117 years ago Louis Beckwith and L.O. Gale decided that corn was more than something to grow and eat. They saw it as something to showcase and celebrate in the same way that Mount Rushmore celebrates some of the most important presidents of our nation’s history. Thus: They built the corn palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and now a town of fewer than 15,000 people is known around the world for a palace decorated with corn. The building itself is made of bricks and steel, but its the attached plywood mural panels that give it its distinctive look.
The annual Corn Palace festival runs Aug. 26-30. Trained workers will continue the tradition of pulling down the current palace design to prepare for the unveiling of the new design. The palace’s current artist, Cherie Ramsdell, will reveal the newest design by rolling out giant paint-by-number-like sheets of paper. Ramsdell has been the artist for the past seven years while working as an Assistant Professor of Art at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. “We like to work with an artist for a number of years so they can understand what they can and can’t do with the corn,” says Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling.
Each year the Corn Palace Festival Committee selects a theme for the artist. America’s Destinations was the theme for 2009 and Through the Ages has been selected as the theme for 2010. The artist then goes about creating designs that are then voted on by the committee.
Over the years, aesthetic possibilities have multiplied for Palace artists as the farmer who supplies the murals’ raw materials has worked to breed a variety of colors of corn. Blues, blacks, greens, and multiple shades of red have all been bred from native American corns; each year the most vibrant colors are selected and bred for the next year. Year after year the color consistency is improved and different shades have been developed. None of the corn on the palace is dyed.
Each piece of corn is cut in half by workers who use two-inch finish nails to attach the corn to a plywood base; the Corn Palace is the biggest user of two-inch finish nails in the world. “The workers are all artists,” says Schilling. “Each piece of corn may have a slightly different shade or shape so they have to be careful while selecting each piece.” Some of the murals on the palace are 12 feet high by 30 feet long.
This year’s festival will feature country singer Blake Shelton along with performances by Herb Dixon, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and David Cook. “The festival is what we look forward to all year,” says Schilling. “People come here to eat corn so we try to make as much of a variety available as we can.” Corn on the cob, corn dogs, popcorn, and other corn-related items are available.
The Corn Palace may not be as big or as popular as Mount Rushmore, but getting corn stuck in your teeth and butter smeared across your lips while looking at a giant mural built of corn is an experience that’s unique to Mitchell.
604 North Main St
Mitchell, SD 57301
Jan-Mar: Mon-Sat 8am-5pm
April-Memorial Day: Daily 8am-5pm
Memorial Day-Labor Day: Daily 8am-9pm
Labor Day-Nov: Daily 8am-5pm
December: Mon-Sat 8am-5pm