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New Book Revives Corn Palaces, Butter Sculptures and Rural Cultural History

By Randy Shaw

Simpson_Corn coverWhen I ordered Pamela Simpson’s Corn Places and Butter Queens: A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture, I had no idea of the magnitude of this phenomenon. From 1870 through the 1940’s and even continuing today, county and state fairs featured buildings devoted to corn and artisan sculptures made out of butter. The Midwest was long the breadbasket of the world, so it made sense that fairs in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas would use agricultural products as art. Competition was vigorous over which states could produce the greatest corn palaces, and if the book did not have photos of some of these exhibits, their existence would be hard to believe. Pamela Simpson has revived an entire world of forgotten rural folk art, producing both a good read and a visual gem.

Rural Americans in 20th century America created a vibrant cultural and artistic legacy that has gotten far too little attention. Farmers and agricultural companies were proud of the products they produced, and demonstrated this through art promoting wheat, corn and other crops, or sculptures made out of butter. For example, the Kansas exhibit at the legendary 1893 Chicago World’s Fair included a 28 by 82 foot pavilion adorned with “solid grain decorations, wrought in every conceivable design … No artist’s brush on canvas could have presented a scene more beautiful and appropriate.” Ohio’s exhibit was a replica of the Greek Parthenon whose glass columns were filled with grain.

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