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A hub on the home front: The Corn Palace during World War II

A continuing series on the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace in Mitchell

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A 1945 photo shows the Corn Palace murals decorated with naval ships and military airplanes in its prominent locations, the final murals supporting the military before the U.S. prevailed in winning the war. (Library of Congress photo via Carnegie Resource Center collection)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.

The 1939 Corn Palace Festival was set to be a celebration.

Seven blocks of midway attractions were on hand, jazz mainstay Paul Whiteman was the headlining entertainment and the end of the Dirty 30’s after drought conditions was approaching. The festival also honored 50 years of statehood in South Dakota, honoring its pioneers.

But in those same days of September 1939, the engagement of war in Europe in what would become World War II made the biggest headlines in Mitchell and throughout the state.

Over the next six years, the war effort would dominate the conversation here at home. And the Corn Palace was at the center of the community’s efforts to rally support to win the war.

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From 1940 to 1945, the Corn Palace appealed to the community’s patriotism and its conscience. It helped raise money for war bonds, held victory concerts and events where military men formally joined the fight and was even considered to be converted into a war production facility in 1944 by a congressman.

Even before the United States was brought into war by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Corn Palace started what would be a patriotic run of mural art through the 1940s.

In 1940, the building had the theme “America First” emblazoned over the building’s marquee. “Uncle Sam” was depicted in the murals as “kicking ruffians with Communist banners in the Atlantic” and in another, “standing on the shore of the ocean, contemplating the explosion occurring in Europe,” as The Daily Republic reported at the time. Other images included insignias that depicted the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, along with the Red Cross and the U.S. flag.

READ: More from the Corn Palace 100 series by Marcus Traxler.

After Pearl Harbor, the Corn Palace led Mitchell’s charge to sell war bonds, which were debt securities issued by the government to finance military expenses. One month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, the venue reached into its savings to purchase more than $5,000 in national defense bonds with a value of $6,800.

Later in 1942, a week before the festival was supposed to open, the city welcomed the motion picture industry’s “Stars Over America” war bond and stamp sales campaign on Sept. 20, including Hollywood stars such as Ralph Bellamy, Peggy Diggins and Richard Arlen, with the latter auctioning off the shirt he was wearing for a bid of $3,000.

Tickets for the show required purchasing at least one $25 war savings bond in exchange for admission to the show. Show attendees holding the largest bonds received the most desirable seats for the performance.

The three-hour program was a success, drawing 2,000 people and raising $62,225 in war bonds. With today’s buying power and accounting for inflation, those funds would be valued at more than $1 million.

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Part of the appeal of the war bond auctions was selling items that were rare during wartime. During the 1943 festival, that included a Mitchell woman donating a pair of nylon hose, along with a pair of leather-topped, rubber hunting boots donated from a Mitchell widow’s husband’s collection. Both nylon and rubber were in short supply to the public, due to the need for those products in war efforts.

A military connection

For some of the area’s men drafted for service, the Corn Palace served as the start of their time in the military.

On Aug. 28, 1942, 52 South Dakotans were mass enlisted into the U.S. Navy in front of a crowd of 2,000 people. At the time, it was the largest group of Naval candidates to be enlisted at once in the state.

I.D. Weeks, the president at the University of South Dakota, spoke during the induction ceremony about how America was meeting the challenge that every man is expected to do his duty during this time of war.

The Corn Palace also provided a platform to tell personal stories of war. Associated Press correspondent Louis Lochner gave a “What About Germany?” address to an audience on Nov. 25, 1942 while eventually writing a book of the same name. He had been a foreign correspondent in Berlin and received the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Nazi-controlled Germany. He was imprisoned for five months by Hitler’s Third Reich and was released in a prisoner exchange in May 1942.

One of the most popular festival exhibits during this era was a two-man Japanese “suicide” submarine that was recovered after the Pearl Harbor attack and toured the country in 1943. An exhibit on quartermasters — the military officers in charge of food rations, clothing supplies, sleeping quarters and other equipment — appeared in 1943, along with vehicles and ordinance armaments, showing off 100-pound practice bombs and 500-pound torpedo bombs. A patriotic parade was planned to lead the submarine into Mitchell and to the north lawn at the Davison County Courthouse to be displayed for the day, and purchasing a war bond of $18.75 gave a person a ticket to see the submarine’s inside. As this newspaper wrote at the time, the U.S. Treasury Department has “used the submarine to raise money to buy equipment with which to fight the fanatics who built it.”

A free event was held on June 28, 1944 to meet U.S. Navy heroes, with a parade and a show, including a 35-piece Navy band that included survivors of the U.S.S. Helena, along with big exhibits of Navy guns and equipment and trophies of war captured from the Japanese and Germans.

“A two-hour show you’ll never forget … worth coming miles to see and hear,” a print advertisement blared.

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Instances where the Corn Palace was not used for wartime benefit events drew criticism, as well. In January 1942, a Red Cross auction sale was held at a local livestock sale barn but was not a big attendance draw or fundraiser. Mitchell Mayor Walter Dixon and Chamber President Fred Scallin were critical of that selection, noting that profits could have increased if the event was held at the Corn Palace.

The auctioneer, John F. Hall, of Aberdeen, responded by saying that the crowd was generous but there were few Mitchell businessmen at the sale. Hall also criticized the mayor for making an appearance but not bidding on any items. Dixon responded that he had been getting over a bad cold but reiterated that more success would have been achieved at the Corn Palace.

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Murals on the Corn Palace in 1942 advertised the importance of purchasing war stamps and bonds to support the U.S. efforts to win World War II. (Carnegie Resource Center collection photo)

The war production plan

The Corn Palace’s role in World War II might have been much larger, if the federal government had followed through on the idea of a South Dakota congressman or if the war had carried on longer.

On Dec. 8, 1944, exactly three years after the country’s declaration of war on Japan, it was reported that U.S. Rep. Francis Case proposed offering use of the Corn Palace to the federal War Production Board. The idea was in response to the board’s decision to build $500 million in new shell plants, primarily to build mortar ammunition, military tires and canvas material.

Case said that Mitchell would have been a good fit because it already has the production building and housing for workers.

“I have one such place in mind. Mitchell, South Dakota,” he wrote. “The city is not in my congressional district, but I know the situation there fairly well, as it happens to be the home of Mrs. (Myrle Graves) Case, and the town where I went to college.”

Case, of Custer, represented West River in the U.S. House, as South Dakota had two congressional districts at the time. He noted that there was a large administrative building attached — currently Mitchell City Hall — that would provide floor space for offices.

“Together, they would offer a very sizable amount of floor space for office and work shops,” he wrote.

Case also pointed out that Mitchell had railroads entering the city from five directions, abundant water supply from Lake Mitchell, available barracks at the Mitchell Army Airbase and numerous seasonal farmhands that would welcome winter shop work.

“The town and small cities around would doubtless supply a great deal of labor, particularly if the industry could use women, as there has been little to no demand for that type of labor in that area,” he wrote.

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An image from the Hersey Photo collection shows the iconic Corn Palace murals decorated with paint — rather than corn — in 1944, due to concerns about food and manpower shortages. (Carnegie Resource Center photo)

Murals go to paint format

After depicting hunting and sportsmen on the Corn Palace in 1941, the Palace murals returned to its patriotic place in 1942. But the building was no longer decorated fully with corn and grain. Painted panels were used to not allow for the waste of food. The decorations took the theme of “Allied Victory,” while the Corn Palace Festival — celebrating its 50-year history in 1942 — had 10 Broadway acts as part of a show entitled “Salute to Victory.”

The 1942 murals didn’t leave any question about Mitchell’s feelings of patriotic support. In addition to depictions of fighting through air, land and sea, there was also a panel that showed a country scene in Germany being bombed with Adolf Hitler peeking from behind a tree. The bomb was inscribed with the message of “U.S. Air Power.”

The murals would be left in place for 1943 and in 1944, with a shortage in manpower and as part of the war food conservation program, the 1944 Corn Palace murals didn’t have corn or grain decorations. Instead, they were painted, with the demand for paint not nearly as high as corn for the war.

The large painted mural panels on the front of the building depicted the Army, Navy and Air Corps, with smaller murals recognizing tanks, hospital workers, sailors, marines and the Red Cross. Bradley Young, the Corn Palace festival committee chairman, stressed that the changes to the murals were only due to the war and the traditional manner of decorating the building would return. He said it was better than the alternatives, which were to leave the deteriorating decorations up for another year or remove them and still put up new ones.

“Redecoration with corn and grain was out of the question because of the shortage of labor, and because the use of 2,000 or 3,000 bushels of corn and grain would be inadvisable, if not unpatriotic,” Young said. “Hence, the decision was reached to clean off the panels and paint them in a patriotic theme.”

Rationing of gasoline and tires had an impact on tourism and numbers of out-of-state visitors ebbed and flowed. In 1942, Corn Palace concessionaires reported that business was good, but the home territory of travelers was more confined, with more vehicles from the Midwest and Central U.S. and fewer cars from the Western and Eastern states, with hopes that business would improve throughout the summer.

In 1942, just $3,137 in net profits turned over to the city from the Corn Palace Festival, with the Mitchell City Council acknowledging the difficulties presenting the celebration, with “the Corn Palace was one of the few public celebrations which yielded a profit this year.”

In 1943, the Corn Palace Festival’s theme was cognizant of the current events, with the theme “Time Out For Happiness.” Running from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2, 14 big-time vaudeville acts were featured entertainment, with the sale of advanced tickets nearly 25% ahead of the pace in 1940. Combined with great weather and nearly 40,000 tickets sold for the main show over the week, net profits totaling $23,314 were turned over as the city’s share in the profits.

In 1944, Young, writing in the show program, was cognizant of the annual Corn Palace revue’s role as a community event. Children under age 12 who had a parent serving or who had served in the military got a ticket for free rides on the festival midway.

“It is the general consensus of opinion from our President (Franklin D. Roosevelt) down to the humblest citizen, that entertainment is a necessary morale builder in these times of war,” Young wrote. “Since the grains and corns usually used in the decorations of the building are essential to the food program of our country, under war conditions, we have decorated this year with paint, which is not essential to winning the war. However, after the war is won, we shall resume decorations as of old. So in the spirit of the times, we greet you with the 52nd edition of the Corn Palace in the hope that it will live long in your memory.”


"After the war is won, we shall resume decorations as of old.'"

- Corn Palace Festival Committee Chairman Bradley Young in 1944 about the absence of the traditional murals for a third season in a row.


Solemn in victory

The building was also a site of somber tribute. On Sept. 3, 1944, the Coacher-Goetsch post of the American Legion held a memorial service to pay tribute to the men who had died in the war. At that time, the number of local casualties of war was 31, with six other men missing in action.

By the end of the war, more than 2,200 South Dakotans had died in the fight, according to the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Frank E. Lochridge, the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Mitchell, spoke at the ceremony. He bemoaned that men cannot take “their pound of flesh without blood.”

“Four years ago, a boy or young man could scarcely find a job anywhere,” he said. “Today, we are depending upon that same group to save a world from the throttling grip of heartless dictators. Moneybags, that could think in terms only of material wealth and world trade, still demanding their pound of flesh, dressed the whole thing up and set it to marital music and sent these boys out to fight for their cause.”

Lochridge said that Americans needed to fund a way to live alongside Germany and Japan without living under the threat of war.

“We owe some of these adjustments to those who were not able to finish their work,” Lochridge said. “If we would pay honor to our sacred dead, we must work for the things that will accomplish what they went to do.”

Less than a year later, the day “we have long anticipated and for which we have fervently prayed” arrived, in the words of Dakota Wesleyan University President Joseph Edge. On May 7, 1945, the Mitchell Ministerial Association sponsored a victory worship service, one day before what is now known as V-E Day, signifying the Allied victory in Europe.

President Harry Truman had not yet declared victory but Mitchell’s schools and businesses had closed early on May 7, so Mitchell ministers organized the victory worship service that night.

Edge said that serious days were still ahead and noted the cost of human suffering in war didn’t allow for celebration or “uncurbed emotional explosion,” as he put it.

“Victory will be meaningless unless out of it comes a better world,” Edge told a crowd of more than 1,000 people.

Victory was the word of 1945 for the Corn Palace. It was the theme of the new murals that year — ”Victory and Peace” — which was able to be completed due to the end of the war and the increased availability in manpower. The end of gas rationing was expected to help drive larger crowds to Mitchell for the annual festival.

The era of World War II in Mitchell and at the Corn Palace was coming to an end.

This story was published with the research assistance of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell, located at 119 W. Third Ave.

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The Mitchell Republic commemorates the 100th anniversary of the modern Corn Palace in 2021. (Mindy Wirtzfeld / Forum Design Center)

Related Topics: HISTORYCORN PALACE 100MEMBERS-ONLY
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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