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Olivia goes ‘green’ to save its famous icon

Olivia’s Corn Monument was erected in 1973 to recognize the community’s growing seed corn industry and agricultural heritage. Work is needed on the concrete base and the roof of the building on which the cob of corn is mounted. Tribune file photo

OLIVIA — What Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are to Bemidji, or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine is to Darwin, the Corn Monument is to Olivia, and possibly much more.

“I think too it’s a symbol of our agricultural heritage here in the area,’’ said Susie Lothert, economic development director in Olivia.

She was answering a reporter’s question as to why people and businesses throughout the community are stockpiling cardboard with the same passion that drove Francis Johnson to build a 17,000-pound ball of twine over the course of 29 years in Darwin.

 Never mind the subzero temperatures of late, every week Lothert and helpers Sandy Benson, Brian Stenholm, and Bernard Johnson make the rounds in Olivia to pick up all of the cardboard anyone will offer.

All of the cardboard they collect is carried away by the semi-load to McLeod County, and 80 percent of the revenues from its sale for recycling are returned to Olivia. The funds are all being placed in a nonprofit account kept by the Olivia Lions and will go toward repairs on the Corn Monument.

At least $18,000 is needed to repair the monument. Work is needed mainly on the concrete base and the roof of the building on which the ear is mounted.

Since Lothert and Benson launched the “Go Green’’ cardboard collection for the monument in September, they have raised about one-half of the funds needed for its restoration. The amount also includes cash donations from some of the 13 seed companies located in the community. They, of course, are the big reason Olivia was officially proclaimed “The Seed Corn Capital of the World” by the Minnesota Senate in 2005.

“People want to see it improved,’’ said Olivia Mayor Susan Hilgert, who is not the least bit surprised by the outpouring of community support for this effort. “It’s been such a part of our community that people just want to make sure it is kept up properly,’’ she explained.

“It has its own legacy,’’ said Dick Hagen of Olivia, who had a role in creating the town’s well-known symbol.

Hagen was communications director with Trojan Seeds when a sign company representative was visiting with him in the early 1970s about the town’s growing reputation in the seed corn industry.

The two brought the idea of erecting a giant ear of corn to Trojan Seed Company founder Bob R. Rauenhorst. He insisted it be at least 2 feet longer than any other being used as a monument, said Hagen. They knew of one near Rochester, and he called to learn that it was 23 feet long. Olivia’s was erected in 1973. It is 25 feet long and stands atop a building that makes it 50 feet high.

Its location along U.S. Highway 212 makes it a popular roadside attraction. Travelers often stop and pose for photos in front of it.

The monument’s fame once even brought independent filmmakers to Olivia. They featured it in their documentary released in 2010 called “World’s Largest.” It tells the stories of 61 roadside attractions across the country.

This monument was erected to tell the story of Olivia’s role as a world leader in the seed industry, and to celebrate the area’s agricultural heritage.

It also serves as a memorial. Rauenhorst and five other early leaders in Olivia’s seed industry were killed in a July 12, 1978, plane crash. A plaque at the memorial site remembers them for their role in the local industry’s growth.

Both Hilgert and Lothert described the current campaign to raise funds for the monument as one of those things that just came together so well. “People have been amazing, so generous, very kind, so supportive,’’ said Lothert.

And yet, the best might still be ahead: They have put out a call to all of the seed companies and farmers in the area to save their empty seed bags this spring, as they can be recycled for cash.

Lothert said they are hopeful that perhaps more than the needed $18,000 will be raised. If so, she said they would like to see the monument upgraded to serve as an information center for visitors to the community.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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