Mitchell, South Dakota
The drum major of the agricultural parade is corn, the Prairie Gold. Wheat, rye and sorghum have their boosters, but it's corn that fattens our hogs, sweetens our muffins and puts the starch in our shirt collars.
The needle of the corn compass points to Mitchell, a 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 Palace, with its mad mix of onion domes and minarets, looks like it was drop-kicked out of czarist Russia. It was originally built in 1892 to show off the fertility of South Dakota soil and lure settlers. It was rebuilt in 1905 and then again in 1921 -- and that version has remained on the job ever since, luring tourists now instead of farmers. Rival "grain palaces" in Plankinton and Sioux City succumbed to the rigors of prairie weather decades ago. The Corn Palace, a shrine to a superior foodstuff, has survived.
Mitchell's Corn Palace is built out of reinforced concrete, not corn. Every spring, however, its exterior is completely covered with thousands of bushels of native South Dakota corn, grain and grasses that are arranged into large murals.
Typical yearly themes are South Dakota Birds or A Salute To Agriculture or Youth In Action. Locals take great pride in the Palace's "corn-septual art" and "ear-chitecture" (Mitchell isn't called the Corn Capital of the World for nothing).
The Corn Palace serves as an auditorium for touring celebrities (Lawrence Welk played there five times), as a sports arena for the various Kernels teams, and as the headquarters of Corn Palace Week, the apex of Mitchell's yearly social calendar.
Corn Palace Week marks the end of the harvest -- and the beginning of the planning for next year's Palace theme.
A drought in 2006 was so tough on local corn crops that for the first time the Corn Palace skipped its annual redecoration. A drought nearly as bad in 2012 almost did the same thing, but the Palace was able to get by with fewer than its usual 12 natural colors of cultivated corn.
The Corn Palace has one more title - the World's Largest Bird Feeder. After Corn Palace Week ends and winter sets it, local pigeons and squirrels make a feast of the tasty murals.