I stopped by the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., recently. I’m glad I did. The building, which is decorated in corn, celebrates prairie agriculture in a grand way.
Here’s a rundown of some things I learned:
Corn palaces were a thing. Corn palaces were created to promote settlement of the prairie in the late 1880s. They were advertisements for the good weather and soil and the prosperity that would they could produce.
Not the first. Mitchell, S.D., wasn’t the only town to build a corn palace in the late 1800s. It wasn’t even the first. From the 1880s to the 1930, at least 34 corn palaces were built in 24 towns across the Midwest.
The first corn palace — apparently the first in the world — was built in Sioux City, Iowa. It opened Oct. 3, 1887. Winnebago Native Americans sold the city corn to decorate the palace. More than 130,000 people visited the corn palace the first week it was open, including U.S. President Grover Cleveland and his wife. He called it “something new under the sun.”
Why Sioux City? In 1887, while most of the Middle West suffered from a drought, Sioux City looked like a great green oasis in the middle of a desert, according to documents on display at the Mitchell Corn Palace. Abundant rainfall had produced excellent crops for over a decade. At the time, the city was the third-largest meat packing center in America and had over 30,000 inhabitants.
To celebrate their prosperity, citizens conceived the idea of building a corn palace, never before built anywhere in the world. The city newspaper proclaimed that “Saint Paul and Montreal have their ice palaces, which melt at the first approach of spring, but Sioux City is going to build a palace of the product of the soil that is making it a great pork packing center of the Northwest.”
Done in by flood. A flood led to the demise of Sioux City’s corn palaces. In 1891, the fifth and final Sioux City corn palace was more than a block long. Street cars ran through it. Promoters made plans for the next palace, but in May 1892, the Great Floyd River Flood devasted Sioux City. Then in the spring of 1893, a financial panic swept the country, and two dozen Sioux City businesses collapsed within weeks. Sioux City would never build another corn palace again.
Feeding the world. “Feeding the world” isn’t a brand new slogan for American agriculture. In 1891-1892, Plankinton, S.D., created the first corn palace in South Dakota. The palace’s theme was “Dakota Feeds The World.”
Mitchell’s corn palace endures. Inspired by Sioux City’s success, Mitchell built its first corn palace in 1892. It is the only corn palace to survive to this day.
By the numbers. Today, the Mitchell Corn Palace is a tourist attraction, sports arena (basketball, volleyball, rodeos, etc.) and concert venue.
Some numbers that define it are:
- 1.5 million nails used in the decorating process.
- 500,000 people who visit annually.
- 325,000 ears of corn used to decorate the building. The ears are cut in half lengthwise so there is a flat back, making it easier to attach them to the walls.
- 30,000 rye brooms used in the decorations.
- 20,000 bundles of sour dock used in the decorations. Sour dock is a weed with tall, red to dark brown seed heads. It’s also called yellow dock or curly dock.
- 6,000 light bulbs on the building’ exterior.
- 30 miles, the distance volunteers go out from Mitchell to collect sour dock.
- 13 colors of corn used to decorate the corn palace. The colors include red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow and even green.
- 2 Sports teams, the Dakota Wesleyan Tigers and the Mitchel High Kernels, that play home games in the Corn Palace.
- 1 Farmer who grows corn for the corn palace.
Corn palace timeline. The Mitchell Corn Palace is redecorated each year. Decorating usually starts in late May with the removal some of the grain decorations. The old corn murals are stripped at the end of August and new ones are completed by the first of October. A different theme is chosen annually.
Bird feeder. Yes, birds eat the corn on the corn palace. The building is sometimes referred to as the world’s largest bird feeder.
Visiting tip. Visit the corn palace twice. Stop by during the day so you can go inside and read the history panels. Also stop by the corn palace at night so you can see it lit up. It’s very pretty. The building is usually open until 5 p.m. most days of the week. It is closed on Sundays during the winter. Check the website for days and hours of operation.