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“The World's Only Corn Palace,“ Mitchell

Mitchell Corn Palace
Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD 1903

The first Corn Palace in Mitchell was built in 1892, two blocks south of its present location on Main street. Its purpose was to attract settlers to South Dakota, which had achieved statehood just three years prior. The Corn Palace was also intended to be a tribute to agriculture. It was not the first and not the only such building of its time. According to Lon Tonesson, editor of “The Dakota Farmer,” at least 34 corn palaces were built in 24 towns across the Midwest between 1880 and 1930. Only the Mitchell Corn Palace remains.

The original 1892 Corn Palace building cost $1,500 and took 60 days to build. Today, the building costs the city of Mitchell approximately $130,000 annually to operate.

Mitchell Corn Palace - 1892

Each year, the people of Mitchell and the surrounding area celebrated the fall harvest with week-long festival called Corn Palace week. There were carnival rides and food and craft booths set up along main street. Big name entertainment was hired to perform inside. The event is still held every August.

By 1905, it was clear that the Corn Palace was a success as a tourist attraction and entertainment venue. It was also clear that the original building wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the activities and events that could potentially be held there. City leaders in 1905 also wanted to convince the state of South Dakota that Mitchell should replace Pierre as the state capitol and believed that a new Corn Palace would be a good selling point.

The original building was torn down in 1905 and a new building was erected using the old lumber. The new building was twice the size of the first and it was the first building to feature exterior and interior murals constructed mainly of corn. The murals have traditionally depicted agricultural scenes and other depictions of South Dakota life. The exterior murals are replaced or updated annually. The interior murals are changed every 15-20 years as they are not exposed to weather and can last much longer.

Mitchell Corn Palace - 1907. (The swastika in the center-left makes use of traditional Native American design element intended to signify prosperity and good fortune.)

In 1921, Mitchell city leaders knew that they would have to deal with fire code issues in the design of the 1905 structure. They also believed that the second building was still not large enough to be the multi-use facility they envisioned. The second building was torn down and a third building was erected in its place. When the building was finished, it had the largest seating capacity of any auditorium in the state at 3,200 seats.

The Corn Palace has seen many renovations and upgrades and continues to be used for various event year-round. As Mitchell’s civic auditorium and event center, it’s home to basketball games, high school dances, banquets, dance recitals, rodeos and musical acts.

During the summer months the Corn Palace was and still is a major tourist destination. Approximately half a million people visit Mitchell and the Corn Palace every year. Some consider it an essential stop on a grand tour of South Dakota that would include Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Wall Drug, and other destinations unique to South Dakota.

The art and architecture of the Corn Palace are the building’s main attraction. The process of decorating the building starts in June when wheat, rye, milo, and sour dock can be harvested. Sour dock, also known as Indian tobacco, is a dark brown weed that grows in wet marshy areas. Rye is a light tan grain used because it grows taller than many other grasses. Milo, also known as sorghum, is used for the borders around the murals. Each type of grain or grass is tied in a bundle using wire ties. The bundles are then stapled to the building following a set pattern. This process takes 4 to 6 weeks. Once the border trimming is done there is a break in the decorating process. Mural decoration begins in August once harvestable corn becomes available

A mural in progress

While waiting for the corn to grow, mural artists use a projector to trace pictures on black roofing paper. The murals are then decorated on a large scale “corn-by-number” process not unlike the commonly known paint-by-number technique.

The muralists use nails and staples to fully redecorate the building with corn murals. Eleven different shapes and colors of corn are used. The colors are natural, and the corn is never painted. The yellow corn is the first to go up because it matures faster. The corn cannot be too wet, otherwise it will shrink, which creates spaces between the ears. If it is too dry, the corn will shatter when it is applied. The crew hand picks each ear of corn that is applied to the building and gather enough to work for three days. After three days the corn can become too dry to work with. Once the corn is brought onsite it is sawed in half so there is a flat side to apply to the building.

Detail of a mural, 2014

The Corn Palace murals require 3,000 bushels of grains and grasses, 2,000 pounds of staples and nails, and well over 275,000 ears of corn, depending on the design of a particular year.

Notable artists who have worked on the murals include Oscar Howe and Cal Schultz.

Notable entertainers who have appeared at the Corn Palace include John Philip Sousa, Red Skelton, Lawrence Welk and orchestra, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, The Beach Boys and dozens of other acts.

For 2020, the murals follow a “South Dakota Homegrown” theme, which includes a salute to the military.

The city of Mitchell owns and maintains the Corn Palace. Event admission fees, revenue from the summer gift shop, and donations help fund Corn Palace upkeep and marketing.

Interview: The Corn Palace 

During this activity, your students will learn about the world’s only Corn Palace. Then they will complete an activity in which they will create or recreate a Corn Palace mural using tissue paper.