Corn Craft

For more than a century, the famed Corn Palace theater has been decorated with murals made of maize.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Tharran E. Gaines

The iconic Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.

The iconic Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.

Creating art with a corncob can’t be easy, unless you have a couple hundred thousand of them. That’s what the folks in Mitchell, S.D., do each September and October to their Corn Palace.

With the exception of just a few years, they’ve been doing it since 1892, creating murals of various scenes with corn of various colors.

The fun began as the focus of the Corn Palace Exposition, later renamed the Corn Palace Festival. Today, as back then, townspeople use the corn—as well as grain and grasses—gathered from area farms for their palette. And while Mitchell’s current Corn Palace is its third—the building was completed in 1921 and redesigned in 1937 to include the ornate minarets, turrets and kiosks of the original building’s Moorish design—it’s the only structure of its type left in the world.

Dan McCloud is one of some 20 people needed to install murals on the Corn Palace.

Dan McCloud is one of some 20 people needed to install murals on the Corn Palace.

“The one thing that has remained consistent,” says Mark Schilling, the facility’s director for the past 10 years, “is that the Corn Palace has been redecorated [almost] every year with new corn, grasses and grains. Each new design and mural centers around a certain theme. The only exceptions [during the modern era] were during World War II when the murals were painted to save grain for the war efforts.

“We currently use 12 different colors or shades of corn to decorate the Corn Palace,” continues Schilling, noting that more than 275,000 ears of corn are nailed to the panels to create a total of 12 exterior murals. There are another 11 murals inside that are only changed when necessary.

Over the years, themes selected by the Corn Palace committee have included everything from “The First Americans” and “South Dakota Birds” to “Everyday Heroes” and “America’s Destinations.” For the 2011 season, which was actually completed at the end of the previous year, the theme was “American Pride,” with murals depicting baseball, apple pie, Uncle Sam and church, among other subjects. Once those murals are torn down this fall, the theme for 2012 will be “Saluting Youth Activities.”

More than 1,200 ears went into this eagle mosaic.

More than 1,200 ears went into this eagle mosaic.

“Naturally, the price of decorating the Corn Palace has gone up over the years,” Schilling says. “Back in 1923, the cost of redecorating was approximately $10,000. Today, it’s closer to $150,000, with funds coming from concert ticket sales, palace rental, donations and contributions from the city and local business.”

To help generate that income, some of the biggest names in entertainment have appeared on the Corn Palace stage. In the early days, it revolved around the world’s biggest bands—including John Philip Sousa’s, which appeared in 1904—and the U.S. Marine Band in 1909. It has been reported, however, that upon seeing the small size of the city and the unpaved streets, Sousa refused to let his band depart the train until paid in full. Since he returned three years later, he apparently had a change of heart about the warmth and trustworthiness of the community.

Other famous names who have performed at the Corn Palace Festival include Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Welk (a South Dakota native who returned four times), Guy Lombardo, The Three Stooges, Andy Williams, Bob Hope and Wayne Newton. In fact, just about everybody involved in country and pop music has appeared at the Corn Palace at least once. In 2011 alone, music guests included Loretta Lynn, Josh Turner and 1960s favorites The Turtles, The Buckinghams and Mark Lindsey.

“The Corn Palace also serves as the basketball arena for Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University, as well as the site for conventions, dances, stage shows and other events of civic interest,” Schilling adds. “Plus, we get around a half million visitors each year … especially during the summer when tourists are passing by on Interstate 90.”

In the meantime, one can’t dismiss an inadvertent role of the Corn Palace for more than a century—feeding countless birds and squirrels each winter—hence the nickname, “The world’s largest bird feeder.”