In the late 1800’s the town was competing to become the state capital and also trying to entice settlers and convince them that good grain crops could be grown here. (Lewis and Clark’s report labeled this a desert only suitable for buffalo.) The Corn Belt Real Estate Association decided in 1892 to have a festival to attract people and to show the crops that are grown here. They created a wooden castle structure on the Main Street and artists attached locally grown grains and ears of corn in three colors to the building, creating an ornate system of designs and murals. Although Mitchell did not win out for the designation of capital, it did grow in fame as travelers talked about the amazing work of art, which over 500,000 people come to see each year.
Annually for the past 110 years the Corn Palace is the center of a citywide festival in late August, displaying the works in progress. Artists’ work begins in June with the first harvest of sour-dock, which is used as borders and frames and accents. The next harvests are rye, milo, and oats, totaling 3,000 bushels of grain, are added to create geometric designs all over the outside of the building.
A retired city fireman, Dean Strand, is contracted to grow the corn for the murals each year. He has hand selected and bred strains of corn to develop eleven different colors for the art: browns, white, black, blue, calico, and yellow. After the September harvest 275,000 ears are split in half and the halves are nailed into place on the color-by-number sketches, using a ton of nails each year. From October till June the completed works remain on the building, making it the “world’s largest bird feeder.” (The birds actually only eat the seed from the milo.) At other times of year you’ll enjoy seeing some from the previous year and the new works in progress.
Be sure to go inside for a free tour and to see the photo gallery of the century’s art, as each year is different. Although artists were varied in the early years, a Master of Fine Arts, Oscar Howe, who was a Yanktonai Sioux and the Artist laureate of South Dakota, was the artist for the Corn Palace Murals from 1948-1971. He was succeeded by Calvin Schultz, a childhood polio victim who discovered his artistic talent when the disease confined him. He loved the festival as a youngster and pushed himself with his good leg in a coaster wagon to see the festivities.
Years later, from a wheelchair, he designed and oversaw the grain paintings from 1977 until this year. He was inducted to the South Dakota Hall of Fame for Arts and Humanities in 1998.
No trip to Mitchell will be complete without eating at Bill Jamison’s “Jackpot Gamblin’ Bar and Saloon Café.” You’d swear that it is an authentic century old saloon, but in fact is was opened about a dozen years ago. For years Bill and his wife visited flea markets and antique stores in many states collecting all the fascinating objects, which decorate every inch of walls and ceiling. The cowboy grub is excellent, and if you don’t find what you like on the large TV screens in the restaurant, you’ll have plenty to look at in every nook and corner!