signed the register, and then it was back on US 12 eastbound to St. Paul and then Mounds View.  We had spent 10 hours driving and sight seeing on Thursday.  On Friday we would be staying closer to home.

On Friday, after moving scenery for the Irondale High School drama club, we went to Minneapolis to visit the University of Minnesota campus, and then to St. Paul to visit the State Capitol and then the State Fair.

Williams Arena, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Williams Arena, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

At the University, we visited the (then) new TCF Stadium, where the Gophers play their home games.  TCF Stadium is now the home of the Minnesota Vikings while they wait for a new stadium to be built or for the Metrodome to be repaired.  It is a beautiful stadium in the summer, and the names of each Minnesota County are inscribed on the façade surrounding the stadium.  We also walked into Mariucci Arena, the home of the Gophers Men’s Hockey team, and one of Sports Illustrated’s Top Ten Venues in College Sports.  And across from Mariucci is my favorite, Williams Arena the home court for Gopher basketball.  First used by the University in January 1928, Williams Arena is one of the oldest Division I basketball arenas still in use.  It is one of three arenas that still have the playing floor raised above the floor of the building.  I attended several Gopher basketball games at Williams (“Bill’s Gym” I call it) in the early 1980s when its capacity was 17,500.  It is a huge facility, and has been nicknamed “The Barn” for good reason.

The University is a lovely urban campus along the Mississippi River, and construction seemed to be going on everywhere for new student housing.  The demand for student housing keeps growing faster than dormitories can be built despite the U of M’s tough admission standards.

Next we headed to St. Paul and the State Capitol, which is located in a lovely section of the city.  Minnesota’s Capitol Building was designed by Cass Gilbert, who designed the United States Supreme Court building.  Its unsupported marble dome was modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica, and is the second largest in the world – St. Peter’s is the largest.  Begun in 1896 and completed in 1905, the Minnesota Capitol houses the two houses of the State Legislature, the Office of the Governor and Attorney General, and a chamber of the Minnesota Supreme Court (former Viking Alan Page is a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice).  We toured the whole building and saw the portraits of each Minnesota Governor from Sibley through Carlson.  The grounds of the Capitol contain several memorials and statues.

From the Capitol, it was a short drive to the State Fair Grounds in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, and although Fair traffic was backed up terribly that afternoon Cam guided me to the parking area off of Larpenteur Avenue, which was fairly easy to access.  Our parking lot was at the far north end of the fairgrounds, and we ended up walking the entire length and breadth of the grounds during the three hours we spent at the fair.  The Great Minnesota Get-Together, as the fair is called, is the second largest State Fair in the United States and is the largest in terms of average daily attendance.  Begun in 1859 (the year after Minnesota statehood), 2010 marked the 146th Minnesota State Fair (two years were skipped during the Civil War, 1893 was skipped due to scheduling conflicts with Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, 1945 was skipped because of war gasoline rationing, and 1946 was skipped due to a polio epidemic).  The fair runs 12 days ending on Labor Day.  Vice President Theodore Roosevelt first used the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick” in his speech at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901 (two weeks before he was sworn in as President to succeed the assassinated William McKinley).

Daily attendance records were set on three different days during the 2010 fair, and over 132,000 people attended the fair the day that we were there.  It seemed like all of them were there at the same time we were.  We made a point of visiting all the livestock exhibits, and the Miracle of Birth building was the most popular site.  Here, all the pregnant animals at the time of the fair are housed and the mothers and newborns are cared for.  The cattle and horse barns were also lively.  We watched milking demonstrations in the cattle barn and watched the animals being prepared for their showings in both.  I took one picture of a beautiful horse who apparently didn’t like my camera flash and let everyone around know it.

Fried Cheese Curds Vendor, Minnesota State Fair

Fried Cheese Curds Vendor, Minnesota State Fair

We ate pork chops on a stick, a necessary convenience for all the walking we were doing, and stopped at the roasted corn on the cob vendors for some of their specialty.  The sweetest fresh corn I have ever eaten has been in Minnesota, and you will never find sweeter cobs than at the State Fair!  Tractor fans can spend hours looking at dozens of restored tractors.  There were steam tractors that were over 100 years old, vintage European tractors, and every type of U.S.-built tractor from the 20th Century all lined up and gleaming.  Listening to an ancient steam tractor start up and run was a real treat, although the noise became overwhelming after a bit.

As we passed by the Grandstand on what turned out to be our final swing through the grounds, we saw that Rush was scheduled to take the stage within a few minutes.  The tickets were $70, and we were making our way out, so we passed on attending.  But we were able to hear their first few numbers while we were making our way to the exit – you could hear Geddy Lee in every corner of the fairgrounds.

On our way out, we stopped at a fried cheese curd vendor.  I’d never had them before and they are too delicious!  I’m very glad that the sun had set and it was time to go, or I would have gone back for more.  I think I’m going to keep fried cheese curds as a guilty pleasure only to be enjoyed at the Minnesota State Fair.

And with that, my travels for the week were over.  From Tuesday through Friday we had driven the length of South Dakota (twice), visited  two giant stone sculpture memorials, two iconic prairie attractions, a Guinness Book of Records ball of twine, a great State University, an impressive State Capitol, and the 2nd largest State Fair in the United States!  I am amazed that we were able to do so much in such a short time.  And I can truly say that I would do it all again the next chance I get.