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The call of corn art: Corn Palace, museums entice SD city tourists

Lake Mitchell spreads out across the landscape in this 2009 aerial photo. The lake, which is nestled on the north side of Mitchell, offers great recreational opportunities.

MITCHELL, S.D. -- Presidents and tourism go together in South Dakota, thanks to the famous faces on Mount Rushmore.

But there's another tourist stop in The Mount Rushmore State that's steeped in presidential history and lore: The World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell.

That's right, the Corn Palace. Sure, its primary attractions are the corn-and-grain murals that decorate its interior and exterior walls. That's what most of the 200,000-plus annual summer visitors come to see.

While those visitors stand and gawk at one of the largest exhibitions of folk art ever produced, they're also mingling with the memories of far more presidents and almost-presidents than those they'll encounter on that famous mountain in the Black Hills: Theodore Roosevelt. William Howard Taft. William Jennings Bryan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. John F. Kennedy. Robert Kennedy. George H.W. Bush. Barack Obama.

They've all visited the Corn Palace, as presidential candidates, presidents or former presidents. And, of course, there's Mitchell's own George McGovern, who grew up nearly in the shadow of the Corn Palace and won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. He's made countless appearances in the Palace and appeared there with both of the Kennedys and Obama.

The Corn Palace's rich and underappreciated presidential history is one of many hidden gems in Mitchell, which since 1892 has claimed the Corn Palace as its primary symbol.

Mitchell's lure

Besides the pull of the free-to-visit Corn Palace, there's another obvious reason Mitchell entices so many tourists who pass by on their way to the Badlands, Black Hills and the other wonders of western South Dakota. It's the only major outpost on the long and very rural middle stretch of Interstate 90 that most of the state's visitors travel.

Mitchell is home to about 15,000 residents. That's about 12,000 more than any other city in the sprawling, 350-mile expanse of prairies and plains along I-90 between Sioux Falls, the state's largest city near its eastern border, and Rapid City, the state's second largest city and the primary jumping-off point to the Black Hills near the state's western border.

Given its size, Mitchell has more amenities than tourists will find anywhere else during the six-hour I-90 odyssey "From the Falls to the Faces," as The Daily Republic newspaper in Mitchell describes the drive in its annual I-90 travel magazine.

The Corn Palace wasn't built with tourists in mind, though. It was first constructed in 1892 -- three years after South Dakota statehood -- by a group of Mitchell businessmen who wanted to increase the local population and supply more permanent customers for their businesses. They decided, as people in various other frontier towns already had, to build a grain palace that would showcase (and some would say exaggerate) the agricultural abundance of the area and convince more people to settle there.

The businessmen gathered up $3,700 of financing, and Mitchell's palace was built in conjunction with an event dubbed the Corn Belt Exposition.

By 1905, the businessmen who benefited from the Palace determined that a bigger one was needed. They tore down the first structure, which was located at the corn of Fourth and Main, and built a new one, this time for $15,000, at a corner location one block north of the old one.

Mitchell's enthusiasm for its main attraction grew quickly and fervently. Then-Mayor A.E. Hitchcock welcomed visitors to the Corn Palace's annual festival in 1908 with this tribute: "Even if you travel hundreds of miles, even if you walk the streets at night, even if you go hungry and thirsty, remember as a compensation that this palace has brought to your eye and ear something of the best the world can bestow."

The second Palace was also outgrown, so it was torn down and a third Palace was built in 1921 -- again a block to the north, and this time with $100,000 in voter-approved bonding to match $100,000 in donations from local businessmen.

The 1921 Corn Palace still stands today. It's a contributing structure to Mitchell's Historic Commercial District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some other communities built grain palaces, but none lasted. Sioux City had a palace that predated the one in Mitchell, but it went defunct in 1891, a fact that may have emboldened Mitchell leaders to build their palace a year later. Today, with all the other grain palaces of the past only a distant memory, the Mitchell Corn Palace is the bearer of the title "World's Only."

Corn Palace 101

Mark Schilling, director of the Corn Palace, said the first thing he usually hears from tourists as they walk up to the Corn Palace is "Wow."

"I think they're looking at it and saying, 'We heard it had corn murals and stuff like that,' but I don't think they anticipate anything necessarily to the size and scope of the murals that we have.

The largest of the Corn Palace's murals is 40 feet wide by 12 feet high.

Doris Trotter, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., was with her two children and husband Jeff taking in the Corn Palace this week before traveling to the Black Hills.

"I love how wonderful the murals look," Trotter said. "You see them from a distance and you think that can't possibly be corn, but then you look close and it is."

"It really is art. We were so surprised at how large it is, as well. You can't really get a feel for it unless you are here standing beside it."

After the initial wonder wears off, many visitors begin to question just what exactly they're looking at. In short, the Corn Palace is a giant folk-art exhibition on the outside and a multi-use public facility on the inside.

Each year, local artist Cherie Ramsdell sketches the murals that will adorn the building's exterior. Ramsdell is the latest in a line of mural artists that includes the late Oscar Howe, an acclaimed American Indian artist.

After the murals are sketched, they are transferred onto giant rolls of tar paper. Every fall, the old corn murals are torn off and new tar paper is tacked up. The new ears of corn -- it takes 275,000 of them for all the exterior murals -- are nailed into place using the transferred designs for guidance, like corn-muraling by numbers.

The corn is grown by local farmer Wade Strand, whose fields are located southwest of Mitchell. He plants 40 to 50 acres with various varieties of seed to produce different colors of corn. Sour dock and rye are used as decorative trim around the murals.

The exterior corn murals are updated annually according to a theme chosen by the City of Mitchell's Corn Palace Festival Board. The interior corn murals, which adorn the walls of the Corn Palace's auditorium, are changed about every 10 years.

It costs Mitchell's city government roughly $140,000 per year to decorate the city-owned structure.

During the summer, a gift shop featuring many South Dakota-made products is set up on the Corn Palace's auditorium floor. The City Council Chambers in the adjoining City Hall building is converted to a theater where tourists can watch a video about the history of the Corn Palace and the annual decorating process. Across the street, an outdoor mall beckons with gift shops, an ice cream stand and a "Cornelia" statue that's perfectly situated for pictures with the Corn Palace as a backdrop.

During the winter, the auditorium serves as the home for numerous community activities, including games featuring the local high school and college basketball teams. Mike Miller, of the NBA-champion Miami Heat, played his home games at the Corn Palace for the Mitchell High School Kernels.

The Corn Belt Exposition that began with that first Corn Palace lives on as the Corn Palace Festival, which is conducted every August. The festival fills Mitchell's Main Street with carnival rides and brings entertainers to the Corn Palace auditorium, which can seat several thousand concert-goers. Recent headliners have included Willie Nelson, Tom Jones and Big & Rich. Past entertainers have included John Philip Sousa, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

"You can come to the Corn Palace any time of the year," Schilling said. "You can come for an event, or just to look around at the Corn Palace, or it could be that you're visiting family and friends in the area.

"Anytime you come, you're going to get a different experience. It could be the summertime, when the decorators are decorating the building. It could be the wintertime, and you might see a sporting event or a concert. That's when you get the feel that this is a tourist attraction, but at the same time it's serving as a civic auditorium."

McGovern Legacy

After stopping at the Corn Palace, tourists could jump back in their vehicles and head west. But they'd miss several more unique stops in Mitchell.

For visitors who find the Corn Palace's political and presidential history appealing, the McGovern Legacy Museum is a must-see.

George McGovern has held titles including World War II bomber pilot, congressman, senator and presidential nominee. Inside the McGovern Legacy Museum, his life experiences are vibrantly explained with the help of interactive audio and video displays narrated by McGovern himself, and with memorabilia from throughout McGovern's life.

Among the highlights of the exhibit is a reproduction of a section of McGovern's 1972 campaign plane, the Dakota Queen II. Visitors can sit in one of the airplane seats and watch video of McGovern's acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic National Convention (40 years ago this summer), where he gave his "Come Home, America" address. Politically minded tourists will delight in the campaign memorabilia and artifacts, including posters, photos, buttons and even shoe boxes full of note cards McGovern kept about the people he met on the campaign trail.

The McGovern Legacy Museum is located in the McGovern Library on the campus of McGovern's alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University. Right across the street is another Mitchell treasure, the Dakota Discovery Museum.

Western history

The Dakota Discovery Museum tells the story of the Great Plains from pre-settlement through the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

Here, visitors can learn about the American Indian cultures that dominated the Plains before white settlers arrived. Among the exhibits that help tell the Indian story are a tipi and numerous authentic Indian garments and artifacts.

Settlers brought crops and cattle to the Plains, and that story is told with the aid of vintage farm and ranch equipment, including an impressive sheep wagon, which sheepherders lived in under the wide prairie skies.

Beyond the exhibits inside the museum, there's also an outdoor campus with real-life structures and equipment. The house of Louis Beckwith, one of the founders of the 1892 Corn Palace, is preserved and restored on the grounds. Visitors can walk through the house and be transported back in time, imagining a turn-of-the-20th-century home come to life.

The museum also features art galleries and exhibits dedicated to renowned Western illustrator Charles Hargens and the Indian artist Oscar Howe, who spent many years designing the Corn Palace murals.

Those interested in Howe can see more of his distinct Indian artwork at the Carnegie Resource Center, a converted former Carnegie Library in downtown Mitchell. During the Great Depression, Howe was hired as a muralist by the government. One of his murals is preserved inside the beautiful dome of the Carnegie.

For more about Indian culture and history, visitors can trek to Mitchell's north end, where the Prehistoric Indian Village is situated along the shore of Lake Mitchell.

It's the only archaeological site in South Dakota open to the public. Each summer, archaeologists come and excavate the site, learning more every year about the first settlers who lived on the Northern Plains.

Guests can watch as the archaeologists uncover artifacts in the comfort of the Thomsen Center Archeodome and tour the Boehnen Memorial Museum to see a reconstructed lodge and many of the 1.5 million artifacts found over the years. A special site has been created for children to practice their archaeology skills and dig for a free arrowhead. Children of all ages can also learn how to throw a spear using an atlatl, and picnic tables are set up along the lake for visitors' use.

From the Prehistoric Indian Village, visitors looking for a quiet break can explore Lake Mitchell. The lake is home to multiple boat ramps, parks, beaches and hiking trails. Near the lake is an old-fashioned drive-in movie theater that's open during the summer months.

After a day of learning and playing in Mitchell, the city's tourist-oriented hospitality awaits. Despite having only 15,000 residents, the city is home to 17 hotels, including everything from budget travel lodges to brand-name properties with conference centers and indoor waterparks. The city also boasts 50 restaurants, including great burger and steak destinations and a surprisingly diverse selection of international offerings such as Chinese, Italian and Mexican.

"Mitchell is a great place to come," Schilling said. "And whether it's your final destination or you're just passing it along the way, it's definitely worth a stop."