LEMMON, S.D. — A great old bar in a South Dakota border town will not die as expected, though its resurrection as a highfalutin' art gallery will certainly change up its history.
The Kokomo Inn was famous around those parts for decades — it had a cool name and it was the closest bar when 18 was the legal drinking age on the south side of the border and 21 was operative on the North Dakota side.
Who knows how many cans of watery 3.2 Schlitz or Hamms beer were popped open by those young kids with nice farm town manners, some with a hoked-up driver’s license? But it was enough to make mention in the town’s history book, and it was the bar where generations probably sipped their first served beer.
Noni Hoff, 53, of Lemmon, said she did, but that’s not why she remembers the place so fondly. She was good friends with one of the Raba kids — the family that started it back in the '30s — and they ran in the front door on Main Street and out the back to the alley like the joint was a second home.
“It was a place you could just go. Other bars came and went, but it was the one that was always there,” she said. “It was special, a place you could be comfortable in. You didn’t have to dress up.”
The doors closed about eight years ago after the death of the last Raba family member and the building eventually reverted to city ownership. The colorful Kokomo Inn sign painted on the building’s front faded in the west sun and the inside fell to wrack and ruin as rain and snowmelt made their way through the old roof.
Last summer, Lemmon scrap metal sculptor John Lopez got permission from the city to use the building’s exterior as a brick canvas for a mural to go along with turning the adjacent empty lot into “Boss Cowman Square.” The square honors the town’s namesake, Ed Lemmon, famous for managing the largest fenced pasture in the world at 865,000 acres and bossing the single biggest cattle roundup in history.
The mural, painted by Nigerian artists, is a beautiful piece of work and, if the building ever went down, so would it.
Lopez works out of studio near Lemmon and had come to the conclusion that he needed a gallery for his internationally recognized work, a place to showcase his pieces and meet with clients. The Kokomo Inn, dilapidated and beloved, was right there waiting for him.
“Wherever I had a gallery, I wanted it next to a park for landscaping and to create an experience. I didn’t realize it would be the Kokomo,” said Lopez, who acquired the title from the city and went to work.
Turns out “work” is a small word for the gargantuan undertaking the renovations required throughout this past hard winter. He’d hoped to save the roof, but in the end — actually the beginning — it was clear it had to be removed and the building gutted and shored up.
His vision was a place of open, white simplicity, where his sculptures would speak for themselves.
“I want to be taken seriously, so that, when people walk in, they’ll get it,” he said.
He recently completed “Custer’s Last Stand,” which will be his permanent installation at the gallery. It’s been four years in the making from iron and found pieces, including a propane tank, shovel heads, snow chains, plow disks and even a bar stool from the old Kokomo Inn. It’s as complex, detailed and imaginative as any work he’s done. The piece features two life-sized buffalo engaged in mortal conflict, inset with bronzed likenesses of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and Chief Sitting Bull looking toward each other.
The colonel would die that day in 1876 in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and Sitting Bull would ride on into history. Lopez tries to evoke the outcome in the expressions of the men and the stances of the buffalo in which the battle is being played out.
“It goes beyond the gimmick; there’s a story within a story, a sculpture within a sculpture,” he says.
For now, the piece stands out in the prairie near his house, and soon it will be loaded up and moved into the gallery where it will fit the open space. Lopez is keeping the Kokomo Inn name out front — it is iconic in Lemmon and happens to be the actual name of another Indian, Chief Kokomo of the Miami tribe that once populated the lower Great Lakes region. Word is old George Raba took a liking to the name when he came across it in Indiana and it stuck.
It has stuck and withstands the test of time, just as Lopez believes in his sculptures along with his commitment to Lemmon’s history.
While he intends the gallery to be a showroom for his art, he is making one important exception. Canvas paintings by his Nigerian artist friends of mural fame, Jonathan Imafidor and Dotun Popoola, will be for sale in a week-long exhibit starting from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 10 and ending June 17 with live music and other events.
The public is invited. For those, like Hoff, who remember the Kokomo Inn’s heyday so well, it might be a strange transition walking through that door into the past.
“It’s awesome that he saved the building, but it’s hard. It’s like going back to your parent’s house and finding someone remodeled it,” Hoff said.