If you are a tiny Midwestern town and you want to put yourself on the map as a tourist destination, you have to pick a theme, go all in and celebrate it shamelessly.
That’s the thinking behind the Mitchell Corn Palace, our first official destination in South Dakota.
The Corn Palace – billed as the world’s only one -- has been around in some form since 1892, with various renditions coming and going until the more familiar design was built in 1921, with Moorish minarets added in 1937.
The building is basically a town auditorium for basketball games, concerts and other events, only decorated inside and out with corn and other grains.
The inside murals last for about 10 years, but the exterior designs last for about a year, mostly because birds use them as a giant Old Country Buffet.
There are assorted corn information displays inside, and a corn-cession stand with fine corn-centric snacks.
We were able to grind corn into meal with a huge stone and climb upon a real tractor. This might be the South Dakota version of Tom Sawyer’s whitewashed fence, but we city slickers had fun.
|Aunt Kris, Caroline and Zack slave away making corn meal the old-fashioned way.|
And, of course, there was a massive gift shop fitting a place that attracts 500,000 tourists a year. The kids working there seemed pretty happy. I asked them questions. It’s what I do.
“Is this, like, THE place to work if you’re a teenager in Mitchell?”
“Yeah. It’s either this or fast food.”
At least, that’s the case for the girls working inside. The guys outside bunching up hay and power-nailing it to the front of the building didn’t seem as amused.
|Mitchell teenagers in action. It's better than working in fast food.|
But that’s OK, because we had fun and appreciated the effort.
This year’s theme is “We celebrate,” with designs depicting various holidays. But South Dakotans have pretty grim ideas about art. A previous design on display showed a prairie dog about to be scooped up by a talon-bearing hawk. Next year’s design is called “Remember when…” and shows a kid selling a newspaper. Not funny!
|I think this panel was called "Death on the Prairie"|
|And this panel from next year's "Remember When" theme is called "People in Mitchell are unaware that newspapers are NOT dying."|
Anyway, we recovered from this long enough to go outside and see Cornelius, the mascot. He's a big ear of corn, husk partially stripped away revealing bright yellow kernels and a big, smiling face. He seemed safe. Mostly.
This is proof that if you put a fiber glass, well, anything, out on the street, people will pose with it. At least I will. It's also what I do.
There are stories that the Mitchell city government somehow got a homeland security grant to protect Cornelius.
|Zack, The Gnome of Victory and Celebration and Caroline meet Cornelius.|
I’m not sure Cornelius is a target for terrorists, but at least we can rest easy, knowing that he is safe and overseeing activities at the world's only corn palace.