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Sioux Falls and Environs, South Dakota

By Lavender June 16, 2011

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Where’s a Starbucks when you need one? In Southeast South Dakota, anchored by Sioux Falls, the coffee is made by frugal Swedes and Germans. Their strength went into taming this flat-as-a-dollar-bill landscape, erecting civic monuments that teeter from the magnificent, all glittery pink local quartzite; to the practical, the sod houses and claim shacks of earlier pioneers; to the downright quirky, as in a palace made of corncobs.

You’ll come upon the Corn Palace in Mitchell, a Disney-on-the-prairie fantasy, all domes, turrets, and murals in multicolored corncobs, nailed to the gigantic building. Worth the drive? You betcha—even when there’s not a basketball tournament or band performance (think John Philip Sousa; or Lawrence Welk, who entertained here) in its vast arena.

Photos by Carla Waldemar

You’ll also come upon those primeval sod houses, with yard-thick walls, and shanties—built to claim land given to pioneering farmers—in Madison’s Prairie Village. They’re part of the community of 40 completely furnished, hundred-year-old buildings gathered here: a barber shop, a general store, a railroad depot, as well as a unique “chapel” train car, with pews as seats and living quarters for its roving preacher.

In the Smith-Zimmerman Museum, on Madison’s college campus, more artifacts to ogle, including a covered wagon of 1878, and a horseless buggy, converted to an early Cadillac with purchase of headlights and motor. Meanwhile, Madison’s ladies embroidered “Tuesdays” on their dishtowels, also on display. Speculate on life even earlier—a thousand years ago—in Primitive Indian Village, watching archaeologists unearthing a settlement of mud and thatch Native houses.

Sioux Falls—a grand base for these short excursions—sparkles with pink quartzite, the local building block. It girds the Pettigrew House, the Queen Anne queen of the Historic District, home of the state’s first senator, and open to tour. Pink stone also lines the Old Courthouse of 1896, now an art museum. Its galleries host such quirky shows as “Cruisin’ Cuisine,” documenting the city’s once-lively drive-ins; and “Underwear,” from bustles (“Does this make my butt look fat?”) to GI briefs of World War II, with built-in DDT, and undershirts, which plummeted in market share when Clark Gable shed his onscreen. There’s also a huge stuffed buffalo, whose every part was utilized by Indians—“the Walmart of its day.”

More art at Washington Pavilion, a former high school now housing traveling shows, from Andy Warhol to Ansel Adams, plus interactive science displays, such as the fitness challenges (test your running speed, basketball throw, climbing-wall prowess, and more). Play a tune by walking on a giant keyboard, or listen to one in the adjoining South Dakota Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame: You go, Bobby Vee!

Hop on the city’s free trolley to Falls Park, the city’s namesake, with not one but three waterfalls tumbling over more pink stone. Stop at the park’s Overlook Café, whose chef performs magic with a three-burner hotplate, creating “comfort food with a twist.”

Back on the main drag, slurp a malt (mine: Guinness/ espresso/chocolate) with a hot turkey sandwich at the quintessential Phillips Avenue Diner. Drop in for dinner at Bros Bistro, offering cosmo fare such as duck confit tacos and sea bass with sweet chili-lemongrass-ginger broth.

Give your wallet a workout at the avenue’s eclectic shops, including Prairie Star Gallery (contemporary Indian art); Patina (upscale antiques); Ten Thousand Villages (global handmade goods); Artisan Shop (Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Stickley furniture); and Zand Bros Variety, giving a whole new meaning to “general store”—everything from a wall devoted to books by Nobel Prize winners to the taxidermied critters hanging overhead.

Then, explore more wonders within an hour’s drive. Nature lovers, start with Palisades, one of many inviting state parks. Here, nature has gone gaga with that pink quartzite, rising in narrow canyons above a tumbling river trail—“an oasis in the prairie,” in the words of Ranger Marty, who goes nuts showing off rocks formed two billion years ago. “Geology at work!” he crows.

German settlers made their homes in Freeman, and one among them, wowed by the beyond-beautiful Indian artifacts he came across, exhibits his Smithsonian-worthy collection in the Museum of Indian Artifacts: intricately beaded moccasins and buckskin clothing; a “strike light” bag; and a “ghost dance” shirt, whose magic made it bulletproof.

In Vermillion, who-knew meets must-see in the National Music Museum. I’m expecting accordions, banjos, and a pump organ. Instead, 15,000 instruments collected by an avid band instructor, including rare Stradivarius violins, gorgeous Baroque harpsichords, the oldest cello in the world, and a golden Javanese gamelon big as my dining room. Yes, an early Hammond organ, plus Adolph Sax’s first saxophone and Johnny Cash’s guitar.

I’ll drink to that. Join me in a toast at Strawbale Winery in Renner, where genial owners Don and Susan South offer tours and tastings of wine grapes developed in, ahem, Minnesota, like Frontenac, source of their popular Red Barn Red. Stop back for summertime’s Sangria Sundays, and help chase down the cats and chickens.

For more information call (888) 353-7382, or visit www.southeastsouthdakota.com.

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