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You’ve probably seen the signs along Interstate 90 in South Dakota touting the “World’s Only Corn Palace.” And maybe, like us, you pictured a modest castle cobbled together with corn cobs, a classic kitschy Midwest road side attraction. But if you take the time to veer off the highway at exits 332 or 330, what you’ll find might surprise you. In the middle of vast farmland, the Mitchell Corn Palace reveals itself as a fascinating—though still plenty kitschy—multi-purpose, Moorish Revival building adorned with impressive murals made of corn and other grains. Even more impressive: The ornate artworks are redesigned and reconstructed every year.

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Flickr CC: m01229

Located in the rural hamlet of Mitchell, the Corn Palace now hosts graduations, sporting events and weddings and, naturally, serves as a roadtrippers dream attraction. But when it was first built in 1892, it was part of a late-19th Century Great Plains trend: Several towns built similar “crop palaces” as a way to promote their agricultural offerings. (The first ever corn palace stood in Sioux City, Iowa, from 1887–1891.) Mitchell’s first corn palace was a wooden structure designed to showcase the local harvest and goodness of the soil. In 1904-05, the corn palace was decorated to help Mitchell make a strong bid for becoming the state capital. While Pierre won that title, Mitchell’s corn palace has since developed into what Director Scott Schmidt calls a multi-event facility and it still attracts between 200,000–500,000 visitors per year.

The murals—made from corn, rye and sour dock—decorate the outside of the building and they’re the real draw here. Mural themes are decided by the Corn Palace Events and Entertainment board while art students from nearby Dakota Wesleyan University draft different design ideas. The board then gives their approval to their sketches and the new mural is added on the outside walls. There are three large murals measuring 30×20 feet each, and six smaller murals that are 10×10 feet each.

Flickr CC: Scott Robinson

Schmidt says the Corn Palace has a contract with a local grower who raises the corn that’s put into the murals. There are 13 different colors of corn, and five acres of corn are grown for each color. The corn is harvested when it has a very high water content, so that the cobs can be split and nailed up on the boards of the murals. (If the corn is too dry, the cobs will shatter.)

Rye is bunched together like broom straws for different parts of the murals, and the sour dock turns from green to maroon to brown as it dries. Redecoration of the murals usually begins in September and concludes in November. Murals are changed every year, unless there is a drought; in that case, Schmidt says, the murals may stay up for two years.

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Some of the most ravenous fans of the Corn Palace are birds and squirrels. “You’re not going to deter birds from eating it,” he admits of the palace, which serves as a giant (and picturesque) feeder every fall.

Flickr CC: seanbkacj

The Corn Palace is not only artistic, it is also very useful to the community. It contains a 3,200 seat arena, where everything from basketball games to dinner theater can be held. “Graduations, wrestling, bull riding, proms, national pedal pull (competitions)… opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics… Any activity you can think of, I’m pretty sure we host here,” Schmidt says.

The basketball court is used both by the area high school, and by students at Dakota Wesleyan University, for home games. An interesting side note: Basketball player Mike Miller, who has won two NBA championships, played ball at the Corn Palace when he was in high school.

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Also, inside the Palace, photos of all the murals are on display including murals portraying Native Americans and pioneer people coming together. At night, the Corn Palace is illuminated offering two different seasonal light shows—one for summer and one for Christmas.

Visitors can take a free tour of the Corn Palace; they’re offered regularly during the summer.

Tagged: Midwest, South Dakota

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Louisa Danielson

Louisa Danielson

Louisa is a freelance writer who enjoys traveling and loves the opportunities it gives her to snap great pictures of the places she visits!

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