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How did the Corn Palace get its fort? Look back nearly 50 years

A continuing series on the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace in Mitchell

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An undated photo shows tourists exiting the Corn Palace gift shop when it was known as Fort Four Winds, which was the theme for the fort from 1973 to the early-1990s. (Photo provided by Troy Magnuson)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.

Ever visited the Corn Palace during the summer months and wonder why the interior of the building resembles a fort?

The answer can be traced back to 1973.

It was then that the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce commissioned building walls that would resemble a fort, and would be placed along the walls of the building's auditorium and arena during the summer.

A Mitchell construction company built the project for the Chamber, putting the fort together at the Davison County Fairgrounds. The Minneapolis man painting the fort pieces told The Daily Republic on May 5, 1973, it would take about 20 to 25 gallons of paint to cover the pieces. Photos from the time indicate it was painted a dark brown to a palisade, or the wood and timber that lined the exterior walls of a fort to form a defense.

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READ: More from the Corn Palace 100 series by Marcus Traxler.

Troy Magnuson, who manages the Corn Palace's gift shop and has worked at the Palace for 35 years, said the walls were in place until the early to mid-1990s, when they were then replaced by Styrofoam walls that the Palace currently uses.

"The day we got rid of those walls was one of the best days of my life," Magnuson joked this week. "They were back-breaking. They were heavy."

The plan at the time was for the fort to line the walkways in the auditorium during the summer, with lookout turrets from the stage area that would look back over the. Flags from every state, Canada and the United Nations would be displayed along the fort's walls, and registration books would be under the respective flags, encouraging those who stopped to sign in the appropriate book. The flag stands were about 7 or 8 feet tall and built on wire spools, Magnuson said, and would include five different state flags on each of them.

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The Mitchell Corn Palace's interior gift shop walls, pictured on July 29, 2021, still carry a resemblance to a fort but are painted green and are made of Styrofoam. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

With the walls, the gift shop had a name: Fort Four Winds, a reference to the meaningful Four Directions in Lakota culture.

That was in an era of the Corn Palace when the building had more Native American imagery. Until the mid-1960s, the Corn Palace would have Native American dancers on the stage in the summer, who would perform each hour for eight hours or more per day. Each hour, the family of Native American dancers would pick a girl out of the audience and make them the Indian Princess of the day, Magnuson said.

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Chief Frank White Buffalo Man, a grandson of Sitting Bull, was a main exhibitor at the Corn Palace in 1967, diagramming how Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes decimated Custer's U.S. Army forces in 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Magnuson said the walls — both then and now — also serve a practical purpose, to give the gift shop a shape, and contain it from sprawling across the arena floor.

This story was published with the research assistance of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell, located at 119 W. Third Ave.

Related Topics: HISTORYCORN PALACE 100
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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