The needle of the corn compass points to Mitchell, a South Dakota prairie town that is corn crazy and proud of it. Mitchell’s high school sports teams are the Kernels. Its local radio station’s call letters are KORN. And it’s home to the “agricultural showplace of the world,” the Mitchell Corn Palace.
The World’s Only Corn Palace is Mitchell’s premier tourist attraction. During it’s over 100 years of existence, it has become known worldwide and now attracts more than a half a million visitors annually.
Eight years before the turn of the 20th century, in 1892 (when Mitchell was a small, 12-year-old city of 3,000 inhabitants) the World’s Only Corn Palace was established on the city’s Main Street. The palace was conceived as a gathering place where city residents and their rural neighbors could enjoy a fall festival with extraordinary stage entertainment—a celebration to climax a crop-growing season and harvest. This tradition continues today with the annual Corn Palace Festival held in late August (23-27, in 2017).
By 1905 the success of the Corn Palace had been assured and a new Palace was built, but this building soon became too small. In 1919, the decision to build a third Corn Palace was made. This one was to be permanent and more purposeful than its predecessors. The present building was completed in 1921, just in time for the Corn Palace Festivities.
In the 1930s, steps were taken to recapture the artistic decorative features of the building and minarets and kiosks of Moorish design were added restoring the appearance of early day Corn Palace.
Today, the Corn Palace is more than the home of the festival or a point of interest for tourists. It is a practical structure adaptable to many purposes. Included among its many uses are industrial exhibits, dances, stage shows, meetings, banquets, proms, graduations arena for Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University as well as district, regional, and state basketball tournaments.
The Palace is redecorated each year with naturally colored corn and other grains and native grasses to make it “the agricultural show-place of the world”. They currently use 13 different colors or shades of corn to decorate the Corn Palace: red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow, and now they have green corn!
A different theme is selected each year, and murals are designed to reflect that theme. Ear by ear the corn is nailed to the Corn Palace to create a scene. The decorating process usually starts in late May with the removal of the rye and dock. The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.
The Corn Palace is not constructed of corn, as some assume, but is nearly covered in it. Each year, local artist Cherie Ramsdell sketches the murals that will adorn the building’s exterior. Ramsdell is the latest in a proud line of mural artists that includes the late Oscar Howe, an acclaimed American Indian artist.
After the murals are sketched, they are transferred onto giant rolls of tar paper. The old corn murals are torn off and the new tar paper is tacked up. Then, the new ears of corn are nailed into place using the transferred designs for guidance—sort of like painting by numbers.
The corn is grown by local farmer Wade Strand, whose fields are located southwest of Mitchell. He plants 40 to 50 acres with various varieties of seed to produce different colors of corn. Sour dock and rye is gathered anywhere it can be found and is used as decorative trim.
The Corn Palace is known around the world as a folk-art wonder on the prairie of South Dakota.
So there you have it: the story of the Corn Palace, a building that’s far more than just a multi-purpose facility with corn on it. As you walk away from your visit, hopefully you’ll be as impressed as then-Mayor A.E. Hitchcock hoped visitors would be when he issued this welcome to Corn Palace visitors in 1908:
“Even if you travel hundreds of miles, even if you walk the streets at night, even if you go hungry and thirsty, remember as a compensation that this palace has brought to your eye and ear something of the best the world can bestow.”
South Dakota has Wall Drug and Corn Palace. What more do you need?