It was 47 years ago this summer, while on a western trip with a church group, that the fellow leading the excursion detoured into the city of Mitchell, South Dakota. He wanted us to see a special attraction, a roadside oddity of sorts — namely, The World’s Only Corn Palace.
And see it we did. We drove by, rolled down the windows to snap pictures with our Kodak Instamatics and left town.
Ever since that day in 1974 I’ve longed to go back to the Corn Palace. To actually visit, I mean. I sensed that it had something to say, and I wanted to hear what that might be.
Deb and I lounged around the campsite most of today before hopping in the Jeep and driving into town. Parking was easy to find, and it was free. After browsing a few souvenir shops we crossed the street to take in The World’s Only Corn Palace.
The Corn Palace essentially is a civic auditorium — part basketball arena, part theater, part concert hall, part community gathering place — and a relatively large facility for this city of 16,000. It’s been standing for exactly 100 years, the only such “grain palace” (of 34 originally built) still intact.
What makes the Corn Palace unusual, perhaps unique, is that its exterior façade is decorated with large murals made of (you guessed it) corn, along with grasses and other natural materials, conveying a theme that’s changed each year. Many of the arena’s interior walls feature corn murals, too.
Maybe that sounds lame to you. I assure you it’s anything but — it’s a spectacular expression of pride and heritage, a place where a city can show the world how the American Heartland is different.
We walked around the outside of the large building, marveling at the detail, before ducking inside to see displays of the facility’s evolution over the last hundred years. The exhibits oozed pride, and justifiably so.
Just down the street from the Corn Palace is The Back 40 Taphouse Grill. It looked appealing to us, in a rustic sort of way, and since it was dinnertime anyway we figured that’d be as good a place as any for our evening meal.
Boy, did we ever pick a winner. After ordering South Dakota-brewed beers, we started with grilled-and-deep-fried jalapeño rings, drizzled with a dazzling ranch sauce, followed by the house “Jalapeño Bacon Cheese Burger” — a third-pound South Dakota Hereford burger topped with jalapeño bacon, grilled jalapeños and jalapeño cream cheese. (Detect a theme there?) Deb had a side of deep-fried Brussels sprouts, while I went with homemade kettle chips.
Our young waitress was perky, almost annoyingly so, but extremely gracious and helpful. She spoke with an accent I couldn’t quite place — she had that yah-shore-you-betcha lilt typical of the northern tier, but there was something else. So I asked her straight-out.
Turns out she emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine 17 years ago and has lived here since. Proudly, she said, “And I’m a citizen, dontcha know.”
I hope I don’t have to explain to you how perfect that moment was.
When we left The Back 40, a monthly street fair was underway outside. It was a humble thing, a small collection of vendors and crafters showing their wares. A country duo was playing on an outdoor stage next to the Corn Palace.
The crowd was a mix of tourists, Sturgis-bound bikers and locals. We judged that at least 80% of those attending probably were local residents.
What really caught our attention was the kids’ tram parading up and down the street. Picture this — ten 55-gallon plastic drums, each fitted with wheels, a bulb horn and a big yellow steering wheel, hitched together and pulled by an old Craftsman lawn tractor.
We noticed that the kids weren’t accompanied by adults. They simply were plopped into the “cars” and turned over — entrusted, that is — to the guy driving the lawn tractor. Not a helicopter parent in sight.
Deb and I talked, in the moment, about what that says about this community. There are no wrong exits here. The townspeople take care of their own. It’s tempting to call it a “throwback,” but not in Mitchell.
Here, that’s just the way it is. Always has been. This is the American Heartland.
We came to town to see The World’s Only Corn Palace, and we did. But quaint and wonderful and downright special as that is, there’s an America beyond the attractions — rich culture, simple ways and good people we’ve been told are long-gone.
They’re still here — I’m tellin’ you, the real America is still here. We’ve seen it.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.