Like a windmill jutting up from the low country in a Dutch
painting, basketball's most distinctive edifice is visible for
miles. Seventy miles west of South Dakota's eastern border, on
the game-board-flat prairie that encompasses the soporific town
of Mitchell (pop. 14,141), lies the Corn Palace, which, true to
its name, appears to be made almost entirely of the state's
leading agricultural product.
"I'll tell people I used to play in a gym made out of corn, and
they don't really know how to respond," says Mike (Skinny)
Miller, a freshman forward at Florida who used to play for the
Mitchell Senior High--no joke--Kernels. "You sort of have to see
the Corn Palace to believe it."
Even then, the place strains credulity. Both the interior and
exterior walls of this surreal structure are covered with
gargantuan multicolored murals made from approximately 3,000
bushels of corn and two tons of other grain. The murals have
borders made of milo (a form of cane). The roof is adorned with
domes and minarets. The building's interior, meanwhile, contains
a 3,478-seat amphitheater with a removable hardwood basketball
Difficult to picture? Think of it as Orville Redenbacher meets
the Boston Garden.
Mitchell's first Corn Palace was erected in 1892 as the
centerpiece for the Corn Belt Exposition, a state fair cognate.
A second was constructed in 1905, and in 1921 the third and
current palace was built. This building is on the corner of
Sixth and Main streets, smack dab in the middle of town.
Standing almost three stories high, it towers over the rest of
Mitchell's downtown, such as it is.
While the building memorializes the region's agricultural
abundance, it's something less than a monument to Midwestern
pragmatism. The murals that decorate the exterior of the Corn
Palace are, after all, made of the snack food of choice among
rodents and birds, and as a result, this edible edifice is in a
constant state of disrepair. So every year after the fall
harvest, new corn murals replace the old ones.
"Some years the patterns are geometric, and other times they
have a theme, such as farming," says Cal Schultz, a local artist
who has been designing the corn murals for the past 23 years.
The current theme decorating the murals is nation building, with
scenes of settlers, ranchers, Native Americans and railroads
depicted upon an expansive landscape.
Once Schultz settles on a theme, he makes the design for each
panel. Then, as in the old color-by-number system, the designs
are first outlined with Magic Markers on black roofing paper and
then nailed to panels that are attached to the building.
Construction crews are then summoned to apply the ears of corn
(which come in as many as nine colors) and grain accordingly.
Two and a half weeks later the decorating is complete.
"The Corn Palace makes Mitchell different from lots of other
small towns," Schultz says. Damned by faint geographic praise as
the "second most popular tourist destination in South Dakota,"
after Mount Rushmore, the Corn Palace draws nearly half a
million visitors annually. Many of them attend events in the
building, and others come merely to gape.
The structure is used for everything from concerts to high
school graduation ceremonies. Lawrence Welk, a native son of
North Dakota, was often booked with his band to "play the
Palace." For the folks in Mitchell, however, the Corn Palace is
principally a basketball venue, and it hosts more than 100 games
a year. A gleaming new hardwood floor was installed before the
start of the last basketball season. The Kernels' boys' and
girls' teams use the gym, and so do the teams from NAIA Division
II Dakota Wesleyan, as well as those from the Mitchell Christian
School and schools from neighboring communities.
Obviously, this isn't your average small-town sweatbox. The old
rickety bleachers have been replaced by comfortable upholstered
seats. Still, the place packs a mean home court advantage, as
the 18 high school state championship banners hanging from the
"The Mitchell teams are always good, and the fans are not just
loud, they're also sophisticated, so you always hate to play
there," says Gary Thomas, whose Watertown High boys' team was
defeated by Mitchell earlier this season. "As far as I'm
concerned, that place is the world's biggest bird feeder."
Visiting players have also remarked that the aroma inside the
Corn Palace is a curious blend of silage and sweat. Mike Miller,
who is generally regarded as the best high school player ever to
have come out of South Dakota, insists that's strictly a myth.
"I loved playing in that building, but I can tell you that aside
from being made out of corn, it's just like any other gym," says
the de facto king of the Corn Palace. "I've played hundreds of
games there, starting from when I was in eighth grade, so I know
every inch of the place. There are really not any Boston
Garden-type leprechauns--not unless you count the birds that are
always eating the corn."
Gary Munsen, who coaches both the boys' and the girls' teams at
Mitchell Senior High, concurs, saying, "It's a great place to
watch a basketball game, especially when it gets loud. And
that's a good thing because there's not much else to do in
Mitchell besides watch basketball games."
Indeed, on game nights, as lacerating winter winds whip across
the prairie, it seems as if the entire town seeks sanctuary in
the Corn Palace. The Mitchell boys' team, which has won eight
state titles under Munsen, routinely plays to a capacity crowd.
But even if you can't get a seat in Mitchell's maize monolith,
all is not lost.
You can lend an ear, as it were, and catch the broadcast of the
Kernels' game on the local radio station: KORN.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA CORNUCOPIA This year's murals depict settlers, Native Americans and ranchers engaged in the epic task of nation building.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA CROWD PLEASER Only Mount Rushmore attracts more visitors to South Dakota than the 78-year-old Corn Palace.