- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

MITCHELL, S.D. — “Ooooooh,” says Hiroko Suzuki of Yokohama, Japan, savoring her first gaze at the stately spires and agricultural artwork of the world’s only corn palace.

Miss Suzuki, traveling across South Dakota with a family from Sioux Falls, says she has never seen anything like it.

The Corn Palace, first established in 1892, towers over Main Street in Mitchell, its yellow-and-green onion-shaped domes and orange minarets shining in the sun. Its walls are covered with murals formed by corn cobs, grain and grasses. Some of the inside walls also are covered with murals made of corn and grasses.

The Corn Palace attracts about 500,000 visitors a year.

“They’re just always amazed at something so recognizable that’s made out of corn,” says Troy Magnuson, who has worked with the local Chamber of Commerce for 19 years.

The theme for the corn artwork changes each year.

A local artist designed a Lewis and Clark theme for the exterior walls this year. Silhouettes of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea were created with different natural colors of corn.

“I’ve been here a lot, and this is one of the best I’ve seen,” says Carla Homan, a teacher from Kansas City, Mo., who grew up in South Dakota. She has stopped in Mitchell on a concert tour with about 50 music students from the high school where she works.

“Everyone was like, ‘You have to see the Corn Palace,’” says Karen Wollberg, a student on the trip.

Mr. Magnuson says many visitors return to check out the new murals and watch workers build them each summer.

“We were out here one time, and they had it about half torn up,” says Glee Huddleston of Greencastle, Ind. She and her husband were making a third stop at the Corn Palace on their way to Mount Rushmore in western South Dakota.

Workers tear off the murals in June and July and start putting up new designs. Grains and grasses go on first, and the corn is put on later, after it ripens.

The artist traces the designs for the murals onto black roofing paper, which is tacked onto the building and covered with different-colored corn and grains.

“It’s like a big paint-by-number set,” says Dean Strand, who has been raising the corn, sorghum and rye for the city-owned Corn Palace since 1982.

Mr. Strand can’t say how many ears of corn go on the walls — partly because some disappear into the hands of tourists, or “guests from out of state,” as he calls them.

“If an ear of corn is a good souvenir, so be it,” Mr. Strand says.

Guests also can buy something corny from the gift shop across the street and take guided tours. Mr. Magnuson has been giving tours of the Corn Palace since he was in college.

“I always tell people on my tours to keep an ear out for the corny jokes,” says Mr. Magnuson, who has become a bit of a Corn Palace history buff.

Grain palaces were popular in the late 1800s.

These palaces were built for harvest festivals and to prove the prairie really could produce crops. South Dakota had at least four grain palaces by the time Mitchell started its Corn Palace, Mr. Magnuson says.

The first festival was held in 1892, when officials built a wooden palace, covered it with grains and grasses and topped it with wooden minarets.

It was so successful that another, larger wooden palace was put up in 1905. In 1921, workers built a new steel-and-brick community center, which they still faithfully covered with corn and grasses every year.

This time, there were no domes. “They said they were going to build this new, sleek building,” says Mark Schilling, Corn Palace director. That’s what they got: a regular building covered in corn.

By the 1930s, domes again were atop the palace, and they have been there, in some form or another, ever since.

“Domes have been a big part of the Corn Palace ever since it was built,” Mr. Schilling says.

That’s why Mitchell took action after an aging dome and minaret slid off the roof in 2001.

Officials took a good look at the building and decided it was time to fix it up. They spent $1.4 million on a new large dome, two smaller domes, two minarets, a new gym floor and other improvements.

“There are some things you just don’t replace, or can’t replace,” Mr. Schilling says.

“You could do that in 1892 and 1905 and 1921. But there’s no way to duplicate the uniqueness now.”

The Corn Palace’s festival lives on. This year’s event, Sept. 1 through 6, will feature performances by Glen Campbell, Brad Paisley and REO Speedwagon.

Though the Corn Palace attracts plenty of tourists, local residents benefit from it as well. The Corn Palace is a multiuse center for Mitchell and the region, hosting stage shows, basketball games, farm machinery shows, polka parties and other events. It seats 3,100 people.

Sights beyond the palace

Mitchell is located along Interstate 90 in South Dakota, about 75 miles west of Sioux Falls and 310 miles east of Mount Rushmore. To get to the Corn Palace, take Exit 332 or Exit 330 north and follow the signs. The address of the Corn Palace is 604 N. Main St.

Admission to the Corn Palace is free. The hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily from Memorial Day through August; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in May, September and October; and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday November through April.

Tours are available every half-hour from Memorial Day through August.

Nearby attractions include:

• Middle Border Museum-Oscar Howe Art Center, 1311 S. Duff St., 605/996-2122.

• Enchanted World Doll Museum, 615 N. Main St., 605/996-9896.

• • Prehistoric Indian Village and Archeodome, 3200 Indian Village Road, 605/996-5473.

For more information, contact the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Corn Palace Convention and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 1026, Mitchell, SD 57301; 866/273-CORN, or www.cornpalace.com.

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