What is it about this "corn cob?"

We are so enamored with it, but why do we care? What is it about this tall, cartoonish water tower that grips our collective conscious? Or unconscious? This thing that says nothing about Mayo Clinic, our community's bread and butter, except that before there was Mayo, this was, first and foremost, an agricultural region.

And we love it for that.

Here is the conundrum: Rochester barely blinks when it comes to smashing and tearing down old buildings, when something bigger and newer can be put in its place. But our "ear of corn" has taken on the status of a totem. We fuss -- and spend millions -- to protect and refurbish our 149-foot water tower.

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"Love it or hate it, it symbolizes Rochester," said Dr. Paul Scanlon, a Mayo Clinic doctor and area historian.

Ninety years after it was built, the water tower that looks like an ear of corn is quirkily, indelibly part of Rochester's identify -- as much a symbol of Rochester as the Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji and Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth.

It is a source of mirth and smiles. It binds us. When we see it, we know we are home.

Left: Painters from Reliable Applicators in Albert Lea touch up the paint on the water tower in this file photo from May of 1980. The touch-up job required about 20 gallons of paint. (Post Bulletin file photo by Jerry Olson) 
Right: Viking Industrial Painting workers paint the outline of corn kernels on the ear-of-corn water tower on Friday, July 16, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Left: Painters from Reliable Applicators in Albert Lea touch up the paint on the water tower in this file photo from May of 1980. The touch-up job required about 20 gallons of paint. (Post Bulletin file photo by Jerry Olson) Right: Viking Industrial Painting workers paint the outline of corn kernels on the ear-of-corn water tower on Friday, July 16, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

It's a rare but not entirely unique phenomenon: This adoration for water towers as cultural touchstones, emblems of history and identity. Sunnyvale, Calif., has one, for example, but theirs is painted to resemble a can of Libby's fruit cocktail.

This week, the finishing touches to a $400,000 restoration and paint job will be put to the tower, returning it to a semblance of its Depression Era glory and making it, officially, the city's undisputed landmark.

Two years ago, Seneca Foods closed, ending 90 years of canning history in Rochester and throwing the water tower's future into doubt. Prodded by preservationists, Olmsted County stepped in and bought the 11-acre property for $5.6 million. There was talk of turning the area into a mixed-use transit hub, but those plans never materialized.

Tearing down the water tower was an option, but it was never seriously entertained, an official said. Instead, the county tore down the abandoned canning plant, and opted to spare and refurbish the battered old tower. Restoration and demolition work cost the county $1.1 million.

Viking Industrial Painting workers install the groundwork for the shroud, or tarp-like covering, on the ear-of-corn water tower on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Viking Industrial Painting workers install the groundwork for the shroud, or tarp-like covering, on the ear-of-corn water tower on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"When you think about these iconic roadside attractions, the ear-of-corn water tower was Rochester," said Mat Miller, Olmsted County director of facilities and building operations. "I grew up in Southeast Minnesota, and everyone knew where the ear-of-corn water tower was."

When he was less attracted to Rochester than he is today, long-time resident Scanlon recalled an old saying: "Happiness is the corn cob in the rear view mirror."

Visible from several points in the city, the ear-of-corn tower near the intersection of South Broadway and U.S. Highway 14 looms over the horizon as drivers enter Rochester from the east and west. Before the Rochester airport was moved in 1961, the tower helped orient pilots on their path to the airport from the northwest.

Sure, it's a bit tacky and silly. But that's part of its charm. It has a paradoxical relationship to Mayo. For a community so economically and culturally dependent on the clinic, it stands independent of Mayo. And yet it also points to the region's agricultural roots and a reminder that Mayo rose in the middle of a cornfield.

Viking Industrial Painting workers paint the outline of corn kernels on the ear-of-corn water tower on Friday, July 16, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Viking Industrial Painting workers paint the outline of corn kernels on the ear-of-corn water tower on Friday, July 16, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"There's also the symbolism there, where Mayo was built in the middle of nowhere," Miller said.

The structure also operates on a subconscious, Freudian level. As the tower was being repainted, residents bawdily delighted in posting photos on social media of the phallic-shaped tower wrapped in a white sheath.

Its history dates back to Rochester's earliest movers and shakers. Before the cannery and tower were built, the land was once owned by Dr. Christopher Graham, one of Mayo's founding partners and an agricultural enthusiast. Graham donated the land next to the plant that later would become the Olmsted County fairgrounds.

The tower was the primary source of water to process vegetables for a succession of operators, starting with Reid-Murdoch and followed by Monarch Foods and Libby, McNeil & Libby and ending with Seneca Foods.

The corn tower is seen in this 1933 photo of Reid, Murdoch & Co. Plant (Monarch Foods).  (Contributed Photo Courtesy of History Center of Olmsted County)
The corn tower is seen in this 1933 photo of Reid, Murdoch & Co. Plant (Monarch Foods). (Contributed Photo Courtesy of History Center of Olmsted County)

An estimated 260 gallons of paint were ordered to do this summer's project, said Adam Hass, project manager for Viking Industrial Painting.

"The pattern is definitely unique," Hass said. "In a lot of other tanks, it's pretty much a solid color with a city logo on it, where this one the entire tank is the logo."

The tower was first sandblasted clean down to its bare metal, rendering it a blank canvas. Then a primer was put over the bare steel, followed by several coats of paint. The last coat gave the tower its corn-color hue.

To create the kernels and leaves, paper patterns were stamped out by a machine. Each paper was covered with fine little holes outlining the shape of kernels and leaves. The papers were then attached to the tank, where workers spray-painted over the paper, transferring painted dots to the tank. Painters then connected the dots by hand.

For Ross Reishus, a 53-year-old Rochester resident, the water tower is not only distinctive but it makes Rochester distinctive.

"Yes, it's tacky, but that's half of its charm," Reishus said. "It gets people to pull over for a minute to take a photo. The important part is that it's attractive to many levels of tourists. They will tell others about it and that's how tourism works."