The Farm Chronicles: 8th Wonder of the World

South Dakota in 1963 was probably not a whole lot different than it is today—lots of open space and a bunch of prairie between towns. On our Great Western Tour with our friends the McCarthy’s, one of the places we visited was about the most unusual I had ever seen or will ever see. Out in the middle of nowhere a little over an hour west of Sioux Falls is a two-horse town called Mitchell. Taking old highways 16 and 38, you were likely to run into a lot of farm country. I remember the debate between my folks and the McCarthy’s about whether to go out of our way to Mitchell, that it would alter our trip and maybe we wouldn’t have time to see parts of San Francisco later, but Warren McCarthy was adamant.

Mitchell looked like any other town out west. Square buildings stacked down a main street. Parking along each side of the street. Two- and three-story brick buildings with storefronts on the first level. The normal kind of town trying to get some tourists and we were ripe for the picking. Approaching this huge block-sized building across the side street from the Standard Oil gas station, one could see these Russian-style domes that looked like onions and Ottoman minarets piercing the Southeast Dakota’s blue sky. We had arrived at our out-of-the way destination, a building that looked like the Russians landed in the middle of the plains and took control, except that it resembled a Native American and cowboy theme.

It was the “world renown,” “one of it’s kind,” Corn Palace. Everything was done in corn. The designs in the front of the building were brown corn depicting silhouettes of Indian warriors with spears on horses against a white corn backdrop. There was a huge mural, maybe 30 feet by 20 feet, of cowboys on horses guiding a herd of cattle across a vast range with the South Dakota hills in the background. There were huge floor to ceiling window insets, each having a specific corn mosaic image, such as a cowboy walking down a western town’s street, an Indian in full regalia dancing, and a long mural of buffalo hunters in the South Dakota prairie. The welcome sign, also done in corn, said, “South Dakota, Yesterday and Today.”

On the heels of Wounded Knee in 1890, the Corn Palace was first built in 1892 to attract visitors and demonstrate that South Dakota was a safe place to settle with your family. I remember standing inside this huge building in awe of the greater-than-life-sized murals all made of corn. It was one of the most unusual stops in our trip west, and one that Warren insisted would be worth missing part of San Francisco. It was what we considered a wonder of the world at the time, and is known to this day as is as a folk-art wonder on the prairie of South Dakota. Psalm 65:13 says, “The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.” And this is the image the Fathers of Mitchell sought to portray after a most tumultuous time with this palace covered of corn in the valley of the prairie.

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Bill Wilson