I was born in DeKalb, Illinois, a city whose (other) big contributions to the world include supermodel Cindy Crawford and the perfection—though not the invention—of barbed wire. (The city’s athletic teams are called the Barbs, a name not nearly as fierce-sounding as it perhaps once was.) But the word “DeKalb” itself might outlive those more temporal things, and that’s because it appears on one of the greatest advertising logos ever conceived: an ear of corn with wings.
It’s simple, bold, and mysterious. The corn is a lifelike yellow and its wings are green. Perhaps they sprouted from the husk? The “DEKALB,” always all-caps, is generally a fearless red. I’ve done no polling, but I would venture to guess that many more people admire the logo than understand its origins. There’s something magnetic about its simplicity, and even as a kid I was attracted to it in some kind of proto-hipster way. It’s hokey but expressive, aspirational yet silly. Corn can’t fly, and why would it, anyway? It’s a dumb thing to attach wings to—like putting wheels on a pumpkin or something. It makes no immediate sense, and yet it’s immediately unforgettable.
I moved away after my parents’ divorce, but my dad kept DeKalb in the settlement, and he would, from time to time, gift me something new with the logo on it—a keychain or a metal sign or a T-shirt. It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I realized the logo didn’t represent the city itself, and I only learned because my dad took me to the small HQ of what was then called DeKalb Agriculture. They were surprised to see us, and they had to find the employee—I wish I could remember her name—who was in charge of their little “store,” which was an old display case filled with various tchotchkes emblazoned with the logo. She was the only one who knew where the key was, and she had to make change out of a little cash box.