When sculptor John Lopez, and some friends, unveiled the new Boss Cowman Square, he hoped the new outdoor art space would help revitalize downtown Lemmon. But he realized the mural created for the project by his friends and fellow artists — Dotun Popoola and Jonathan Imafidor — were painted on the wall of a dilapidated building, former site of a longtime local bar, that might not last long without an intervention.
The Kokomo Inn was started by George Raba in the 1930’s and shut its doors about eight years ago. The joint was a favored watering hole for young and thirsty North Dakotans seeking 3.2 ABV beer when the South Dakota drinking age was eighteen, and a place “where most people in town had their first beer,” says Lopez.
Lemmonites were excited about Boss Cowman Square but concerned that it might have been built on shaky foundations. “People started saying, ‘What if the Kokomo falls in? What’s going to happen to the mural?’” he says. “So I thought, 'this will be a good winter project for me to renovate this thing and turn it into a gallery for my work.'”
He replaced the old, flat roof — which had caved in completely — with rafters and a peaked roof that opens up the space. He utilized some original details, like exposed brick, and added some new ones, like barn wood accents and interior doors. He kept the original Kokomo sign, but freshened up the paint a bit. He also added a false front with a portrait he painted, based on an older painting of Kokomo, the legendary Miami chief (namesake of an Indiana town) that George Raba named the place after.
The gallery opened Saturday (June 10) with a show featuring work by Popoola and Imafidor. Though the gallery’s primary function is as a showcase for Lopez’s work, he says that, “Jonathan and Dotun are always going to have a place to come and have a show.”
His sculpture, Custer’s Last Stand — depicting the clash between Sitting Bull’s vision and General George Armstrong Custer's cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, through two life-sized buffalo — is the permanent centerpiece of the gallery.
The resurrection of the Kokomo is just the latest entry of his one-man crusade to revitalize downtown Lemmon. “Everybody in Lemmon is really supportive,” he says. “I’m hoping it makes a big enough change that Main Street will look different ten years from now.”
“There are a lot of younger people moving back and they all have ideas.”