The historical record shows that a primary reason Mitchell needed to build a new Corn Palace in 1920 was because it was a wood structure, susceptible to fire risk.
That was true, even though it had most recently been rebuilt in 1905. But in addition to the fire risk, there was a more unseemly reason the city needed a new building: rats.
Given the nature of the building — built with corn and grasses — it was a draw to pests, birds and rodents. Other similar grain palaces in the Midwest had the same problem. And when voters in 1919 approved $100,000 worth of bonds for the new building, they knew they would be getting a state-of-the-art building, without a rat problem.
In January 1920, Mitchell City Engineer Fred J. Henson estimated that the number of rodents in the Corn Palace was as high as 500,000. Other estimates were closer to 50,000. By that point, Henson was working to find a way to contain the rats in the building and not let them out throughout the city when it was time for the Palace to come down.
As the Custer Chronicle published a Jan. 24, 1920 story from Mitchell, the goal was to “imprison the rats and permit their complete extermination.” Similar stories ran across the Midwest about the building “that made Mitchell famous.”
“Every possible effort must be used to prevent the rats from escaping into the city,” Henson said. “And it seems to me the best way to make this sure would be the erection of a wire entanglement around the corn palace.”
Henson proposed setting up a one-foot high wire barrier along the bottom of the building to trap the rats and then using any means necessary to exterminate the rats.
By that point in 1920, the Corn Palace was about a month away from being torn down, in anticipation of about 18 months of construction of the new Corn Palace, set to debut in September 1921.
But the headline of that story — “Mitchell to combat half million rats” — in newspapers around the region, provided as good of a reason as any for why a new building was being constructed.
This story was published with the assistance of the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America online newspaper database.