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Delectations: Vermillion (with two ll’s), South Dakota

By From the December 1970 issue

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South Dakota calls itself "the land of infinite variety," and no place in the state better epitomizes this variousness than Vermillion. Vermillion is easy to find, lying as it does half-way between Elk Point and Yankton, about eight miles off Route 29, the main road between Sioux City, Iowa, home of the nation's ninth largest stockyard, and Mitchell, South Dakota, famous for the Mitchell Corn Palace, a structure constructed entirely of corn cobs.

Vermillion's three major motels, The Wigwam, the Tomahawk, and the Prairie, adequately serve the unfortunately limited tourist trade. Of these, the Prairie is perhaps the best, for it offers not only a striking view of corn fields but also a fine restaurant and bar which adjoin a twelve-lane bowling alley. Here the traveler sinks deep into a narrow corafoam chair, sips his Grain Belt beer, and watches through a plate-glass partition the fierce competitions among members of the local bowling leagues. The Prairie epitomizes that quality South Dakotans call "class," a term admittedly hard to pin down but which might be defined as that sophisticated but lighthearted spirit which led the managers of the Prairie to paint the words "Bulls" and "Heifers" on the restroom doors.

Another establishment with class is the Charcoal Lounge in the heart of downtown Vermillion. Like the Prairie it is frequented by faculty from the University of South Dakota and young executives from the J. C. Penney Store and the Alf-Alfa Plant, and like the Prairie it serves hearty meals of well-done beef and, to the delight of the gourmet, salads prepared in the great midwestern fashion, delectable combinations of cottage cheese, bananas, jello, canned fruit salad, shredded coconut, pineapple and whipped marshmallow. But the greatest single attraction of the Charcoal Lounge is Ronnie, the only bartender in the midwest with a gouty big toe. Ronnie can spin many a good yarn about his affliction, and if you ask about it, stranger or not, he will regale you with stories far into the night. ("See? I had to cut this here hole in my best shoes," Ronnie' will say, hoisting his foot up onto the bar and wiggling the fabled toe.)

But, as seasoned travelers know, one wishes not only to frequent those places with class, for by so doing one fails to meet the "real people," for Vermillion is most compact, consisting as it does of about thirty weatherbeaten, dirty, old buildings facing one another across Main Street. And it is just across from the Charcoal Lounge, on the south side of Main Street, that one encounters the "real people" at play.

The best place to get to know the natives is Hogan's, a quaint old tavern with a utilitarian bar, an enormous plank dance floor, some old wooden tables, and a juke box which boasts one of the best collections of Ernest Tubb records in the world. The mood is simple and heartwarming at Hogan's, where farmers, truck drivers, drunken agency Indians, and the boys from the alf-alfa plant congregate nightly. The talk is boisterous but good-humored: "I seen who YOU was with last night." "Hee-haw," they shout, and slap their legs and stamp their feet. "You never!" The stranger need feel no apprehension, for he is soon made a part of the fun: "What the hell YOU looking at, Dude? .... Hee-haw." "How'd you like a good stompin?"

Ladies are treated chivalrously at Hogan's ("There's that Ellie that works up to the diner. I'd like to get me some of that."), and the proprietor, a diminutive man whose solemn demeanor cloaks a fun-loving nature ("Old Squint would murder his mother for a nickel"), delights in serving up lady-like drinks, the favorite being Seagram's and Dr. Pepper. The men, most of them traditionalists, prefer the customary shot and beer, although on festive occasions they will order coke-highs (bourbon and Coca-Cola).

Hogan's doesn't specialize in haute cuisine, as do the Prairie and the Charcoal Lounge, but one can always enjoy a tasty, pre-cooked, cellophane-wrapped ham and cheese sandwich which Old Squint expertly heats in a small aluminum oven. And the Beer Nuts at Hogan's are justly famous. "Gimme some of them there Beer Nuts, you miserable old bastard," the jocular cry rings out nightly.

The numerous other attractions of Vermillion are too various to detail here: the public library, which contains a complete collection of the novels of Frank Yerby and autographed first editions of the works of Badger Clark, South Dakota's Poet Laureate; and the handsome new building of the Wesley Foundation on the USD campus, where on Sundays one can enjoy tea with Preem, peanut-butter cookies, and good, clean conversation. The movie theater in Vermillion regularly reruns the best of the Doris Day films, and occasionally there is an old Jane Withers or Judy Canova for the connoisseur. And don't think that the electronic revolution has by-passed South Dakota. McLuhan himself would be impressed with the impact of radio station WNAX in Yankton on the area. The wizardry of radio keeps Vermillion residents informed of exciting local news stories (one of the most gripping of these recently recounted how a farmer from Sweat lost his life when his head was caught in the power takeoff of his John Deere tractor) as well as of more important national news, such as the daily reports of hog prices from the Chicago Livestock Auctions. WNAX also carries a wealth of educational and cultural programs, such as Lifeline and The Singing Lady.

And finally, no description of Vermillion would be complete without an appreciation of the scenery it offers. Perhaps most striking of all is the view of the small brown hills of Nebraska that can be enjoyed from a bluff on the west edge of town. (For the convenience of the nature lover, the city has thoughtfully placed a green bench atop the bluff. One should sit with caution, however, for the bench has been there a long time and nature's erosive processes have sharply heightened the danger of splinters.) There are times, admittedly, when the prospect is somewhat obscured by smoke belching from the alf-alfa plant which nestles in a gulch just below the bluff. In fact, the traveler might be well advised at such times to remove himself quickly, for to the uninitiated the smell of burning alf-alfa may prove unpleasant and may even cause mild gasping and choking.

Nevertheless, stenches aside, Vermillion, South Dakota, should definitely rate a visit by that traveler through "the land of infinite variety" who possesses sophisticated sensibilities and an appreciation of the exotic and colorful.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).