Mitchell, South Dakota. Home of the Last Crop Palace

Posted on October 22, 2016

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corn-palace-6The world’s only remaining crop palace is a premier tourist attraction in this small city of a little over 15,000.

The Mitchell Corn Palace is certainly something to see, and some 500,000 tourists come each year from all over the country to do exactly that.

They wander through the inside of the building, reading the history and looking at the photos of each palace constructed over the last 120-plus years .

Outside, bus-loads of tourist gaze up at the amazing murals covering the exterior walls; murals made up of, well, corn. Corn on the ear, corn kernels in shades of white, yellow, red, and blue-black mixed with a local reddish weed called sour dock, along with rye, an assortment of other grasses, and milo.

It all started with the 1892 Corn Belt Exposition as a promotional adventure to showcase the rich soil of the James Valley, in an attempt to encourage agricultural homesteaders. However, Mitchell was only one of several towns in the nation’s breadbasket to build huge, elaborate buildings covered with an assortment of grains during the late 19th century, all with the same goals in mind.

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corn-palace-9Mitchell’s first palace resulted in a beautiful exterior hiding a dark, rat-filled, totally unusable interior. Things changed through the years, and today the Palace is constructed of reinforced concrete covered with wood panels to which the corn art is attached – and until recently, changed every year following a particular theme.

Unlike its rat-inhabited ancestor, today’s Palace serves the community as a venue for

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The interior is also corn-decorated.

concerts, sporting events, exhibits and other community gatherings.

The logistics of creating this gigantic work of art is amazing. Twelve colors of corn are grown on a single farm near town in five-acre fields.

Careful attention to genetics has kept the colors true to the grain’s ancestors – a type of maize native to Mexico.

Once a theme is chosen, the designs are drawn out on black roofing paper attached to corn-palace-7wood panels, with marks showing which shade of corn should be place where to give the desired results. Sort of a corn-by-number approach.

In those areas where full ears will be used, they are cut in half length-wise and nailed into place.

Recently, concerns over cost led to Mitchell’s mayor making the suggestion perhaps it was time to stop changing the design every year. The Rapid City Journal reported it costs about $150,000 each year to re-decorate the Palace’s exterior, while the venue has run in the red to the tune of more than twice that amount annually in the years between 2011 and 2015. Needless to say, many are concerned about the Palace’s future.

However it all turns out, Mitchell’s Corn Palace has far outlived the other grain extravaganzas that once dotted South Dakota and Iowa.

 

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Image: Bluegrass Palace. Iowa Public Television.

In 1889 the Blue Grass League was formed by 18 counties in southwestern Iowa and headquartered in Creston, Iowa. The decision was made to build a bluegrass palace on the Union County Fairgrounds, to showcase their lush countryside filled with bluegrass, an excellent food for livestock.

The Bluegrass Palace was constructed primarily of both bluegrass sod and baled bluegrass over a wood framework 100-feet square with corner turrets and a 92-foot tall central tower.

As hoped, it attracted train-loads of tourists and would-be settlers, and was repeated – or perhaps just kept standing –  through 1890. After which, who knows. Perhaps it did its job and that was that.

Other grain palaces constructed for promotional purposes during this period included a Corn Palace in Sioux City, Iowa – active from 1887 to 1891; a Corn Palace in Gregory, South Dakota of unknown (to me) date; a Grain Palace in Plankinton, South Dakota, and probably many others I haven’t run across.

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Image: Wheat Palace, South Dakota State Archives

Plankinton’s offering was a Wheat Palace, which was supposedly the inspiration behind the construction of the Corn Palace in nearby Mitchell.

The first Wheat Palace opened in September, 1891; the second one closed in October, 1892.

Then there was the Flax Palace in Forest City, Iowa, which survived from 1890 to 1893. Ten acres of flax were harvested to cover its interior. As late as 1940, some parts of the original structure were still standing on the Winnebago County Fairgrounds.

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Image: Alfalfa Palace, South Dakota State Archives

Apparently the last of such palaces was an Alfalfa Palace constructed in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1917, of which not much information remains.

These were amazing times when amazing art and architecture was produced all by hand, all for the love of the land.

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