A childhood dream fulfilled

Some of us have big dreams when we are children of places we want to visit when we are older: Paris, Egypt, outer space.

My partner dreamed of visiting the last remaining Corn Palace in the United States.

Every two years, her family would drive across the country when her career Navy father was reassigned to the opposite coast, and she would pine at the tantalizing signs for the mysterious Corn Palace. She imagined one made of individual kernels, painstakingly stitched together somehow into fantastic castles of corn and maize.

So it was on her agenda as we drove across the country. There it was, in Mitchell, S.D., in all its uncorned-covered disrepair; we were too late for the August harvest festival but in plenty of time to peruse the permanent exhibits. During the festival, the outside concrete of the building is decorated in murals made entirely of ears of corn using different types of corn in different shades to create very complex pictures. Thrown in are bits of wild oats, rye, straw, and wheat to complete the pictures. But this is obviously a short term display—that’s fresh corn you’re talking about hanging off the wall. Easy pickings for any bird who happens by.

Surprisingly, the palace is located smack dab in downtown Mitchell, not out on the prairie where one would expect a palace to be, surrounded by lush cornfields and other amber waves of grain. Then again, building it here was sure to highlight the town—the “corn capital of the country”—in a positive way.

The permanent exhibits were explained to us by a man staffing an information table. He was an old farmer, sun-wrinkled and pleased to greet us, and happily told us what was over here and what was over there and what was upstairs, gesturing all the time. We didn’t understand a word he said, but with his pointing, we got the general idea.

The corn palace in Mitchell is the only one remaining in the U.S. They used to be quite common. Little towns would construct elaborate “palaces” to advertise to people back east how fertile the land “Out West” was; they had so much they could build buildings with it. The hope was people would be lured to move to to their hamlet and help it grow.

The building itself is not at all a palace. It is a utilitarian function hall that happens to host a festival about corn. But there’s some magic in there somewhere.

Maybe it’s the remains of some spires and minarets on the roof. Maybe it’s the silent grace of the murals of native people on display inside the second floor gymnasium, all done in shades of brown and wrapping three walls. Maybe it’s the echoes of past and future games by the Mitchell High School Kernels basketball team. Or maybe it’s the irreplaceable, incomprehensible mystery of our greeter’s welcome that made our visit to this odd exhibition hall so poignant.

Or maybe it was the sweetness of making my partner’s childhood dream finally come true.

Being the thorough trivia hounds that we are, we read every word on the historical panels lining the walls. They outlined the history of corn palaces and then synopsized this one’s history through the decades. A different theme is chosen each year and the outside of the building is decorated accordingly. Inside the building, vendors prepare corn in every way imaginable. Then the throngs arrive, to listen to the Four Seasons or Patti Page, or whoever the big talent was that year, and to eat their fill of corn-inspired food.

There were no throngs the day we were there; no corn-inspired food. Just an indecipherable greeter and an empty basketball court surrounded by fascinating murals made of corn ears. We had a great time.

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