Corn Palace murals near completion, as crews are a month ahead of schedule
A year after the Corn Palace murals went unfinished due to the historic wet year in 2019, decorating crews are well on their way to finishing this year’s murals in time.
Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway is thanking Mother Nature for providing the on-time crops this fall, which has allowed the decorating crew to stay ahead of schedule for the completion of the 2021 mural theme: South Dakota Stay and Play. With just one more mural left to finish on the southeast corner of the building and the marquee, Greenway said crews are likely going to finish decorating the Corn Palace by the first week of November, nearly a month ahead of the traditional late November mural completion date.
The four new murals that are a part of the 2021 theme feature an ATV rider cruising through the plains, a Sturgis Rally motorcycle, a golfer and a camping scene with the backdrop of the Black Hills. The Corn Palace is typically redecorated each year with up to 13 different colors of corn. The corn gets nailed to the exterior of the building to create a scene that fits the yearly theme. The decorating process usually starts in late May and the current murals generally are removed in August and are replaced by November.
“The crops were very good this year, and the weather did us a lot of favors, as we were able to stay ahead of schedule for the mural decorating,” Greenway said. “The crops were so good that we will actually be storing corn through the winter so we can use some of that corn next year. We are very happy we didn’t have a year like we did last year with the constant rain.”
As part of a cost-saving measure, the 2021 Corn Palace theme will include five of the 2020 themed murals, including the George McGovern mural, bull rider, lady on the prairie, Crazy Horse and the mural of a Corn Palace replica. The completion of the marquee, which sits above the front entrance of the Corn Palace, is expected to take roughly a week, Greenway said. Following the completion of the marquee, it will mark the end of the decorating season.
As COVID-19 crept into the area in the spring, it caused another setback for decorating Mitchell’s biggest tourist attraction. The near two-month closure of the Corn Palace in response to the pandemic, paired with the projected drop in revenue, led to a hiring freeze. That left the Corn Palace without a full-time decorating crew this past summer.
With a very limited staff that was made up of just three year-round decorators and the facility's maintenance crew, they managed to complete the remaining 2020 murals this spring, which were postponed due to the winter and late fall harvest. The decorators kept on moving at a steady pace throughout the summer and into the fall, completing three of the 2021 themed murals since the start of summer.
“We are very proud of our staff, because some of them were new to this,” Greenway said. “We had some of the helpers doing it all from tying the straw, tearing off the corn and stapling new corn back on. It wasn’t ideal, but it’s amazing that we were able to accomplish the decorating with such a limited staff.”
Jeff Hanson, Corn Palace maintenance supervisor and lead decorator, guided the shorthanded decorating crew this summer. Despite the challenges he was up against, Hanson said everyone of the inexperienced helpers played an integral role in getting the decorating job done.
“It was just a crazy year all together last year. Being able to get the Corn Palace decorated with everything that went on was incredible,” Hanson said.
In his 10 years of being a part of the Corn Palace decorating crew, Hanson has yet to experience anything like he did the past 10 months. As Greenway plans to hire around 10 to 14 full-time seasonal decorating crew members for the summer of 2021, Hanson is breathing a sigh of relief.
A notable change that Greenway has implemented to the decorating process is tearing off and redecorating some of the murals in the summer to provide tourists with an opportunity to see the decorating process in action. Prior to Greenway's arrival in November 2019 to take on the director role, crews would spend the summer tearing off all of the murals and rye straw to make way for crews to redecorate all of the murals in the fall before winter sets in. Considering the positive feedback he received from tourists this past summer in the midst of peak visitor season, Greenway said the change is here to stay.
Judging by the tourists' reactions, Hanson said the change has been a success.
“I would hear a good amount of tourists come up and say how cool they thought it was to see how the Corn Palace murals are decorated,” Hanson said. “I would hear some repeat visitors and tourists say they were fascinated to see the mural decorating since they never got to see what it looked like when they came during the summer years prior.”