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Sidebar: The Corn Palace and Popular Culture

The outside mosaics of the Corn Palace change every year, the inside mosaics almost never. A committee meets to choose each year’s theme.

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Mosaics made of maze adorn the exterior of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. (Clay Jenkinson)
This is a sidebar to a special feature of about the intersection of agriculture, business and culture at a place called the Corn Palace in the southeast corner of South Dakota.

Although the Corn Palace began its long run with geometric designs, it soon took a thematic approach. The most frequent themes have celebrated the frontier, the homestead period, intrepid pioneers, the American West, plains flora and fauna, the coming of the railroad, and Native Americans, but there have also been years dedicated to Egyptian (1911), Dutch (1914) and even Turkish (1937) themes. To commemorate important American anniversaries, the Corn Palace has displayed mosaics of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the bicentennial of the American Revolution and the American space program.
Black and white drawing of a small wide corn cob.
The Corn Palace is beautiful in an unusual (those are corn cob mosaics!) sort of way. The outside theme this year is “Under the Big Top,” in part because the circus will be held in the Corn Palace after an absence brought on by the pandemic. As you look at the front of the building from the west, there is a fetching ringmaster (female) on the giant left mosaic and a woman riding the first of four interlocked elephants on the right. These primary panels are huge: 30 by 60 feet, each one needing hundreds, even thousands of ears of corn. On the south wall of the Corn Palace, you’ll find mosaics (20 by 20 feet) of lions hurtling through rings of fire, acrobats in mid-air exchange, a circus clown, a Shriner’s hat, a fancy rider balanced on her knees on the rear of her highly decorated horse, a daredevil being shot out of a circus canon, and a forest scene left over from previous years, commemorating the centennial of the Corn Palace.  

Over the years the Corn Palace has hosted an impressive who’s who of musical performers: John Phillip Sousa, the Hotsy Totsy Boys, the Beach Boys, the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, the Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gale and Pat Boone.

And the Palace always makes room for local artists, including Dayna Jones, a singer/songwriter born and raised in South Dakota.



Such politicians as Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, local boy George McGovern, and the “boy orator of the prairies” William Jennings Bryan have spoken in the Corn Palace. JFK spoke at the Corn Palace on Sept. 22, 1960, just weeks before he became the 35th president of the United States. Among other things he said, “I don't regard the problem of agricultural surplus as a problem. I regard it as an opportunity to use it imaginatively, not only for our own people, but for people all around the world.” What Kennedy had in mind was solving the basic problems of American (and world) hunger, not ethanol or a corn substitute for sugar. Robert Kennedy stopped by in 1968, and Barack Obama did a campaign stop on the street in front of the Corn Palace in 2008. Obama at the Corn Palace — only in America.

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May 10, 1968 (Left) - Well wishers greet Robert F. Kennedy when his plane arrives at Mitchell Airport in South Dakota, where the presidential candidate is greeted by 800 people in chilly weather conditions. Despite the late hour, 3,000 people are waiting for RFK at the Corn Palace for his speech tonight.
June 1, 2008 (Right) - A primary swing late in 2008 campaign season brought Barack Obama to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD.
(Twitter/RFKennedy_CH/, Twitter/DakotaStandard, Flickr/Kathy Kiely)

Lawrence Welk made countless appearances at the Corn Palace before he relocated to southern California. The Champagne Music Man was born in southern North Dakota, at Strasburg (current population 357). I stopped at his boyhood home just west of Strasburg to pay homage on my Corn Palace pilgrimage. It’s a charming homestead, now curated by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. It’s hard to imagine how so little and remote a place created such a giant figure in American popular culture and whose television program is still broadcast in reruns on PBS.


A Prairie Public Television Mosaic vignette on the Welk Barn in Strasburg, N.D.

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A sign just outside of Mitchell, S.D. provides directions to the Welk family farm, birthplace of the famous orchestra leader and titular star of a long-running public television variety program. (Clay Jenkinson)

Black and white drawing of a small wide corn cob.
More On The Corn Palace
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at ltamerica.org.
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