Last week I promised some details on a most unique building Lady Jane and I visited in Mitchell, South Dakota, during our fall trip West to the Dakotas and Wyoming. And while the natural wonders of The Badlands, Black Hills and Devils Tower were indeed remarkable, I surely don’t want to ignore the man-made Corn Palace in Mitchell.
Every building has a story, and for this blend of community-events center, concert venue, basketball arena and art gallery that displays the prints of artist Oscar Howe, a noted local artist in the 1950s and ‘60s, as well as the murals made of corncobs that celebrate the growing and the harvest season, that beginning was the first Corn Palace that was constructed on Main Street in 1892. That was back when Mitchell had just 3,000 citizens. The purpose of the initial structure was to create a gathering space to celebrate the corn crop for a festival, one that has come to be known as the Corn Palace Festival, which continues to be held each summer in late August.
A second Corn Palace followed the first in 1905, but the town soon outgrew that building as well. The third building is the current one and was completed by 1921, just in time for the festival and, that same winter in 1921, the South Dakota State Boys Basketball Tourney on the court in the middle of the facility.
Over time, the building became far more than the hub for a summer festival or just a place for basketball tournaments, as the community found more and more uses for both school and civic activities and as an entertainment venue. It also developed over time into a significant tourist attraction that draws over a half-million visitors annually.
As for all those murals made of corncobs on the exterior of the building and on the interior on the walls above the basketball floor, well, based on what box-office representative Mary Kay Johnston told me, that’s an amazing story of sustained effort year in and year out to keep things fresh.
Starting in early June each year, the Palace administrators hire around 20 college kids to begin the work. The first order of business is to cut the cobs lengthwise so that they can be later put up by artists with four nails apiece to create the artwork.
Said Mary Kay with a chuckle, “With the murals, by the beginning of June, the process to change the exterior ones really is needed because the birds eat so much of the corn! That’s why the Corn Palace is sometimes referred to as the world’s largest bird feeder.”
All the cobs have to be removed and the nails as well. Also, the murals’ borders, made of a local weed that grows in abundance called wood sour dock and the rye which is also used for the borders, are removed and replaced. The sour dock is green at first and then turns red as it dries. Both the dock and rye are gathered within a 30-mile radius of Mitchell. By mid-August the old cobs are down, as well as the old borders and the new borders have been stapled in place.
The new murals themselves are the creation of local artists who create their magic while maintaining a corn-themed motif. The corn comes from local farmers. As for the color variance needed in the murals, one area farmer actually grows 12 different colors of corn so there is no need to dye or paint any of the corncobs. The new murals are begun in early September just after each year’s Corn Festival, and the artwork is completed by early November.
As a lifelong sports fan who’s always been pretty obsessed with statistics, I asked Mary Kay if someone keeps track of the number of corncobs used each year. She smiled and responded by handing me an informational sheet that provided me a breakdown of not just the number of corncobs.
As for the sour dock for the borders, 20,000 bundles are needed, in addition to 30,000 flats of rye. To affix the murals’ borders, 500,000 staples are used. Inside the borders, 325,000 ears of corn are needed, as well as 1.5 million nails to affix them. And, if you’re thinking there are any shortcuts to the arduous artistic process by reusing materials, you’d be wrong. Every staple, every nail, every ear of corn and every piece of sour dock and rye are removed every year.
A quick trip to Trip Advisor while prepping last week’s and this week’s travel-inspired columns to check the ratings visitors gave to the experience showed me not everyone who visited the site was as intrigued and entertained as I was. Of the 2,263 respondents, 92 actually had the gall to rate the free-admission visit terrible.
Perhaps those 92 didn’t have their visit enhanced by Mary Kay Johnson, my congenial go-to box-office person who answered all my “corny” questions (sorry, pun haters, I couldn’t resist) and made my couple of hours very enjoyable.
As so, fellow travel lovers, as soon as you feel safe enough to venture your highways again, if you’re headed out West to check out those wide-open spaces of the Dakotas and Wyoming to see the natural wonders, make a swing through Mitchell and see what almost six months’ worth of effort using what grows in all that South Dakota dirt can produce.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.