The Midwest means corn to most folks, just no getting around it. This past June when I was there, the stalks weren’t yet high enough to block the view of the wide plains and vast sky of the region. As an Illinois native, my recollection of those two-lane roads in late summer is that it was like traveling through tunnels of corn, with not much else to be seen. Makes for pretty boring driving.
Also as an Illinois native, before driving age and probably somewhere under the age of ten, I used to sell sweet corn from my Grandpa Haines’ fields to folks in my neighborhood—for a whopping 50 cents a dozen. I’d hit my likely customers one day and take orders and the next day I was back on the sidewalk with my red wagon full of freshly picked corn, delivering the goods.
And I also remember helping out at the small farm stand my aunt and uncle organized under a billboard on busy Halsted Street a block from the cornfield in Harvey, about 20 miles south of downtown Chicago.
Enough with the fond memories. This year there was this one ear of corn that stuck right up at me. It’s actually a 50,000-gallon water tank at the Seneca Foods Plant in Rochester, MN. I knew it was there, but didn’t know the precise address, but figured I would just drive into town and find it. And that’s what happened. I spotted it pretty quickly as I hit the outskirts of town and just kept aiming for it.
It’s not just a water tank painted to look like an ear of corn. It was actually built in the shape of an ear of corn back in 1931, when the industrial complex was the Libby Food Plant. It is now an historical relic and, well-lit at night, serves as the same kind of tourist attraction and town landmark that the Libby Food executives planned it to be back in the Depression.
About 180 miles west and a bit north of this tower is a 25-foot fiberglass ear of corn atop a gazebo. It’s at Memorial Park in Olivia, MN, which built the structure in 1973, the same year it declared itself the Corn Capital of the World, a designation affirmed by the Minnesota State Senate in 2004.
The birthplace of modern hybrid corn seed production, Olivia is home to nine seed research facilities and annually celebrates Corn Capital Days in late July with a parade, corn cobb toss and other activities. I missed it this year.
Ever had a nagging question about corn? I’ve had one for a long time: How did the phrase corny joke get started?
So I waded through reams of internet words about the history of corn (first domesticated 10,000 years ago, yada yada yada) and the hybridization of corn and even the use of corn-related terms to mean rural, hick, backwards.
But how it got used to mean a very simplistic, adolescent, funny-but-at- the-same-time-not-funny, joke eluded me for a while. Until I came upon this explanation: In the early 1900’s seed companies started sending printed catalogues to farmers to advertise their goods. Sprinkled among the ads were jokes and cartoons, usually pretty low quality ones. They became known as ‘corn catalogue’ jokes and that was soon changed to ‘corny.’
Makes sense to me.