I spent all of last summer on the road, living out of a 1995 Toyota Avalon I bought from a friend’s mother, sleeping on the couches of accommodating relatives, friends, friends of friends, preternaturally Christian strangers, and on the front seats of the 1995 Toyota Avalon I bought from a friend’s mother.
The car was precarious. I got it for $500 and immediately took to making the joke in stand-up routines: “I’ve got a car. A 1995 Toyota Avalon. I got it for 500 bucks because it’s old enough where I can legally be inside of it.” But it made the loop, from upstate NY through the south, up from Texas to Seattle then back across the top.
It wasn’t until I was in Portland Oregon staying with a medical marijuana proprietor that I first heard about The Corn Palace.
While feeding his chickens, Frank and Frank Jr., our host described his own cross country voyage in the opposite direction.
“When you’re going across I-90, there’re all these signs for ‘The Corn Palace’. There really isn’t much else out there. Like some of the rest stops don’t even have gas stations at that point and so I’m looking at it and…I don’t know what the fuck a corn palace is but…you don’t even get radio stations most of the time driving that stretch, so we’re looking at these signs and we’re all excited to get to the Corn Palace. There’re SO MANY SIGNS, And you get there and…it’s just a buncha dead corn glued to a building. There’s fucking nothing! Nothing there.”
My traveling companion and I took notes, certain wherever this Corn Palace was we would finally find America with the big A.
The Corn Palace, or rather THE WORLD’S ONLY CORN PALACE!, was first constructed in 1892 in Mitchell, South Dakota, a small town mostly known for having the world’s only Corn Palace. At the time before the original Corn Palace’s construction Mitchell was known for…well…if I had to guess, probably nothing. By 1905, the presence of the Corn Palace had expanded the small city’s imperial ambitions and a motion was filed to challenge Pierre for the title of capitol city of South Dakota. To butter up whatever committee decides what the capitol of South Dakota is, the Corn Palace was rebuilt in 1905. This campaign failed. I haven’t seen the current state capitol building of South Dakota and therefore can’t say with confidence whether this was for the better. For reasons I don’t have the J-stor access to discern, the Corn Palace was again rebuilt in 1921. The distinctive minarets were added in 1937. Until this year, 2015, they were made out of giant chunks of styrofoam,
The aggressive tone with which Mitchell insists there is no other Corn Palace stinks of a cover-up. What happens if someone, somewhere, builds another Corn Palace? What if there was another Corn Palace but the city of Mitchell contracted Pinkertons to take it out quietly? There may entire abandoned ruins that, once upon a time, had dead corn glued to the side of them. Our knowledge of indigenous American cultures is spotty at best.
It was several weeks before I reached the Palace. When I pulled off I-90 it was clear I’d found the right place. Everything that could have the word Corn Palace tacked in front of it did. I’m not sure of what else the local economy consisted. Perhaps the Corn Palace was sufficient. It seemed so. Towns have been built on the basis of far less.
I approached Mitchell under dulled clouds, the whole of the scene behind a grey film. Past the dumb ceramic cow, past several unremarkable intersections, sat the Palace. It was under renovation. The town mascot, an anthropomorphized ear of corn roughly a head taller than the author named “Cornelius” stood still in the square near the gift shop as though waiting for a dueling partner.
In the gift shop window, the ghosts of tackiness and corn, past, present and future, overlaid. The place by the side of the big road where their portmanteau and heir, his Corniness was born…
I walked the streets slowly. I looked at the Palace in the distance. The Palace was under renovation. The peak season for corn-centered novelty tourism had passed. I saw one of the missing styrofoam minarets on a patch of grass. My phone was dead so I couldn’t get a picture.
Despite its tackiness a certain trepidation still held me entering the Palace interior. I was unsure of guards or, worse, an admissions charge. It started raining. I had no other option. A guy in a mesh baseball cap sat next to a clear plastic box that took donations at the door. The inside of the world’s only Corn Palace:
Through the back doors of the basketball court is a hallway that leads to where the city council has their meetings and the city government offices are.
Later that night I stopped by a local bar and got talking with one of the natives. She’d lived there her whole life. It showed. As I sipped cheap beer she regaled me with the full details of the political intrigue involving the Palace at the exact moment I was there. I remember little; just the way she insisted I’d come at the wrong time, the way she looked up and calmly smiled like Teresa of Avila describing the grandeur of the Palace when it wasn’t under renovation, the picture she showed on her cell phone of the Mayor standing next to Cornelius that left no doubt which of the two of them held the actual political power in Mitchell.
I slept in my car in the Palace parking lot that night as the clouds culminated in violent rains. I started the drive to Madison the following afternoon.