A gorgeous day greeted people in downtown Mitchell on Saturday afternoon, providing an almost perfect day to take part in Second Saturdays, an event set up by Mitchell Main Street & Beyond as a compliment to First Fridays, allowing people to roam Main Street, shop locally and take part in several activities up and down the main thoroughfare of the community.
But it also greeted people who stepped out of cars with license plates bearing the names Oklahoma, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Tennessee and other states from across the continental 48 United States. Many of those vehicles also towed campers or small luggage trailers, and many of them were parked along both sides of Main Street, where they disembarked their passengers.
They were headed to the best-known attraction in the community: The Corn Palace. And after a year of reduced travel around the country in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors said they were thrilled to be back on the road again.
Valerie Cihak, of Worthington, Minnesota, was walking up the street toward the Corn Palace with her husband Mark and two children Claire and David. She said she was returning to view the historic building for the first time in years.
“I have (visited the Corn Palace) a long time ago. You won’t see it anywhere else,” she said.
The foursome were thorough on their way to the Black Hills, where additional stops were planned. It’s a vacation they have had in the works dating back to last year, when plans were upended by the arrival of the pandemic.
“This is our big vacation,” she said. “We were going to come last year, and then COVID-19 happened. We weren’t sure how much vacation time we would have, and by the time we could come last year, (Mark’s) work said he would have to quarantine when he came back.”
Many of the out-of-state travelers on Main Street Saturday echoed those sentiments. With different COVID-19 infection rates in different states, and with many of those states implementing different restrictions, vacations and travel plans were generally discouraged to prevent people from getting the virus and bringing it to or from their destination.
Michelle and Lee Lohn, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, had just visited the Corn Palace and were packing up their vehicle along with their two kids. For Michelle, it was her first time checking out the only building of its kind in the United States.
“This is my first time. I thought it was cool and artistic that people make this kind of stuff out of corn,” she said. “I know the Minnesota State Fair has some cool, smaller corn or seed designs they do, but this is pretty large scale, that’s for sure.”
Like the Cihaks, Mitchell was a waypoint to destinations farther west. They made a point to stop at the Corn Palace on their way to places like the Black Hills, Billings, Montana and Cody, Wyoming.
They were loving the mild weather and the fact that they could interact and talk with fellow travelers again, something she said she missed when they spent much of 2020 cooped up at home.
“With COVID-19, we couldn’t really travel much,” Michelle said. “It’s really nice to actually talk to people. We were just talking to a lady for a second and I asked where they were from, and she said ‘Tennessee.’”
A nice day and the opportunity to share a public experience, plus the ample road signs touting the Corn Palace, were enough to get her and the family to make a quick stop to check out the murals at the building, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“Why not? We might as well stop in Mitchell. It looks like they have some cool shops and restaurants,” she said. “It’s a cute place.”
The sidewalks and streets around the Corn Palace were bustling with activity Saturday, much of it the product of out-of-state visitors. Like many other tourist attractions in South Dakota and around the country, the Corn Palace experienced a significant drop in attendance in 2020.
But those who spoke to the Mitchell Republic Saturday said many of their inhibitions with traveling were gone, if they ever had any in the first place. The downtown area was filled with people who were, for the most part, mask-free.
Bill and Cindy Wood were making their first-ever visit to South Dakota, and stopping at the Corn Palace was a great part of the experience, Bill said.
“Why not? We might as well stop in Mitchell. It looks like they have some cool shops and restaurants. It’s a cute place."
— Michelle Lohn, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, on visiting Mitchell and the Corn Palace
“Well, the first thing is we wanted to go to South Dakota,” Bill said when asked why the Corn Palace found a spot on their vacation agenda. “And we just happened to see the Corn Palace as one of the attractions, and we just wanted to stop by and check it out.”
The couple, who hail from just outside Atlanta, said the reason for their choice of destination was simple. They had never been here before and it seemed like a nice place to visit for a change of scenery.
“The openness and getting out and seeing the country,” Bill said.
Like many others, the Black Hills were the next planned stop on the itinerary. Bill said they didn’t necessarily restrict their travel as much as others did last year, traveling the east coast of Georgia in their general neighborhood. But even for those who chose to keep an active lifestyle of travel, finding things to do could be difficult.
“Things were closed. You’d go somewhere, but you couldn’t really do anything because things were closed, restaurants were closed,” she said.
South Dakota was known for state leadership encouraging businesses to stay open during the pandemic, and statewide mask mandates were never put in place. That helped keep some of the tourist traffic flowing, but not everyone was comfortable without a higher level of safety in place.
Mary and Andy Wittmann, of Milwaukee, were busy taking pictures of their two kids, Rosie and Joey, around the Corn Palace Saturday morning. Their trip marked Mary’s third trip to the Corn Palace, having visited with her parents in 2000 and again with Andy in 2006. Saturday’s stop was an opportunity to share the experience with their kids.
“I was excited to come back, and I was excited it was open again.” Mary said. “It’s the world’s only!”
She also said that this was a visit that was supposed to happen in 2020, but concerns over COVID-19 kept them homebound until the situation surrounding the disease outbreak was more under control.
“We were supposed to do this trip last year. And with South Dakota not doing the (statewide) mask mandate, I figured it was easier to stay at home,” she said.
But now they’re making up for lost time, with a trip that will take them from Mitchell to Devils Tower in Wyoming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the Minuteman Missile silo sites in western South Dakota and a stop at Wall Drug in Wall for good measure.
Mary seemed just as happy to be on her third visit as her kids were on their first, and the couple had to promise that they would be back for another visit in the future.
“We already promised them (we’d come back),” Mary said.
Visiting such a unique venue is a treat in itself for some visitors, but for others, it’s the mingling with fellow travelers and getting a chance to chit chat with people from far-flung locations that has been what they missed most.
Brain Kelly and Renee Rivers, of St. Paul, Minnesota, paused for a selfie in front of the Corn Palace while admiring the 2021 murals. Kelly, who once worked in radio in Winner, was familiar with the structure and Rivers had visited once a long time ago, but the two made a stop in Mitchell on their way west for a three-week vacation.
Kelly said the couple travels extensively, but 2020 was a year filled with roadblocks and obstacles that thwarted pursuit of their favorite hobby. Campgrounds were full of people looking to get out of crowded cities, and many of their plane flights were canceled after their destinations blocked travel.
“We already promised them (we’d come back)."
— Mary Wittmann, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on promising her kids that they would visit the Corn Palace again in the future.
Even after he recently broke his ankle in a hockey game, he and Rivers decided they were still heading out on the road.
“He broke his ankle on Wednesday,” Rivers said.
Kelly, with his ankle in a walking boot, insisted it hadn’t slowed the two of them down on their current trip.
“I was playing hockey and I broke my tibia and fibula. And we looked at each other and asked if we were going to cancel this,” Kelly said. “So she’s been lugging everything in and out of the RV.”
Mixing with other travelers has been fun, Kelly said, and he found that youthful life had returned to public spaces, as well as the campgrounds they were frequenting on their journey west.
“We haven’t heard kids playing in the neighborhoods, but it’s at the campgrounds now. They’re on bicycles and playing corn bag toss. We just haven’t heard that,” Kelly said. “Kids playing with each other. Not organized like a soccer game, these kids are just talking and exploring the woods and going down to the water and having fun.”
Travelers seem to be doing the same in places like downtown Mitchell, where a steady stream of out-of-state travelers appear to be ready to help boost visitor numbers at the one and only Corn Palace. The building, and the community, are making a strong impression for people to stop and visit at least once, if not multiple times.
“Oh, definitely,” Bill Wood said. “We were already talking about (coming back). We have to come back. It’s beautiful,” he said.