The Corn Palace doesn’t look like it belongs in South Dakota. Instead, with it’s turrets, domes and interesting designs, the Corn Palace looks like it belongs in Moscow. Or Hollywood. Or maybe the Middle East.
In reality, the Corn Palace looks like it belongs anywhere but in the middle of the Great Plains in Mitchell, S.D., but that’s where the world’s only Corn Palace can be found. And make no mistake, it is found often. The unique, corn-and-grain decorated edifice brings in more than 500,000 tourists and visitors each year.
And though it attracts many people passing through the town, the Corn Palace is more than a tourist attraction to the town’s residents: it is a community center, a gathering place, and perhaps most importantly, a symbol of resiliency and prosperity.
Each year, the Corn Palace is redecorated with different indoor and outdoor murals made entirely out of corn and grain. The murals have depicted the change in times, the change in society and the change in culture. The Corn Palace has displayed everything from geometrical designs to animals to industrial advancements. The building draws many passing through South Dakota because they want to see the building that appears to be made of corn, and it brings in many visitors who are attending an event in the multi-purpose building.
Things to Do in South Dakota: The Beginnings of the Corn Palace
The Corn Palace concept was originally developed in 1892 as a response to a grain palace which was being constructed in the rival town of Plankinton, located just 22 miles west of Mitchell. Residents L.O. Gale and Louis E. Beckwith, who developed the Corn Palace idea, also hoped the palace, then called the Corn Belt Exposition, would showcase the town’s fertile soil and convince people to move to Mitchell.
Gale and Beckwith began asking for donations for the palace on Aug. 1, 1892. At that time, Mitchell was a 12-year-old city with about 3,000 residents. By the end of the day, the men had collected $3,700. Beginning on Sept. 28, the city of Mitchell held a week-long event called the Corn Belt Exposition, with the building as the centerpiece of the fair.
The original Corn Palace was 100 x 66 feet and stood at the corner of Fourth and Main streets. In 1893, an additional 42 x 100 feet were added to the building. At that time, the Corn Belt Exposition was not only a place for town residents to gather, but also a a place to compete against one another. At the expo, people brought products raised from the South Dakota soil, and those with the biggest or the best products might have gone home with cash prizes.
Because of a drought that affected the Great Plains, the Corn Belt Exposition was suspended from 1894-1899. The Corn Palace was not redecorated and a festival was not held. It was a symbol of tough times for many Mitchell residents, according to The World’s Only Corn Palace book. The festival was resurrected in 1900, but it was again suspended in 1901.
In 1902, Mitchell was vying to become the capital of South Dakota, so an exuberant festival was planned. That year, the Corn Palace employees filed articles of incorporation. Also at that time, women from the town began decorating the inside of the building using produce from South Dakota.
The Third and Final Corn Palace is Built in Mitchell, S.D.
By 1905, a new Corn Palace was built at the corner of Fifth and Main streets. At that time, the name of the building was officially changed from the Corn Belt Exposition to the Corn Palace. This palace, measuring 125 x 145 feet, would stand only 14 years. By 1919, a third and more permanent, as well as functional, Corn Palace was proposed. Mitchell residents raised $100,000 for the demolition of the second palace and the construction of the third.
By 1921, the current Corn Palace was complete. With the exception of 1943-1944, when grains were sent to World War II rather than used to decorate the walls of the palace, and 2006, when another drought struck the area, the building has seen new, grain-decorated murals each year.
The World’s Only Corn Palace Today
Today, the Corn Palace has stadium seating, a stage and a basketball court within the building. It is home to basketball games for Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell High School, and in the summer months the auditorium houses a gift shop. The palace has hosted dances, banquets, markets and plays, and entertainers such as the Village People, Lawrence Welk, Bob Hope and The Charlie Daniels Band have performed there.
The palace has grown with and experienced both the good and the hard times with Mitchell, and like the city’s residents, has endured to offer visitors and tourists a unique and different attraction in South Dakota. The palace’s ability to withstand drought and war is a symbol of resiliency in Mitchell, and the world’s only Corn Palace is a source of pride for many of Mitchell’s residents. To them, the Corn Palace is much more than a tourist attraction.
The World’s Only Corn Palace. Published by CPD Distribution, 2001. Mitchell, South Dakota.
The Corn Palace website. www.cornpalace.org. Accessed Nov. 1, 2011.
*Portions of this article were originally published on Suite101.com