Worshiping at the altar of King Corn

  • A mural on the outside of the Corn Palace made entirely of multicolored corn on the cob.

One of the highlights of our annual summer visits to Tom’s childhood home in Rantoul, Illinois, was the fresh-from-the-field corn, purchased from Mr. Zander’s produce stand and boiled, just three minutes, but long enough to create a sauna in the July heat and humidity of the tiny house on Englewood Drive.

The yellow and white ears were piled in a towering pyramid in the center of the table, each of us grabbing an ear, juggling to avoid burned fingers, chomping into the kernels as butter dripped down our chins and sweat gathered on our foreheads.

It really didn’t matter what else was for dinner. Corn was always the main course, and I once watched Tom eat five ears in a row.

So visiting the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, was like being called home by the mother ship, a journey made more urgent by the siren call of cousin Michelle at the most-recent family reunion in July, telling us of her trip there with her mother, Kayla, years earlier.

I was salivating.

As we approached the Palace, we ogled the murals on the side of the building, created each year with 13 different colors of corn – red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow and green, yes, green – and reduced to birdseed each winter.

The first Corn Palace was built of wood in 1892 as an advertisement of the agricultural riches of South Dakota. It was rebuilt multiple times, with odd architectural additions, including Russian-style onion domes and Moorish minarets. Its turrets were replaced this year with metal versions.

Other corn palaces have come and gone, in Sioux City, Iowa, Gregory, South Dakota, Plankinton, South Dakota, and Creston, Iowa. Today, Mitchell, where the radio call letters are KORN, claims the title “World’s Only.”

Inside, on the court where the high-school Kernels play, in front of the stage where entertainers from Lawrence Welk to Willie Nelson have appeared for the annual corn festival, the 500,000 tourists who visit each year can overdose on corn stuff: corn table decorations, stuffed corn “pals,” corn-shaped suckers, popped-corn-cobs, corn bells, corn coffee mugs, key rings, purses, corn-cob jelly and, quite possibly, the only, totally usable item, a butter spreader, a spring-loaded yellow plastic square holder with a curved lattice bottom. You put your butter in and run the spreader back and forth along the ear. Genius.

Even the building’s concrete columns are covered in small kernel tiles.

Too corny, too kitschy, too corn-syrupy sweet, too Midwest, in all the good ways.

Want corn at your family reunion? Try cousin Donna’s no-fuss, cooler method: Throw in the shucked ears, pour boiling water to cover and shut the cooler lid for 15 minutes. Perfect.


  1. Reply
    Ann Forster August 30, 2015

    What fun! Once again, great photos and column!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 30, 2015

      Thanks, Ann. Glad you liked it. It was really a hoot.

  2. Reply
    Tammy Taylor October 12, 2015

    Had no idea Tom was from Rantoul. We are twenty minutes away in Gibson City. Would love to meet up the next time you are back in corn country.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols October 28, 2015

      That would be great!

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