April 2000
s m u g
by Kristin Thomas

Note: We are currently seeking solicitations for Mysterydates: Field reports from places most people don't go - like CONS, boat shows, livestock auctions, large public niche events. If you have something in your area you'd like to write about, please write the editor at leslie@smug.com

The Corn Palace

Mitchell, South Dakota. Population 14,191. It has a drive in Movie Theater, two golf courses, and a 24-lane bowling alley. There are over sixty different fraternal, civic, and patriotic organizations in Mitchell, and their official visitor's guide lists local church schedules under 'Things to do'. The main street really is called Main Street.

At 601 North Main Street stands the Corn Palace.

The very first Corn Palace was built in 1892, to encourage immigration to South Dakota by demonstrating the fertility of the prairie land around Mitchell. Architecturally (or should that be 'ear'-chitectually?), it resembles a Russian Orthodox Church gone terribly wrong, with it's mix of onion spires and minarets. Although not a church in the traditional sense, it is a shrine.

It is a shrine to corn.

The outside of the Corn Palace is completely covered with vast murals that change every year. Murals made primarily of corn, and completely covering the top five stories of the six story building. Red corn, yellow corn, and blue corn, with accents of other grains, used like paint to decorate the palace every year, according to a central theme. These murals require thousands of bushels of corn, grain, grasses, wild oats, brome grass, blue grass, rye, straw and wheat each year. There were covered wagons in one panel, carefully rendered to look three dimensional, and in another, boats that looked almost Egyptian. There were beautifully designed birds, each six feet tall, and wonderfully intricate borders done in red and yellow ears of corn. It costs an estimated $100 000 a year to redecorate the building.

We drove eighteen hundred and one miles to see the Corn Palace.

Inside, it is a typical small town 'multipurpose' civic building. There is a gym, a stage, and some bleacher seating. The night before we arrived had been a high school prom, and hanging from the scoreboard and basketball nets were limp strands of crepe paper and some deflated balloons. A quick visit to the ladies room made me laugh: it smelled faintly of vomit from the evening before, and littered about the sinks were tissues used to blot bright red lipstick. On the floor were the smashed remains of a cheap rhinestone earring. I was surrounded by the detritus of a successful high school event.

We walked up and down the lobby of the Corn Palace, looking at the photo gallery of Corn Palaces' Past, and reading up on the history of the building. The current Palace is the third such structure. At least one of the first two burned to the ground, not surprising considering the flammability of the decorations. We also learned that this is the only corn palace in the world. Imagine that! We passed a sign for the local radio station (call letters KORN) and picked up an errant flyer for the high school basketball team (The Kernels), and we pressed pennies in one of those carnival like machines that turn money into little oval souvenirs.

In the unrelenting glare of the prairie sun, the yellow corn in the murals shines like gilt.

In a first world nation, the majority of our food can be broken down into 3 categories; that which comes in a can, prepackaged 'just add water' boxstuffs, and whatever the delivery guy shows up with an hour after you call your local takeout joint. And because of this, it would be so easy to feel superior to this little town and its claim to fame. It would be so easy to enunciate the words 'Corn Palace' with a hint of mocking, and say them with a combination head tilt and eyebrow raising, dismissively. It would be easy to write this whole place off as nothing more than an attempt to lure tourists in from Interstate 90, on their way home from trips to more well known attractions, like Mount Rushmore.

It would be easy, and it would be wrong. Sure, some of the gift shop souvenirs are a little on the tacky side, with dioramas of anthropomorphic cobs of corn plucking guitars and dancing, but at the heart of it, the Corn Palace stands as a monument to the agricultural heritage of the prairies. It is a splendid thing.

And it is free. Yes, there is a donation box in the lobby, but it is a discrete one, and there are no volunteers about encouraging 'donations' from everyone. There it something kind of wonderful about a little town like this spending the kind of money and using the kind of resources needed to create such a vast piece of free public art. Or at the very least, the world's largest bird feeder.


in the junk drawer

feature car
ac/dc gun
decomposing dice
compulsion vise
posedown cheese
and such
and such
blab fan

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