EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
Damaged by economic turmoil, low commodity prices, drought and dust storms, the Great Depression impacted Mitchell and South Dakota far and wide in the 1930s.
That included the Corn Palace Festival, which by that point was becoming a 40-year tradition. The insight of that could be seen in a 1933 first-person submission to The Daily Republic from Wallace MacLean, who was the chairman of the Corn Palace Entertainment Committee that year.
MacLean wrote that the festival would forge ahead in 1933, “not to be outdone by reverses, not to lose faith in the future of our state and nation, Mitchell businessmen are going ahead as usual with preparations for the annual Corn Palace Festival.”
“It requires more than ordinary nerve for a group of businessmen to be found in a city the size of Mitchell to shoulder the responsibility of staging a Corn Palace show this season,” he added.
MacLean wrote that there was some hesitation among those business owners to hold a festival.
But he wrote about a joint meeting of the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, the city’s Retail Merchants Association, the Corn Palace committee and city leaders. They agreed on one simple message: the show must go on.
“We have carried on for 40 years, we must not fail our state; we have confidence in the people of South Dakota that they will rally to the support of the Corn Palace and too, that South Dakota folk need a vacation and a good laugh,” he wrote.
The Corn Palace Festival took its financial hits during the early part of the 1930s. The festival lost $5,000 in 1931, but a $13,000 cash balance from years prior helped cover the losses.
In 1932, the show was in the black, one of the few in the region to have that status. Mitchell Chamber of Commerce Secretary Carl I. Rolston said that state fairs in Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa had lost between $50,000 and $80,000 that year, and the South Dakota State Fair in Huron was on pace to lose money as well.
Prior to 1932’s show, prices for tickets were lowered. Reserved tickets for shows were 75 cents, 50 cents lower than in 1931. General admission tickets were half-price what they were the year before, just 50 cents. In that year, Mitchell also saved money by skipping decorating the Palace, a savings of as much as $3,000.
“It is very gratifying to know that our festival has been a success,” Rolston said after the 1932 show. “But we know it is due to the cooperation of the entire state, and we consider it a statewide event, rather than just a Mitchell or Davison County celebration. We are indebted to the other cities of the state who brought their bands, drum corps and people.”
Former Congressmen Charles Christopherson, of Sioux Falls, commended the Mitchell community for “their courage and faith in going ahead with the Corn Palace this year, in spite of economic conditions” in 1933.
In the newspaper stories about the history of the festival, the preview for almost every year claimed it would be the biggest and best show yet. In 1933, MacLean said his confidence was instead in the early showgoers, who would tell their friends it was worth attending and spending their money to support.
Mitchell Mayor George Fredericks encouraged local residents to go to shows early in the week and spread the word.
“The show this year is good. When the word goes out about its excellent quality, we expect a big turnout from other communities,” Fredericks said. “Depression or no depression, the citizens of communities in South Dakota know that a good show will be offered at an exceptionally low price for first-class theatrical entertainment.”
This story was published with the research assistance of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell, located at 119 W. Third Ave.