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Mascot Cornelius outside the Corn Palace, just before its 2015 makeover.
Mascot Cornelius outside the Corn Palace, just before its 2015 makeover.

Corn Palace

Field review by the editors.

Mitchell, South Dakota

The Mitchell Corn Palace is not built out of corn, nor has royalty ever lived in it. But it is a regal example of American folk art, and the lone 21st century survivor of a 19th century fad for decorating buildings with everything from alfalfa to oats.

Corn Palace.
Nailing one of the Palace's 375,000 ears of corn into place.

Agricultural palaces once dotted America's heartland. Crop-crazy farm towns would cover a building with their harvest as a showpiece for the fertility of their soil, arranging the plants into geometric patterns and patriotic designs. "They were trying to get people to move there," said Troy Magnuson, manager of the Corn Palace gift shop (and its resident historian). Prospective farmers would see a Palace with its exotic flair and agricultural bounty, and decide that its frontier town was a good place to settle.

There was a Sugar Beet Palace in Grand Island, Nebraska; a Sorghum Palace in Arcola, Illinois; and dozens more. The most lavish of these early agri-tectural marvels was a Corn Palace in Sioux City, Iowa -- but when that town was crippled by a flood and financial panic, Mitchell "took the idea and ran with it," said Troy.

The original Corn Palace in 1892.
The original Corn Palace in 1892.

Mitchell built its first Corn Palace in 1892, then a replacement in 1905. The current Palace, the last of its kind, opened in 1921. Onion domes and cone-topped castle turrets were added in 1937, then updated to sleeker, LED-enhanced towers in 2015. Through all of its iterations, pennants and flags have fluttered from multiple poles on the roof.

Spacewalk in Corn, one of the 1966
Spacewalk in Corn, one of the 1966 "Space Age" murals.

The purpose of Mitchell's Corn Palace has evolved along with its design, from wooing farmers to wowing tourists. Early postcards -- and there have been hundreds of the Corn Palace -- described it as the "agricultural showplace of the world," and "the most marvelous exhibit of nature's wonderful colors blended into works of classic art." Later postcards have been more jaunty in their praise, lauding the building's "a-maize-ing corn-ceptual ear-chitecture."

The Corn Palace, mostly brick and concrete, was built with large vertical wooden sections that can be filled with crop art, and changed annually. Themes such as "Allied Victory" (1943), "Space Age" (1969), and "Millennium Corn" (2000), usually make it easy to date the Palace in old photos -- but a wet spring, dry summer, or early winter can delay harvests and drag completion of the corn murals far into the following year. "We're at Mother Nature's mercy," said Troy.

The art is not made of individual corn kernels, but of cobs split lengthwise, creating a flat side that's nailed to the building (The Corn Palace goes through over a ton of nails every year). Roughly 325,000 ears of corn are used, arranged into pre-outlined patterns in a "corn-by-numbers" process, in multiple shades of red, brown, black, blue, green, white, and yellow. "People think the corn is painted," said Troy, "but the colors are all natural." The darker varieties are flint corn, which Troy described as "one of the hardest substances known to humankind." This discourages birds and squirrels from eating the art.

Modern-day Corn Palace brings Las Vegas pizzazz to South Dakota.
Modern-day Corn Palace brings Las Vegas pizzazz to South Dakota.

Family snapshot, 1967
Family snapshot, 1967.

Oddly for a tourist attraction, the best time to see the Corn Palace is in chilly November, when the murals are fresh and colorful, not during the peak summer travel season, when the faded murals from the previous year are often being torn down to prepare for the new fall crop. "I have to explain that to people," said Troy, who, by his reckoning, has conducted over 8,000 tours of the Corn Palace since he began working there in 1985.

Visitors to the Corn Palace can pose with a grinning ear of corn named "Cornelius," browse the gift shop (it sells corn cob jelly), and stand on an outdoor balcony to be seen on the "Corn Cam," waving to the folks back home. The indoor space -- an auditorium that's hosted everyone from Andy Griffith to The Three Stooges -- has its own set of corn murals, some with designs that date back decades.

Mitchell residents mostly view the Corn Palace as a venue for their high school basketball team (The Kernels) and gripe about its color-shifting nighttime illumination, which some have compared unfavorably to Las Vegas.

We asked Troy for an esoteric detail about the Corn Palace. He said that only two Mitchell natives have ever been portrayed in corn on its exterior: failed presidential candidate George McGovern; and Troy himself, as his alter-ego "Popcorn," a Shrine clown. "It was an honor," he said.

Corn Palace

604 N. Main St., Mitchell, SD
I-90 to Mitchell. North on Hwy 37 (Burr Street). Left on Havens Avenue. Right on Sanborn Boulevard. Left on 7th Avenue for three blocks; free public parking.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Cornelius, Corn Palace MascotCornelius, Corn Palace Mascot, Mitchell, SD - < 1 mi.
Valtiroty Shiloh's TabernacleValtiroty Shiloh's Tabernacle, Mitchell, SD - < 1 mi.
Thunder Bunny: Jackalope JackrabbitThunder Bunny: Jackalope Jackrabbit, Mitchell, SD - 1 mi.
In the region:
Prehistoric Indian Village, Mitchell, SD - 2 mi.

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