A two-story mural of Willie Nelson is made completely of corn. The high school team is called the Kernels. Their mascot is Cornelius. You gotta embrace it! Mitchell may well be the corniest city in America. No city is as singularly associated with a building as Mitchell is with its iconic arena/community center’s 43,000-square-foot piece of folk art known as the Corn Palace. And the people lean into it. Hard!
Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Mitchell has the icon of innovation—the amazing Corn Palace. The Mitchell Corn Palace is the only corn palace in the world, a fact you’ll see on varied billboards lining Interstate 90 as you speed through South Dakota. As curiosity lures you off the highway, you’ll pull onto Mitchell’s small-town Main Street and find a bright-gold behemoth that looks like a tornado hit Moscow and dropped part of the Kremlin on the prairie.
A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.
Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. This “palace” looks like something straight out of Russia, built in 1892 to showcase South Dakota’s bountiful harvests.
And though it might be tempting to write off the Corn Palace as yet another kitschy South Dakota roadside attraction, its origins far predate the interstate. Or even the automobile.
The first corn palace was built in 1892, but back then it wasn’t the only one in the world. Or even in the state. There were several of them throughout South Dakota and into Nebraska and Iowa. Stroll past the Corn-cession stand in the main concourse. Everything around us smells like popcorn. It was a celebration for the farmers, for all their hard work on the harvest. They wanted to pay homage to agriculture. And over time for whatever reason those communities did not maintain their corn palace and Mitchell thought, ‘hey, this is a cool thing. We’re going to keep going’.
And keep going they did: Through 128 years and three different locations until settling on the current one at 604 North Main Street in 1920. Though the building’s longevity is impressive, what’s perhaps most astounding is that Mitchell redoes the entire thing every year. Before spring planting, the city decides on the theme for the murals that will adorn the Corn Palace for the coming year. This year’s, for example, is “South Dakota Home Grown.” Once the theme is established, a team of students from Dakota Wesleyan University designs the murals. Based on the color scheme, a single local farmer then grows over 375,000 ears of corn in 12 different varieties to match the motif.
Once harvest comes—typically in late September—the corn is soaked in giant water buckets to make it pliable. Giant tar paper outlines are plastered on the Corn Palace walls with color coded sections determining which corn goes where. Workers then air-nail the corn to the tar paper in a sort of paint-by-numbers game until the entire palace is covered. Typically it’s ready by the beginning of December but all of that is weather-dependent. They’re not going to have people decorating when it’s 20 below and a blizzard is blowing.
The grass is generally replaced in June or July when it shines the brightest green. So if you want to see the Corn Palace in its full Technicolor glory early summer is probably the best time to visit. The entire project costs about $175,000 which is a small investment for something that draws half a million visitors annually.
Of course, droughts or floods can affect the crop. So some years there’s not enough corn to redo the whole thing and murals stay up for two years or more. Though the corn doesn’t rot, it fades, and birds pick off parts of the building.
Though you’ll never find a shortage of roadside gawkers wandering the corn-cob concourses of the Corn Palace and the gift shop that occupies the arena floor, it has practical uses too. It hosts 335 events a year including high school and Dakota Wesleyan athletics, concerts, and festivals.
Corn is not just corn―there are many different types. The kind people eat on the cob is known as sweet corn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa). The corn that dominates most American farms is known as field corn (Zea mays indentata). And if you’re looking for popcorn, that’s a whole different kind of corn, too. This kind of corn is simply called popcorn (Zea mays everta). Corn is not just corn.