Driving across the United States

PART 4: South Dakota, prairie to palace

Driving west on I-90 in the Midwest
“Look, I think those are trees.”
Prairie dog
Prairie Dog Peek-a-Boo

Roadside Chapel; Henry, (SD)
Very limited seating.

Mitchell Corn Palace, South Dakota
Corn Palace, 2005
Close-up of corn husks thatched to form part of the building
Aw, shucks!
Close up of work on the Corn Palace
We got to see the construction phase.
Workers putting up corn to decorate the front of the building
The Palace gets a new face every year!
Map of US with South Dakota outlined
South Dakota is about 380 miles wide, east to west.

Our introduction to South Dakota takes us from the prairie to the palace. Palace, you ask? Okay we did drive through miles of prairie land to arrive at the Mitchell Corn Palace. It turns out that South Dakota is a very diverse place. It was also our first view of the Great Plains region of the United States from the ground. Those of us who don’t live here think of the Midwest as flat. It turns out it is; and it isn’t.

If you stand by your car and look south you would swear you could see Texas. But there is an east-west tilt that gradually increases your elevation as you go west. The elevation at the Minnesota border is about 970 ft (295 m) but when we reach the town of Wall, just outside the national park, we will be at 2,825 ft (861 m). That is nearly a 2,000 foot climb.

The sky looms large all the time here because there are no large clumps of tall buildings, trees or mountains to break it up. I’m told people love “wide open spaces” but it makes me scrunch my neck down into my shoulders like a turtle avoiding a poking finger at its nose.

Tiny Roadside Chapel in Henry, South Dakota

Henry, South Dakota, we learn, has a population of 266; plus or minus 1 or 2. There literally is not much to see because the main attraction, the Roadside Chapel, is literally so small. Like many of these types of buildings that dot the world, it was built to provide a bit of respite to travelers.

It is very well kept up; immaculately clean inside and a welcome stop for us. Maybe because we have an affinity for little white chapels? After all, we were married in the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas.

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

Proving that we are not early morning people, we checked out of the Comfort Inn at 11:00 a.m. Proving that we are not big spenders, the Corn Palace was free and the Doll Museum was only $5 per person. Lunch, of course, was corn-on-the cob with one BLT for me and a Corn Dog for Rob; the bill was $12.75, including sodas.

I am so glad the Mitchell Corn Palace exists. It really is a remarkable place and makes such a statement about the kinds of people you find all across the United States. Not the celebrities of headlines, but real people like those who work the land growing corn and wheat that supply food to humans and herds. When long, growing season days turn to cold winter months, what better way to spend your time than to be creative.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see how someone came up with the idea to decorate the outside of a building using corn when it grows by the mile in these parts.  What is “a-maizing” (get it?? :>) is how delicate some of the pictures appear.  That, and the fact that the façade must be replaced every year. Corn, after all, is biodegradable.

The Science of Corn Painting

The residents who do this have it down to a science.  The artist draws pictures for whatever theme is chosen for the next year and then uses a projector to help enlarge the image onto black roofing paper. They use a coded system to mark which areas are to be filled in with what kind (or color) of corn.  This is a true corn-by-code “painting” system developed for the volunteers to follow when placing corn stalks and ears. 

The Corn Palace itself contains a small history with photos of previous versions, an explanation of how the façade is created, and a gymnasium with a basketball court that can be used for community activities.  After looking around, we sat in the bleachers and listened to a tour guide speak to a group of retirees who had arrived by bus that morning.  Half a million people a year visit the Corn Palace and believe me, they are not flying in on jumbo jets.

Later, when coming out of a shop, Rob stopped short when he saw the name tag on one of those visitors – showing he was from Rochester, New York!   It turned out he was actually from Greece, a suburb that we are familiar with, as Rob’s mother lived there once.  Another case of “it’s a small world after all.”

The Enchanted World Doll Museum

The Enchanted World Doll Museum was enchanting! What a treasure. There were nearly 5,000 dolls of every make, model and description. And they came from nearly everywhere in the world.  Some are very old, some are just exquisite, some crudely made – in its entirety, it was well worth the time and minimal cost. 

I use the past tense because, I am sorry to say, we just learned that the museum closed in 2008. The collection was most likely sold at auction and the building now is empty. What a terrible loss for everyone involved and to the many visitors to South Dakota.

A piece of my heart is broken today.

This post is one in a series that document our 400-day trip round the world (2005-2006). Each segment will be linked in at RTW.

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