Great American Road Trip: The Corn Palace

It took three trips through South Dakota before we made it to The Corn Palace, a mecca of sorts in Mitchell, a town that seems as if it might be in the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere is a significant detail. Back in 1892, settlers to South Dakota wanted to showcase the harvest bounty of the state and attract people to the area.

If you’ve driven through South Dakota in this decade–it’s a favorite of ours for a Great American Road Trip, something we do each summer, one thing that’s evident is that there are expanses of land between towns. Imagine what 1892 must have looked like. Nothing but land for miles and miles and miles. No gas stations. No houses. No truck stops. Nothing. There wasn’t even a Mount Rushmore.

When the first settlers fashioned a building here out of panels of ears of corn and grains grown in the fertile soil of South Dakota, they probably didn’t imagine that their “The Corn Belt Exposition” would become the ground work for an explosion of gift shops, restaurants and every other touristy schlock a person can think of. Schlock, however, can be fabulous.

If you look beyond the excesses of “stuff” a person can buy in Mitchell, the passion and fortitude of South Dakota is evident in what The Corn Palace is today.

The current building was built in 1921, and the Moorish-style domes and minarets added in 1937. Originally, the building was made of wood, and looked more like a castle. It was also located on another spot in town.

Throughout the structural changes and new location, each year new murals are made of ears of corn and grains. The murals follow a theme and are created by local artists. Last year’s theme, the one we saw, was “Everyday Heroes.”

This year’s theme is a Gadling favorite topic: “America’s Destinations.”

Besides being Mitchell’s main tourist attraction, The Corn Palace, serves as a multi-purpose auditorium and exposition center.

We spent about an hour and a half here. If you go, really take time to look at each of the murals, both outside and inside the building. Although we didn’t take the tour (I think we didn’t have the time), it would be one way to find out more about South Dakota’s agricultural history and the building. For example, the various colors of the mural are due to the grains and type of corn used. There are 13 shades of corn in the current design.

Click here for more facts. As much as The Corn Palace could be touted as tacky, it could be touted as a work of art. Think of the entire building as a thematic art exhibit of sorts.

Plus, the items on sale inside are totally corn related. If anything, browsing through the offerings is a lesson in how much corn inspires people to make knickknacks. Items range from tacky to terrific. I had a blast wandering through the variety and picked up popcorn balls, postcards and a few tasteful presents.

The snack bar outside the auditorium has affordable eats. Of course, we bought ears of corn followed by ice-cream. The ice-cream was not corn related, but South Dakota is hot in the summer and ice-cream bribes make summer road trips bearable.

Although we passed through here last July, August is a month to consider. At the end of the month is the Corn Palace Festival. This year the festival is from August 26-August 30.

Oh, yeah. The Corn Palace definitely fits into budget travel. Admission is free. [all photos by Jamie Rhein]