When contemplating the drive across southern South Dakota, I readied myself to be extremely bored. The map looked flat and void of much civilization. What the map didn’t show was the increased vegetation and different crops grown as I progressed east. Leaves and grasses became greener and crops taller. Prairie grass and sagebrush gave way to corn and sorghum (which I had to google since I could not figure out what the bushy crop with the red-bunched tops was).
South Dakotans also love to leave their roadkill on the road until it essentially becomes dust again. I saw all stages of death and decay as I drove. I seriously think during one stretch there was a jackrabbit every five miles with a deer thrown in every now and then for fun. The traffic was comparable to Montana’s, so I will thank a MT Highway Patrolman the next time I see one since it has to be their efforts to remove roadkill that makes the difference.
With my road attention beginning to wane and my legs itching for a walk, I pulled over at Mitchell, SD to check out the Corn Palace. Now, I bet you would say the same thing I did when I first heard about the Corn Palace: Oh man, those guys out there are so bored they have to make things out of farm goods to attract tourists…Ok, this will be a joke…Get ready for kitch…”
The place advertises itself as “The Only Corn Palace in the World!”, to which I replied: Yeah because no one else is that ridiculous.
I take it back – the place was amazing! What made it even more impressive was the fact that it is an example of human art and architecture that has actually gotten WORSE as time has progressed. I kid you not, the palace of today is pretty cool, but it is nothing compared to the 1892 version.
Some info that may increase your wow factor: all the murals and wording are made completely of corn or material from other local crops such as sorghum, oats, flax, rye, and sour dock weed. The artists were in the process of completing 2017-18’s murals, whose theme is “South Dakota Weather”, and I could see how they used black paper and white chalk to block out the color combinations.Essentially, they compile it like a paint-by-number, using 200,000 nails to adhere the cobs and grasses to the panel. According to the Corn Palace’s official website, the artists employ a palate of only 13 colors: red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow, and green corn.Since the artists work with organic material that decays, the murals are rotated every year. In May the “rougher” materials are taken down as the decaying process progresses, and in August most of the corn cobs are removed and the new murals completed by October. The building is essentially in constant rotation between old and new – a fitting complement to the countryside in which it resides.
When the palace was built in 1892, it was to demonstrate that South Dakota did, in fact, have a climate suitable for agriculture. The Palace was a success, and the community has kept the tradition of throwing a massive fall festival each late August, celebrating the harvest and compiling the materials to create a new Corn Palace.
The upper floor of the Corn Palace features images of each year’s creation from 1892 to the present, offering an amazing view of how much work and creativity the Palace demands each year. The original Palace was made almost exclusively of corn on a wooden structure, while today most of the mural materials are adhered to a brick building. Even though the Corn Palace I saw was impressive, it had nothing on the earlier versions.
While the 1892 version doesn’t have the “murals”, it does have an incredibly complex design, with multiple turrets and that don’t exist today. The early artists built wooden structures as bases that could easily be changed each year if desired.
The existing building, completed in 1921, features a basketball auditorium where the state boy’s basketball tournament was held that year. The venue quickly gained notoriety not only for its corn facade but also for its basketball arena, still considered one of the best high school venues in the midwest region.
While it seemed a silly stop, I’m glad I took the time to venture to Mitchell and the Corn Palace. The building holds not only the history of a place determined to establish its worth but also the continued history of an easily forgotten segment of America trying to maintain its efficacy in an age quickly progressing away from the fields that give life to small-town-America.
Parting image: even the columns feature corn in the Corn Palace!