Considering it's one of America’s most sparsely populated states, South Dakota sure is home to a whole lot of off-kilter tourist attractions.
There’s Badlands National Park and historic Deadwood, sure, and some obscure sculpture carved into the face of a mountain. But there’s also a 12-foot-tall concrete prairie dog, a museum built from petrified wood, an underground waterfall, a National Register of Historic Places-listed dinosaur park and the world’s largest reptile zoo. And let us not forget the grand dame of all tourist traps, Wall Drug Store, arguably the only place in the world where you can get a prescription filled, shop for cowboy boots and get your photo taken while straddling a fiberglass jackalope.
And then there’s the World's Only Corn Palace.
While an unabashed tourist magnet to be sure, the Corn Palace has managed to rise above kitschy roadside curiosity status as a source of civic pride — a dynamic display of grain-based folk art that also happens to be a pretty damned fun venue to watch a game of hoops.
Think paint-by-numbers, but with ears of corn. (Photo: iris/flickr)
Completed in 1921 (the signature onion domes and Moorish-style minarets were added in 1937), this distinctive-looking structure where art, architecture and agriculture collide wasn’t the first corn palace to be erected on Main Street in Mitchell, a previously sleepy farming community in the southeast corner of the state that’s grown to become South Dakota’s sixth largest city with a population of 15,000.
Envisioned as a way to attract farmers to the area and “prove to the world that South Dakota had a healthy agricultural climate," the first Corn Palace was built in 1892. It was a hit. As Mitchell’s population started to swell at the beginning of the 20th century, it was decided that a new and larger home for town's annual grain-exulting harvest festival was needed. And so, in 1905, the second Corn Palace was built.
Commissioned to Rapp and Rapp, a Chicago-based firm renowned for designing majestic vaudeville theaters and movie palaces across the Midwest, the third and final Corn Palace, a sprawling 43,500-square-foot facility built from reinforced concrete, came less than a decade later. It officially put Mitchell on the map.
Rodeos and basketball tournaments are frequently held in the Corn Palace's 3,200-seat arena. (Photo: iris/flickr)
In grain we trust
The concept of a regional agriculture-promoting grain palace — particularly an architecturally flamboyant one that’s decidedly very un-South Dakotan in appearance — may seem novel today, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were numerous feats of agri-tecture spread across the American prairie and beyond. These structures, some more ephemeral than others, were decorated with or constructed from a farming community’s signature crop, be it alfalfa, flax or bluegrass. Grand Island, Nebraska, was even briefly home to a building that celebrated the sugar beet.
But as Sarah Laskow explains in a fantastic article for Atlas Obscura titled “The Forgotten Midwest Craze for Building Palaces Out of Grain,” corn — versatile, plentiful and scrumptious corn — was the crop of choice. Starting in 1887 with the creation of Sioux City’s spectacular but short-lived Corn Palace, an estimated 35 grain palaces, a majority of them corn-centric, were built in 24 cities including Forest City and Creston in Iowa and Plankinton, South Dakota.
By the time the final iteration of Mitchell’s Corn Palace was complete, rural America’s penchant for erecting grain-clad shrines had largely died down. Yet the castle-like structure towering over Mitchell's main drag proved to be no simple folly that, like its predecessors, would disappear within a few short years. With mesmerizing grain-based murals covering its exterior walls and dazzling displays of corn-craft exhibited within, Mitchell's Corn Palace was ambitious and functional. It also possessed a secret weapon that would ensure it would never sit empty: basketball.
The Corn Palace's exterior murals are removed and redecorated every year in the late summer/fall. (Photo: iris/flickr)
You see, the main function of the Corn Palace isn’t really as a tourist attraction. It was built as a civic center and multi-purpose sports and entertainment venue with a total seating capacity of 3,200. While the facility’s flagship event remains the long-running Corn Palace Festival held each year at the end of August, high school and college basketball games have been a big draw since 1921 when the palace hosted its first state tournament. Considered the “finest basketball arena in the upper Midwest area,” the Corn Palace was even ranked amongst the top 10 venues in the country to watch a high school basketball game by USA Today in 2004. Go Kernels!
And aside from harvest festivals and b-ball games, the palace plays host to concerts, rodeos, trade shows, polka conventions, high school proms and a range of community events. In this regard, it has more in common with San Francisco’s Cow Palace, a California Department of Food and Agriculture-operated arena that’s hosted the Beatles, Nirvana and, not one, but two Republican National Conventions (1956 and 1964), than it does with the advertising-minded grain palaces of yesteryear.
However, keep in mind that the Corn Palace is located not in the Bay Area but in Mitchell, South Dakota, just down the way from the American Legion and an archery supply store — it’s doubtful this venue will find itself hosting events similar to Cow Palace staples like the Body Art Expo anytime soon.
M.J. memorialized in maize. This year's theme is 'Rock of Ages.' (Photo: iris/flickr)
Mitchell's magnificent maize mosaics
So why visit the Corn Palace — or the city of Mitchell at all — if not in town for the harvest festival, a college basketball tournament or your niece’s high school graduation?
Billed as Mitchell’s “premier tourist attraction,” folks — an estimated 200,000 to a half million per year — visit from all over to marvel at the building’s murals crafted from a variety of grains, native grasses and 13 (!) different colors of corn.
But seriously, where else can you admire a massive corn mosaic of Michael Jackson?
A huge part of the appeal comes from the fact that while the interior murals remain largely the same year-to-year, the large exterior murals covering the sides of the palace are refreshed and recreated annually by a dedicated artistic team. And with each new harvest season comes a new theme. Past themes have included “Highways and Skyways” (1934), “Allied Victory” (1942), “Mother Goose Rhymes” (1971) and “Millennium Corn” (2000). This year’s theme is “Rock of Ages," which would explain why a giant corn Willie Nelson is presiding over Main Street.
In fact, 2007 was the only year the Corn Palace did not redecorate the exterior walls due to extreme drought. In that case, the previous year’s “Salute to Rodeo”-themed murals remained.
The marquee of the Mitchell Corn Palace pictured in 2012 prior to an extensive design overhaul. (Photo: Jason Jonas/flickr)
The design and decoration process, which has been headed by artist Cherie Ramsdell since 2003, costs an estimated $150,000.
In addition to the ever-evolving grain art on display, the palace has also undergone an extensive $4 million renovation that includes the addition of rooftop wind turbines, new exterior LED lighting and signage and a spruced-up lobby and box office. The building's iconic green and yellow fiberglass onion domes have also been replaced by bulbous metal globes.
The new exterior lighting scheme has proven to be a point of contention with folks complaining that the building’s new domes aren’t lit up enough while the mural themselves are illuminated a bit too brightly, making them hard to see at night. Some have complained that the overall effect is reminiscent of Las Vegas — and not in a good way.
Move on, nothing to see here. (Photo: Amy Meredith/flickr)
Birds and beyond
Squabbles over lighting aside, one not-so-unimportant question pertaining to the Corn Palace's upkeep remains: How does the creative team integrate roughly 275,000 ears of corn and other South Dakota-grown grains into the exterior of a building without the façade become one giant bird feeder?
Scarecrow security guards. The corn affixed to the building’s façade each year in a paint-by-numbers fashion is specially grown flint corn, better known as Indian corn. While birds are indeed attracted to the building, flint corn has a much harder kernel than standard varieties of maize. Furthermore, birds in search of a quick and effortless meal give up after a few exploratory nibbles.
It's not surprising that the good folks at the Corn Palace have figured out a way to deter birds from treating the grain-plastered building as their own personal buffet. But have they also figured out a way to ensure that tourists keep comin’ back for seconds, even thirds?
In an attempt to attract a new generation of visitors, some of the palace's distinguishing exterior features have been revamped. (Photo: iris/flickr)
The just-finished modernization project is one way. Prompted by sagging visitor numbers and concerns that the arena-cum-agricultural tribute was too hokey, too kitsch (hard to believe, I know) for a harder-to-impress new generation of tourists, the multimillion dollar facelift is geared to make the Corn Palace truly pop. This year's rock 'n' roll theme also boasts wider appeal than past themes such, as let's say, "South Dakota Horseless Carriages" from 1987.
"It's a folk art icon. If you look at the murals over the years, you can see what was happening in our world," Hannah Walters, director of the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau, explained to the Los Angeles Times in a 2010 article that described the palace as being a “husk of its former self.”
She adds: "But one thing we've recognized is that over the last 25 years, travelers' tastes have changed. People want to experience a destination. They don't just want to see something."
Located clear across the state from Mount Rushmore (it’s about a 4.5-hour drive via Interstate 90), Mitchell is a bit out of the way, even by South Dakota standards. And while there are other things for visitors to see and do in Mitchell, including a hands-on science center, a prehistoric archeological site and a George McGovern museum, it remains largely a one-attraction town. Weird, defiant, unpretentious and proud, the Corn Palace offers a taste of rural Middle America that can’t be found anywhere else.