EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
It’s March at the Corn Palace. That means the building is busy, pumping out postseason basketball games.
This week, for example, there are eight games in about 52 hours, advancing boys and girls teams.
For the historic venue, that’s a tradition that happens this time of year going back nearly a century. In 1923, the Corn Palace, which was about 18 months old at the time, hosted the South Dakota state basketball tournament for the first time.
That tournament would include the largest field of qualifiers yet — 16 teams — and played 22 games over three days, leading up to when Yankton and Mitchell met in the championship game. Other teams in that first tournament at the Corn Palace: Aberdeen, Arlington, Big Stone City, Gregory, Henry, Huron, Madison, Mobridge, Pierre, Rapid City, Salem, Sioux Falls, Vermillion and Woonsocket.
The concept of a state tournament was still being refined in the early 1920s. An invitational state tournament was first held in 1912 in Huron and sponsored by Huron College, and the first tournament sponsored by the South Dakota Athletic Board of Control — the forerunner to the South Dakota High School Activities Association — was held in 1917. District tournaments were created a few years later. Until 1920, the tournament was held in Huron, before being held in Sioux Falls in 1921 and 1922.
Mitchell learned at the end of 1922 that it would host the state tournament in mid-March, and it was to be the largest event yet. Interest in high school basketball was surging, and the state high school board asked Mitchell to make room for 16 teams in 1923, rather than the 10 teams that had made the tournament in past years. The Mitchell Evening Republican (the forerunner to this newspaper) reported that “so keen has the interest become in high school basketball and so sharp has the competition grown” in order to warrant growing the tournament.
The Corn Palace constructed raised bleachers on all four sides of the court, along with using the existing balconies to fit fans in. The Mitchell High School Athletic Association created a special silver cup that would be awarded to the tournament winner. At that time, the SDHSAA had a cup trophy for the winner but it was only in possession of the winner for the coming year before being passed on to the next champion.
Mitchell business leaders waged a campaign to get the state tournament in the city, with 200 pledging to underwrite the tournament with a $3,000 guarantee to make sure the SDHSAA didn’t lose money.
Season tickets for the entire tournament were $3, sold in the local pharmacies and clothing stores. (Inflation would have that same season ticket costing $45.89 today) High school students were directed to come through the south doors of the Corn Palace, while general tickets were to come through the west doors. The Chamber of Commerce issued a call for any additional rooms for the tournament that local residents were willing to rent out, in case there was an overflow crowd.
“Never before in the history of South Dakota basketball tournaments have such good arrangements been made to care for the crowds at the games as Mitchell committees have made for the tournament in the Corn Palace next week,” the newspaper wrote, preparing for a “tourney throng” on March 10, 1923.
The campaign worked. Even with the extra expenses involved with the special bleachers, the three-day event brought in $6,445.95. After paying expenses, there was to be a profit of about $2,000, set to be split between the South Dakota Athletic Board of Control and the Mitchell High School Athletic Association.
The board of control then voted to give Mitchell its $1,000 in appreciation for turning a profit on the event. The board, the newspaper wrote, had never taken money from the state basketball tournament and other organizers had told Mitchell’s organizing committee that no profit could be expected from the state event.
Throughout the tournament, Mitchell was enjoying the heavy praise it received from state leaders.
“The Corn Palace floor is unquestionably the best place in South Dakota in which to hold a state tournament,” said C.S. Hall, of Belle Fourche, who was the secretary of the Athletic Board of Control. “I have never seen anything to equal the way in which the thousands of visitors have been accommodated. There are probably other auditoriums in the state which are as large but no other place could furnish as favorable seats as does the Corn Palace.”
A.A. McDonald, the superintendent of Sioux Falls’ schools and one of the forefathers of the SDHSAA, said “everything about this tournament has been excellently handled and wonderful spirit has been shown.”
It’s worth noting how much basketball still was changing at the time. In 1923-24, high school basketball changed the rule that made the fouled player shoot free throws. Until then, a designed foul shooter was used to shoot free throws.
There was still a center-court jump after each basket until 1936 and the midcourt stripe and the three-second rule in the lane didn’t come about until after 1932. Substitutions were limited until the mid-1940s.
The host team from Mitchell put together a major run, as well. It defeated Woonsocket in the opening round, followed by a close 16-15 victory over Rapid City when Mitchell center Leo Rozum hit the game-winning shot in front of 3,500 fans. In the semifinals, Mitchell topped Salem 22-12, on a day the city’s banks, retailer stores and many other businesses reported that they would close from 2 to 3:30 p.m. to allow employees to watch Mitchell play.
In the championship game, as the local newspaper wrote it, Mitchell ran out of gas to the “Bridge City Youngsters,” as Yankton’s team was personified, and Yankton won 25-14. Mitchell coach Donald Parker was satisfied with Mitchell’s effort, with nothing for the players to hang their heads about, considering they took second out of nearly 150 teams that year. Nearly 5,000 people watched the game. It would be the second of four state championships in a row in basketball for the Yankton boys.
After 1923, Mitchell and Sioux Falls would alternate hosting the tournament in the 1920s, with the Corn Palace holding the event in odd years.
However, a tradition of big-time basketball at the Corn Palace got its start and hasn't slowed down since.