USA Trip: Day 20 – A Devastated State & The World Famous Corn Palace

USA Trip: Day 20 – A Devastated State & The World Famous Corn Palace

Mitchell, South Dakota

The only reason we stayed in the South Dakota wilderness last night was so we could go to 1880 Town. It was a haven of oddity in the middle of the Dakota prairies. It had three things we needed; fuel, food and fun stuff to look at. The 1880 town was meant to be like stepping back in time with people in costume and buildings from the era. It also had a huge herd of Texas Longhorn cattle and a 50s diner attached. This is the main reason we were here as top of Emma’s list for an old 50s style diner. It opened at 7am which meant we had a nice breakfast to scoff before crossing the Missouri River heading to Mitchell an hour away from the Minnesota border. The temperature had dropped to -1 Celsius overnight and with wind chill it was well below zero despite only being autumn. Higher up in Deadwood we would have been experiencing even worse conditions which made our decision to blaze across Wyoming in a day a stroke of genius. We had slept fully clothed the night before as Bertha is not insulated for cold weather and being exposed on the prairie meant she had taken a battering from the bitterly cold wind. I had got up more than once in the night to turn on the furnace heater which would warm the RV up before slowly cooling down. It was a gas furnace so we daren’t leave it on while we slept. I would sit at the table waiting for it to get toasty before climbing back into bed. The extreme cold had got to Emma and she hadn’t slept well again.

A Devastated Cattle Industry

I checked the weather and saw the storm had unleashed on Montana, Wyoming and the Black Hills already and was progressing east towards us. Tonight we would be in Mitchell and out of the reach of it’s icy grip. We filled Bertha with fuel and drove round to the diner. It was eerily quiet which was not a good sign as I also couldn’t see any lights on inside. A quick inspection confirmed that it was shut and I could almost hear Emma’s heart breaking. I turned to see her little face drop and the bottom lip was out and quivering. There was not much else left to do except stand here in the bitter cold cursing the chef for staying in bed. The whole 1880 town was shut apart from the petrol station so we hit the road heading east. We had a two hour drive ahead of us so we turned the radio onto the only channel within range and heard the extent of storm damage in the mountain states we had passed through just days before. Unbeknownst to us South Dakota officials had been monitoring the storm and been systematically shutting down sections of the interstate system as the storm progressed east. It was a good job we left when we did because an hour after Bertha battled through the wind being pushed from behind state officials shut the Interstate from the Wyoming border all the way to Murdo, a stretch of Interstate 192 miles long and the only main road east through southern South Dakota. If we had stayed in bed or gone to an open 1880 Town we would have been stuck in South Dakota for an unknown number of days. The storm killed a man in Deadwood and collapsed a number of buildings through the weight of the snow and force of wind.

Dead cattle (Civil Air Patrol)

(S.D. Civil Air Patrol photo by Capt. David Small)

In the following days and weeks the damage to local businesses became apparent. The worst hit were the ranch owners who initially were only reporting a few thousand dead cattle. This was because whole herds of cattle; as well as sheep and horses were buried beneath the snow drifts that had blanketed the state. Some ranchers lost their entire herd and the storm claimed the lives of anywhere between 50,000-100,000 cattle. The monetary losses are staggering considering calves are worth $1000 and cows up to $2000 each. South Dakotas ranchers lost up to $170m of cattle in the space of 48 hours. There was a heavy rain before the wind and snow came which meant many cows never dried out and froze where they stood. Others became bogged down in the mud and couldn’t escape to shelter before the storm came. Most of the calves died through drowning in snow that was piled higher than they stood. The ranchers had to wait for the snow to thaw before finding how many of their cattle lay dead. One rancher seeking his herd went to their pasture and found a 9 mile trail of dead cows blown in the drift with the storm; across roads, fields and streams.

The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association estimated that nearly all of their 1500 ranchers lost between 50-75% of their herds. There will be compensation for those ranchers but that would have to wait as the department that dealt with cattle disasters was included in the shutdown. The ranchers and cows aren’t strangers to the rain and snow, it was the time of year it arrived that caught them out. They had not yet fully grown their winter coats and were still on summer instead of the weather protected winter pastures. Of course at the time we didn’t know this and just an hour ahead of the closure of the Interstate 90 we eased towards Mitchell without a care in the world. Below is a video of Wall Drug Store 24 hours after we visited it.

We arrived in Mitchell close to lunchtime and sourced out a highly recommended mechanics to get Bertha’s oil changed. We found Dale’s A1 Transmission Service and it was just what we were after as they were fast, efficient and cheap. Just the sort of place you hope to stumble across when in desperate need of a service. While Bertha was getting looked at we walked a couple of blocks down to a Pizza Hut for a bite to eat. This was probably a mistake, the service was awful and it was 40 minutes before we got lukewarm pizzas. The only thing that made it bearable was the NFL highlights on the TV nearby. We picked Bertha up and drove her out of town to check in at the Mitchell KOA. The owners were very friendly and we hooked Bertha up to the good stuff before spending the afternoon doing laundry and stock checking what we had for the rest of the trip. The campsite like all the KOA establishments was nestled back from the road with great facilities, a decent amount of private space and clean washrooms.

World Famous Corn Palace

By time darkness fell we were showered and heading back into town for the nights entertainment. it was time to don our Stetsons as we off to the rodeo. Driving through Mitchell it came across as a very odd little town quite spread out despite only having a population of 15,000.  We were looking for the World Famous Corn Palace. It’s hard to describe what we walked up to except a glittering palace made of….. corn.

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The roots of this establishment go back well over a century. The walls inside and out are large corn murals redecorated each year with 13 different naturally coloured corn, grains and native grasses to a predetermined annual theme. Inside we fit right in with our attire and I was taken back by how family orientated the crowd was. As this was our first rodeo I didn’t quite know what to expect but I had a feeling it would be rows of drunken young men. I couldn’t be more wrong and the excitement was infectious. The even staff were friendly almost to a point where I was convinced they thought they knew me. They didn’t, this was just their way of greeting customers.

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Tonight we were in for some Wilbur Ellis Championship Bull Riding and as the place filled I looked around to see three areas of spectators. We were in the main stand; opposite us in the temporary seats were a few more rows of people with VIP tables on the floor behind the fence. The palace went dark and two lines of fire appeared in the dirt from a gate with the announcer introducing the 30 cowboys. They hailed from all over America with a large proportion from South Dakota and the other northern states. We then removed our hats and without choice were lead in prayer. This was the first time we had ever been involved in a group prayer at a sporting event. We had grown used to the national anthem but a prayer was something new. Most of the cowboys took a knee in the dirt while the voice over the speakers asked for the lord to watch over them and keep them safe. At the time I didn’t realise quite how much they would need it later but they would.  The national anthem followed and with only two noises, the singer and the bulls. As all the cowboys looked up at the flag hands over their hearts I became aware of bulls out back. Rattling followed by the slamming of meat against metal interrupting the singer and putting chills down my spine. The cowboys were much closer than me, they must have heard it, the clattering of the bulls ready to tear into them but the professionals they were they did not react.

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The bulls were all prize winning with some fantastic names. Our favourites were Wipeout, Rehab, Swamp Donkey, Double Clutch, Village Idiot and Dirty Dancer. The cowboys were split into five sections with the top 12 after re-rides progressing to the championship round. The action started straight away in the first section with one bull disposing of his  rider instantly from the gate then running around like an animal possessed leading the announcer to proclaim:

“That’s a big piece of hamburger!”

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The second section was quite lively. One bull decided it didn’t want to be in the cage anymore and while the cowboy was getting positioned it tried to escape. The fence was seven feet high but this did not deter it. The bull (I believe it’s name was Lucky) managed to get its front legs over the fence and snort in the face of the bullfighter who gave it a firm slap around the chops. Now by this point we had figured out the bullfighters were a little bit insane in the membrane but walking up to a bull trying to standing vault a seven feet fence and slap it in the face is plain crazy.  Eventually the bull calmed and trotted away back to the pen like a boss, the cowboy got off to ride again later. I managed to snap a slightly blurry photo of the bull going face to face with the bullfighter. People got excited at this crazy bull and only afterwards it came apparent how close we had come to seeing the cowboy get seriously hurt. If he had fallen the bull would have trampled him before the gate was dragged open. The announcer quite rightly made light of the situation with the best line of the evening:

“That’s a big ol’ man eating bovine right there!”

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In between riding sections the rodeo clown an entertainer from Montana by the name Dangerous Dan kept the crowd involved. He was a genuinely funny guy, a real pro at his job and he knew how to work a crowd. He had a barrel and a selection of footballs which he would toss into the crowd with the aim of getting the ball into the barrel. Surprisingly for me not one ball made it into the barrel all night and the majority of throws suggested the thrower hadn’t ever thrown a football. There was also a range of dance offs between kids, with a boy a few rows behind us busting moves that wouldn’t have looked out of place at an underage break dancing competition. Dangerous Dan serenaded us with a 90s music medley before the championship round which was phenomenal and included cross dressing and Michael Jackson, though not at the same time.

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At the end of the second section came a cowboy by the name of Cody Tesch from Colorado. He rode a bull called Block Head steadily  until he got caught off balance and hit the dirt. That’s when things went a bit wrong for him and the bull landed/stamped on an area that no man would ever want to be stamped on. He rose quickly and climbed the fence to escape further punishment. Once the bull was distracted he collapsed in a heap at the base of the thick metal bars. He stayed for quite some time until a couple of fellow cowboys helped him out of the dirt before he went down again out of sight of the majority of the crowd. There was no laughter at this ride. Every male in the room had their hands in their laps and their legs firmly together.

“I hope he already has kids.” Whispered Emma

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According to my notes Tesch rode again later and was saved from injury once again by the bullfighters. The bullfighters were a constant feature within the ring and stayed out of the way of the cowboy riding the bull. The moment the cowboy was thrown the bullfighters would dive in with no regard for their own well being and distract the bull from the cowboy as though they were trying to save their own mother. I had a lot of admiration for the guts and bravery of the cowboys but the bullfighters to me were the real heroes. I have been to Pamplona in Spain and run with the bulls through the cobbled streets. That was a positively frightening experience even though the bulls just jogged on by. I’d love to know what the bullfighters do for fun when they aren’t distracting giant cows.

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One rider went a little too close to the fence on his ride and was tossed heard first into the bars making a sickening sound as he clattered to the floor. He got up fine though I suspect he may have been woozy Saturday morning. The helmets don’t look as cool as a cowboy hat but when you see rides come to an abrupt metallic ending like that you appreciate that in such a dangerous sport a level of safety is needed.

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During the re-rides a black and white bull burst from the gate like a wild beast and despite the cowboys best intentions he managed to toss him off over the horns. the bull must have thought as was Christmas and as the cowboy landed he give him a solid headbutt in the rear. As with many of my sports photographs; timing is the key to a good image. In this case we managed to capture the moment perfectly. The announcer described the bull as:

“A Dalmatian on steroids!”

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The championship round led to some quality bull riding which culminated in the last rider Cody Sierks from Nebraska staying the distance on Double Clutch scoring 89.5 points to win. The place erupted and in the excitement hats were thrown high in the air. We were excited too but our hats were new and expensive so they stayed firmly on our heads. With the night ending on a high note everyone went home happy. We walked down the front and snapped a selfie by the fence.

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We thoroughly enjoyed the evening and would recommend it to anyone for a night out with the family. The Corn Palace was a fabulous venue with so much history and friendly staff. We were some of the last people out after I stopped to take around 60 photos inside the palace. The Corn Palace is an indoor venue that adapted very well to holding a rodeo event. As far as I could tell the floor was a hardwood floor as used for basketball. This had a rubber surfacing on top which in turn had wood chip, sand and finally dirt to finish the riding surface. Outside stood the large tractors that had be used to make the event possible. The tyres were six feet tall and made the machines quite ominous lined up in the street. We headed back to the KOA talking all the way about the rides we enjoyed the most and which bulls were the meanest baddest bovines in all Dakota. After the disappointment of missing out on Yellowstone National Park the state of South Dakota had been good to us and we were to leave Mitchell with heavy hearts for Minnesota in the morning.

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