John Philip Sousa’s band played here in 1904, as did Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra in 1938. The Three Stooges held the stage in 1961, Willie Nelson in 2003 and 38 Special last year.
The Corn Palace serves as a multi-use center for the community of Mitchell, South Dakota, with stage shows and sports events in its arena.
But that’s not why you should stop off I-90 in the middle of the prairies. The World’s Only Corn Palace is a tribute to the agricultural heritage of South Dakota.
The original Corn Palace, called “The Corn Belt Exposition”, was established in 1892. Early settlers displayed the fruits of their harvest on the building exterior in order to prove the fertility of South Dakota soil. The third and present building was completed for its first festival at the present location in 1921.
The exterior of the place is redecorated each year with naturally-colored corn and other grains and native grasses to make it “the agricultural show-place of the world”. They use 13 different colors or shades of corn: red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow and green corn.
A different theme is chosen by the Corn Palace Festival Committee each year, and murals are designed by a local artist to reflect that theme. Ear by ear, the corn is nailed to the Corn Palace to create a scene.
The decorating process usually starts in late May with the removal and replacement of last year’s rye and dock. The old corn murals are stripped by the end of August, and the new ones are completed in October using recently harvested corn.
When I was visiting in July, volunteers (mostly teenage boys) were using crowbars and hammers to remove last year’s grains and grasses (the theme was youth sports).
“We Celebrate” has been selected as the theme for this year, with all the murals completed around mid-October.
When you stop by, be sure to see the 15-minute video about the Corn Palace and stick around for the very short tour — there’s no charge for either and they go a long way to explaining how a building with corn cob, rye and dock siding ended up in Mitchell.
In the summers, there’s a huge corn-centric gift shop on the arena floor, along with a display of how corn production became an important crop for this region.
Every variety of popped corn is available, including several ways to munch caramel corn, plus fun foods like corn lollipops (left).
Photo Credit: Susan McKee