Before & After is a series documenting the changes that occur to vintage signs over time, usually due to damage and/or replacement.
Over Christmas, my wife and I made a quick trip back to her home town of Mitchell, SD. It was my first trip to this relatively small town in several months and I was excited to get back. Mitchell is situated right along I-90 (about an hour west of Sioux Falls) and is best known as the home of the World’s Only Corn Palace. Yes, it’s a palace made of corn – kind of. Anyway, you can’t miss the billboards along the Interstate featuring brilliant phrases like “Ears to You!” and “It’s A-maize-ing!” as you start to get close to the exit – an advertising tactic lifted straight out of the tourist trap playbook.
The route we travel through town as we make our way to my in-laws house takes us past one particular corner that anyone who likes roadside kitsch would appreciate. It features a giant steer advertising Chef Louie’s Steaks House sitting underneath the towering neon sign for the Corn Palace Motel complete with inverted tear-shaped “bulbs” that mimic the unique architectural detail of the Corn Palace itself. This is my favorite corner in the whole town – and precisely the scene of another potential vintage sign tragedy: Those decorative red & white bulbs atop the sign were nowhere to be seen. Completely gone; just two empty steel stems. Was the sign in the process of being torn down? Were the bulbs being repaired? I had to find out what was going on.The next morning (Christmas Eve), my family was nice enough to willingly be dragged along after a quick coffee stop so I could do some detective work. I pulled into the motel parking lot, grabbed my camera and left the rest of the crew in the warm, idling car while I got a closer look. I snapped a few pictures and then went inside to see if the owner was there and willing to talk.
I lucked out. As soon as I walked into the small office I was greeted by Jan Fredericksen, the owner of the Corn Palace Motel for the last 20 years. As most folks are in that part of the country, she was a very friendly and helpful person – completely willing to answer any questions I had about the sign or the motel. Through our conversation I quickly came to find out that the sign had been badly damaged in a hail storm 7 months earlier. The bulbs were damaged beyond repair and had to be taken down immediately so they didn’t fall. Much of the neon tubing was also damaged in the storm – as was the roof of the motel itself.
The insurance money came quickly for the roof, but the sign was a different story altogether. Jan has been fighting an ongoing battle over the claim ever since. A local sign company quoted $21,000 to fix the neon and replace the bulbs – and even then it would be a compromised version of the original bulbs (a 2D version with flat sides as opposed to the 3D rounded originals). The insurance company offered a mere $5,000 for repairs despite the sign being covered by the motel’s policy. They are refusing to pay for the work required to restore the sign to its original condition.
Jan told me that she was happy I stopped in because her battle with the insurance company had been deprioritized in favor of running the daily business operations. According to Jan, business remains strong and occupancy has not suffered since the sign was damaged, but she also appreciates the heritage of the sign (originally installed when the hotel was built in the late 1920s or early 1930s) and wants to see it returned to its former glory.
Here’s to hoping that the insurance company comes to their senses so that another piece of vintage America isn’t lost forever. My favorite corner in Mitchell just won’t look the same with out it.
See my favorite shot of the Corn Palace Motel here.
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