Tuesday, August 16, 2005

King Corn & His Palace

After Spam (see yesterday) comes corn. This seems like a natural progression in the Midwest. South Dakota might be considered part of the West most of the time, but buzzing down the highway in eastern South Dakota, you’re sure that you’re still in the Midwest. Same flatland, same views of corn and soy.

Mitchell, SD, decided years ago to make a virtue of its place at the edge of the corn belt by building the Corn Palace. “Why are we getting off here?” Yuriko asked me at the Mitchell exit.

“The Corn Palace,” I said. “We’re going to see the Corn Palace.”


“You’ll see.”

I’d seen the Corn Palace point-of-interest spot on the map and read my Roadside America, which says: “It’s a combination of minarets, turrets and kiosks that’s been standing in downtown Mitchell since 1892 [sic, today’s structure is the third, built in 1921, but its corn theme is the same.]… It stands five stories high, covers a square block, and is built out of reinforced concrete, not corn. Its exterior, however, is completely [sic, partially] covered with native South Dakota corn, grain and grass murals. Ears of corn are sawed lengthwise and then nailed flat to outside panels, and are changed yearly. Typical recent themes have been South Dakota birds and a Salute to Agriculture.”

In 2005, the theme is “Life on the Farm,” depicted by murals of corn. Now that’s my idea of a stopover along a straight stretch of Interstate. Even better, it’s free to get in.

So in we went, because on the last day of July, it was hot in eastern South Dakota. Easily above 90° F, and while I could have lingered outside just a while longer to admire the murals, other family members wanted to duck inside, into a large foyer displaying items from the history of the Corn Palace and offering short explanations on how all those ears of corn are nailed to the walls (later, I got a closer look at the exterior murals—which I read use 600,000 ears of corn, 3,000 bushels of grain and grass, and a ton of nails).

We were in time for a guided tour. The guide was a young man, a college student summering in Mitchell I think, who had a remarkably stentorian voice, at least when he was announcing the tour. “Ladies and gentlemen, GATHER ROUND for a FREE TOUR of the WORLD’S ONLY CORN PALACE! Starting NOW!”

Gather we did. He wasn’t so loud after that, and clearly enjoyed telling us about the Corn Palace: its history, its unique décor, and its place at the center of municipal life in Mitchell. If the corn were stripped away somehow, you see, all that would be left would be a mid-sized municipal auditorium, because in functional terms, that’s what it is. According to our guide, during the non-summer months, the building—owned by the city—holds basketball games, concerts, graduations, parties and other functions, pretty much like any municipal auditorium. Beyond the foyer, the main hall sports rows of seats looking down on a basketball court.

But in the summer, it’s a tourist attraction. A gift shop covered the entire court. I bought postcards, since free admission always encourages me to do that. I turned down Lilly’s request for a coonskin hat.

The guide said that 11 hues of corn are used to make the outside images, all of which is grown on a nearby farm specially contracted for the purpose. Over the years, the successive Corn Palace artists—an honor in Davison County like being Poet Laureate, I reckon—come up with the drawings and plans for what amounts to a different corn-by-numbers scheme each year, which craftspeople then execute by nailing the ears down. I’ve seen murals and mosaics over the years, but nothing like this.

I also got to look at the interior murals. Roadside America forgot to mention these, but they’re made in the same way as the exterior murals, except the ears are changed only every decade or so, since the corn isn’t exposed to the elements (including birds). Unlike the exterior, the inside designs are held in such great esteem that they never change. They were created in the late ’40s by regional artist Oscar Howe. They’re distinctly WPA realist in style, showing the history of South Dakota, both Indian and white histories, culminating with giant hands of made of corn, one from each ethnic group, clasping each other in friendship.

Later, I looked Oscar Howe (1915-83) up. The guide didn’t mention it, but he was Yanktonai Sioux of considerable talent as an artist and teacher.

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