Monday, September 26, 2022

One dozen destinations #2: Mitchell Corn Palace



     I'm on vacation. But no worries; I've planned ahead, and am leaving you with visits to a dozen disparate places, their only commonality being they're in America and I visited them and took photos. Yesterday we hit the Spam Museum and today we visit another popular tourist spot, continuing to use as a guide my unpublished and probably unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."  

     T
he Mitchell Corn Palace is not a palace made of corn — they tend to fudge on that fact, so I want to be clear, since the three of us were all deceived by the name, gulled into expecting a structure made of corncobs. 
     “Why’s it called the ‘Corn Palace?’’ Ross asked, as we sat on metal chairs, waiting for the introductory film to begin. 
     “Because it’s made of corn,” I said. He looked around the room. 
     “The walls aren’t.” 
     “Well, I hope the load-bearing walls aren’t, but outside…” 
     It isn’t much of a palace either, more of a grange hall with delusions of grandeur. Outside, an elaborate square brick building, festooned with Moorish onion domes and minarets and columns, yellow and green pennants snapping from the roof and murals installed on its fa├žade — a new crop every year — made of 275,000 ears of dried corn. The murals are keyed to local attractions and dramatic national events such as the Bicentennial and the Moon Landing. This year’s theme was “America’s Destinations” with the Statue of Liberty and the Seattle Space Needle and Mount Rushmore dutifully highlighted. The overall effect is of a flattened Rose Bowl Parade float, in wall form and well executed in light beige to dark brown Indian corn hues. 
     The introductory movie was professional, history-based, with a subtle undertone of good old-fashioned prairie Calvinism. The Corn Palace, “a majestic, unique American folk art icon” also “lifts the mind above the humdrum duties of life” and is “a celebration of who we are and what we do and how we spend what little time we have in this world.” 
     After the movie, we were taken into an upper balcony, where we received a brief talk on the place by a young volunteer, who pointed out the corn tributes to the Native-Americans who once called this area their home, as if that changes anything, then shunted us into another enormous gift shop, even bigger than the Spam Museum’s. We gazed limply at a staggering expanse of Corn Palace crap—the place had not worked its magic on us, so the idea of memorializing our visit with a Corn Palace commemorative spoon or snow globe or shot glass repulsed us, and we bolted out of there, into a large concession area. Here Kent’s interest was piqued. He demanded a snack — maybe a hot dog? Some kettle corn? 
     “It’s 10:30 in the morning,” I said, “Why don’t I get your picture with the giant ear of corn?” Some poor schleb in a corn cob suit was posing with small children — a deal breaker for the boys. Too sophisticated and mature to associate with the giant ear of corn crowd. They turned the tables — why didn’t I pose with Mr. Corn? Yeah dad, you pose with him! I was about to call their bluff  — having explored the sub-cellars of public shame, the small potatoes stuff doesn’t embarrass me anymore — but kids were gathered around, waiting their turn, and while I could easily hug a guy in a corn suit, on a dare, I couldn’t push ahead of toddlers to do so.

2 comments:

  1. Having read about it as a kid, I saw it when I was 17 & was amazed at how small it is!

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  2. Senator George McGovern (1922-2012) grew up in Mitchell, SD, and frequently visited the Corn Palace as a youngster. He survived the grasshopper plagues and the dust storms during the Depression. As a B-24 Liberator pilot in WWII, he flew 35 missions over German-occupied Europe from a base in Italy. Among the medals he received was a Distinguished Flying Cross.

    The young man from Mitchell also had a postwar connection to Chicago. From 1947 to 1949, McGovern was a grad student at Northwestern University in Evanston. He lived in an off-campus dorm, more like a rooming house, on Clark Street. Latham House had once been a fashionable downtown mansion (it was built in the 1870s). I passed it countless times as a kid, while on the way to the Evanston Library. You'd often hear a musical instrument or a record player through an open window.

    The residents appealed to McGovern for his help in saving the funky old place from demolition in 1972. He was busy running for President that fall, but he promised to help them out if he won. Nixon kicked his ass. They never heard from him again....and soon were evicted.

    I knew McGovern was going to lose, but I voted for him anyway. He seemed like a nice guy, honest and decent. Henry Fonda could have played him if they had made a biopic about him. But by the mid-Seventies...Fonda was pushing seventy himself.

    When George McGovern died at 90 in 2012, I remembered Latham House, and what it had looked like, for the first time in many years. And I wondered which window had been his.

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