EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
A Corn Palace festival without a Corn Palace? It happened in 1920.
As the city prepared to host a festival, as it had since 1892, the teardown of the old palace earlier in the year of 1920 left the city without a building to celebrate around.
Initially, the plan was for the new Corn Palace to be finished in 1920, but delays were tied to government restrictions on construction due to the Great War, or World War I, as it would be known later.
On the new timeline, the $200,000 building wouldn’t be finished until 1921, so Mitchell leaders tracked down a three-ring circus tent to host its entertainment from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2, 1920.
“This year, the fete will be different from past palaces because there is no corn palace,” news stories around the state read.
Mitchell leaders sold the festival in 1920 as being “new and unique.” Airplanes for exhibition and commercial purposes were contracted, and 22 acts were planned for the tent show and a street carnival with 25 railcars worth of attractions was planned for the city streets.
“A special effort has been made this year by the committee to provide numerous and varied attractions to supply corn palace visitors with entertainment every minute of the day,” a news report from July 19, 1920 Madison Daily Leader read.
That included a big roundup-show for the final days of Corn Palace Week and drawing entertainment to help fill the tent, which was located at the north end of the Main Street business district. Organizers said that because they didn’t have to decorate the building with corn in 1920, they were investing several thousands of dollars into the entertainment of the week.
The year without a Palace building was notable because of how the Corn Palace pushed to get on the campaign calendar of the 1920 presidential candidates. On July 9, 1920, it made national news across the country that William M. Blain, the director of the Corn Palace, was seeking to get James M. Cox, the Democratic Party nominee for United States president to come to South Dakota and speak to voters. The Associated Press said “the West may be developed into one of the chief battle grounds early in the national political campaign” and Cox was interested in an early “invasion of the west, if not, in fact, favorable to it.” The campaign of Warren Harding said he was interested in coming to visit, although that didn’t happen.
And as it turned out, one of the biggest draws of the week didn’t need a building at all. Cox spoke in an outdoor street address for two hours in a street address during the festival, before continuing through Alexandria, Emery and Bridgewater for five minutes each before holding an evening rally in Sioux Falls for his campaign.
In the end, Cox’s visit was futile. Harding won the state’s five electoral votes at the time with more than 60% of the vote and Cox was soundly defeated in the popular vote by 26 percentage points.
But Palace or not, Corn Palace week was still a big draw.