Corn Palace is Gateway to South Dakota Tourist Attractions

Unusual Mitchell, South Dakota, tourist attraction pulls in about a half-million tourists and visitors every year.
Cecil Hicks
July/August 2009
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Grain reigns supreme at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
Cecil Hicks
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The world has a number of notable luxury palaces that were traditionally built for kings and queens of some European countries, sultans and sheiks of the Mideast, or maharajas of India. While these mansions were largely showcases for the rich and famous and society’s aristocrats, there’s only one that was designed to honor a crop – the Corn Palace at Mitchell, South Dakota.

Mitchell (pop. 15,000) is a prairie town in eastern South Dakota surrounded by fields of corn. In 1892, residents of the area constructed a building and named it the Corn Palace to showcase the major crop grown in the region. It was their hope that the attention generated would attract more immigrant farmers to settle in the area.

While the original Corn Palace might have helped lure settlers, today’s palace (it’s the third, built in 1921) attracts about a half-million tourists and visitors annually. The Corn Palace’s Convention and Visitors Bureau helps promote activities in this uniquely designed structure with its mosque-like domes and towers that looks similar to a building designed for a Russian czar.

Troy Magnuson, assistant manager of the Corn Palace’s gift shop, says the Corn Palace is the “gateway to South Dakota’s major tourist attractions.” He says the bulk of the state’s visitors arrive by car from the east on Interstate 90, which runs just south of Mitchell. The Corn Palace is the first major state tourist destination for westbound travelers. The others are the Badlands National Monument, Wall Drug Store, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument.

The Corn Palace is made out of bricks and steel. Huge 3/4-inch plywood panels mounted on the palace’s exterior are transformed into large murals designed by artists using locally grown corn and grains.

According to Magnuson, all corn used in the murals is raised by a local farmer who annually plants several different colored corns. None of the corn used in the designs is dyed. Besides standard yellow-eared corn, the farmer grows three shades of red corn, three shades of brown corn, calico spotted Indian corn, blue corn, white corn and, recently, a variety of green corn.

A different theme is chosen by the Corn Palace Festival Committee each year. The 2009 theme is “America’s Destinations.” U.S. destinations selected include Washington, D.C., the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle in Seattle, the Golden Gate Bridge, the St. Louis Arch, the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, the Kennedy Space Center, and three sites from South Dakota (Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument and the Corn Palace).

Some past themes were Everyday Heroes, 2008; South Dakota Youth; A Salute To Rodeo, 1995; South Dakota Birds; Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, 2000; Space Age, 1969; and Great Events.

In some years, nearly a half-million ears of corn are needed for the murals. The murals also require some 3,000 bushels of grains, grasses, wild oats, rye, straw and wheat that are mixed into the designs. Starting in the month of June, workers begin preparations for placement of the new grains and grasses on the panels.

Usually by mid- to late August, corn has ripened enough so workers can begin stripping and removing the old corn from the previous year’s exterior murals. The ears of corn are first sawed in half with a table saw and then, using a carpenter’s air nailer, workers nail the ears to the panel following patterns created by local artists. You might call this artistic process “corn-by-the-number.”

While the exterior of the Corn Palace gets an annual face-lift, the interior has permanent corn murals on the walls surrounding the auditorium, stage and gymnasium. Most of these murals honor the history of South Dakota and include gold miners, hunters, Mount Rushmore, Native Americans and wildlife. These murals were created by Oscar Howe, the late Sioux artist and South Dakota artist laureate.

In addition to hosting numerous sports activities for Mitchell High School (whose sports teams are appropriately named the Kernels) and Dakota Wesleyan University, the Corn Palace is also the center of activity for the town’s annual Corn Festival held the third week of August.

Throughout the year, a wide variety of entertainment is scheduled in this multiuse facility. Some of these events include: concerts, community fundraisers, dinners, banquets, church gatherings, performance art and craft shows, community theatre, blood drives, an annual Shriners circus, basketball camps, boys and girls district basketball tournaments, annual convention meetings, and a variety of dances including proms, square dances and polkas.

Some big-name entertainers who have performed at the Corn Palace include Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton, Duke Ellington and Lawrence Welk.

During the summer months, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Corn Palace offers free guided daily tours from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Following the tour, visitors can view displays about the artists, view the photos of every Corn Palace’s corn-design themes since 1892 that line the walls, and visit the gift shop to purchase souvenirs. During the rest of the year, the Corn Palace is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except during the winter months (December through March) when it is closed on Sundays.

www.CornPalace.org

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