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One Ear Of Corn At A Time

Yep, that’s how they create the murals.

Twelve different colors of corn are used to decorate the Corn Palace.

Twelve different colors of corn are used to decorate the Corn Palace.

What do the Rose Bowl Parade and the famed Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, have in common? Just as every float in the New Year’s Day parade must be covered with flowers and plant material, the decorative materials used on the Corn Palace are restricted to native corn, grains and grasses. And every year, both are totally stripped down and redecorated.

“The decorating process usually starts in late May with the removal of the rye and dock,” says Mark Schilling, Corn Palace director. “The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.”

According to Schilling, the process begins with a decision on the theme, at which point the Palace’s head artist develops and paints a series of individual panels in miniature. Once those panels have been approved the Corn Palace committee, of which Schilling is the chairman, the designs are projected onto sheets of black roofing paper and traced in actual size. Each color on the drawing is also assigned the appropriate color of corn, keeping in mind that murals can include no more than a dozen different corn colors. Unfortunately, due to varying growing conditions, not every color is available every year.

Each roofing paper pattern is then nailed to the appropriate mural where it will be covered with corn in much the same manner as a paint-by-number painting. That means each type and color of corn has to be cut and applied in a certain manner and direction. In the meantime, the trim, which is composed of grasses, dock and other grains, is tied into bundles and nailed in place, according to a design that will complement the adjacent murals.

Dan McCloud, who operates Dan’s Water Service when he’s not nailing ears of corn to the side of the Corn Palace, admits that the job is easier today than it was a few decades ago. Back then, he relates, laborers or “corn art technicians,” as McCloud jokingly refers to himself, used a hatchet to trim the ears of corn prior to nailing them in place with hammer and nails. Today, McCloud and his colleagues use a powered miter saw to fine-tune the fit. Approximately 15 workers are hired to install the rye and dock, while a team of 3 to 5 people install the corn murals. Using equally modern techniques, the “technicians” then secure the ears in place with an air-powered nail gun…only to do it all over again next year.

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