Like a windmill jutting up from the low country in a Dutch painting, basketball's most distinctive edifice is visible for miles. Seventy miles west of South Dakota's eastern border, on the game-board-flat prairie that encompasses the soporific town of Mitchell (pop. 14,141), lies the Corn Palace, which, true to its name, appears to be made almost entirely of the state's leading agricultural product.
"I'll tell people I used to play in a gym made out of corn, and they don't really know how to respond," says Mike (Skinny) Miller, a freshman forward at Florida who used to play for the Mitchell Senior High—no joke—Kernels. "You sort of have to see the Corn Palace to believe it."
Even then, the place strains credulity. Both the interior and exterior walls of this surreal structure are covered with gargantuan multicolored murals made from approximately 3,000 bushels of corn and two tons of other grain. The murals have borders made of milo (a form of cane). The roof is adorned with domes and minarets. The building's interior, meanwhile, contains a 3,478-seat amphitheater with a removable hardwood basketball floor.
Difficult to picture? Think of it as Orville Redenbacher meets the Boston Garden.
Mitchell's first Corn Palace was erected in 1892 as the centerpiece for the Corn Belt Exposition, a state fair cognate. A second was constructed in 1905, and in 1921 the third and current palace was built. This building is on the corner of Sixth and Main streets, smack dab in the middle of town. Standing almost three stories high, it towers over the rest of Mitchell's downtown, such as it is.
While the building memorializes the region's agricultural abundance, it's something less than a monument to Midwestern pragmatism. The murals that decorate the exterior of the Corn Palace are, after all, made of the snack food of choice among rodents and birds, and as a result, this edible edifice is in a constant state of disrepair. So every year after the fall harvest, new corn murals replace the old ones.
"Some years the patterns are geometric, and other times they have a theme, such as farming," says Cal Schultz, a local artist who has been designing the corn murals for the past 23 years. The current theme decorating the murals is nation building, with scenes of settlers, ranchers, Native Americans and railroads depicted upon an expansive landscape.
Once Schultz settles on a theme, he makes the design for each panel. Then, as in the old color-by-number system, the designs are first outlined with Magic Markers on black roofing paper and then nailed to panels that are attached to the building. Construction crews are then summoned to apply the ears of corn (which come in as many as nine colors) and grain accordingly. Two and a half weeks later the decorating is complete.
"The Corn Palace makes Mitchell different from lots of other small towns," Schultz says. Damned by faint geographic praise as the "second most popular tourist destination in South Dakota," after Mount Rushmore, the Corn Palace draws nearly half a million visitors annually. Many of them attend events in the building, and others come merely to gape.
The structure is used for everything from concerts to high school graduation ceremonies. Lawrence Welk, a native son of North Dakota, was often booked with his band to "play the Palace." For the folks in Mitchell, however, the Corn Palace is principally a basketball venue, and it hosts more than 100 games a year. A gleaming new hardwood floor was installed before the start of the last basketball season. The Kernels' boys' and girls' teams use the gym, and so do the teams from NAIA Division II Dakota Wesleyan, as well as those from the Mitchell Christian School and schools from neighboring communities.