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The Corn Palace will temporarily suspended finishing the murals once the George McGovern campaign button from 1972 mural is finished until later this spring. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Winter halts Corn Palace decorating, leaving 2020 murals on hiatus

MITCHELL, S.D. --  The white flag has temporarily gone up on finishing the Corn Palace murals this winter.

Still reeling from a wet 2019 that made planting and harvesting difficult, completing the landmark murals on Mitchell's biggest tourist attraction will have to wait until summer. The soggy harvest slowed down the late summer and fall process of affixing corn to the murals, and now four unfinished 2020 murals will have to wait until spring weather cooperates to be finished.

Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway made the decision to postpone the decorating on the south side of the building, even after the facility hired six additional part-time employees to help finish the project in late 2019. It's believed to be the first time that the mural decorating has stretched into the following summer season.

“The decision is a reflection of the tough agriculture production season we experienced this year, and it’s no secret it’s been an extremely challenging year,” said Greenway, who is in his fourth month as the Corn Palace Director. "It's been a frustrating year for the decoration process."

According to Jeff Hanson, Corn Palace maintenance supervisor and lead decorator, the 12 colorations of corn that are used to decorate the mural designs usually arrive at the Corn Palace around the first week of September. But the corn that’s eventually going to make up the remaining murals is currently sitting under several inches of snow in the fields of the corn grower Brett Lowrie's, west of Mitchell. Greenway plans to harvest the corn in the early spring and store it until it’s ready to be placed on the respective murals.

In Hanson’s nine years of decorating the Corn Palace, this year marked the most difficult. Some of the corn needed for the murals didn't arrive in Mitchell until late October.

“We were about six weeks behind getting the corn for the murals to no fault of the grower, rather it was due to the weather conditions he was up against in the spring and summer,” Hanson said. “Once it was mature enough to harvest, we ran into muddy fields and other challenges.”

Greenway said it could provide a unique opportunity for tourists and visitors to get a close up look on the mural decoration process.

“It’s a big deal because the tourists don’t always get to see the corn going up on the murals,” Greenway said. “I’m excited to see how the tourists respond to this change, because decorating is a fascinating process. If it works, I could see us continuing this practice in the future.”

Each year, the Corn Palace selects a new theme, which leads the re-decorating the murals to be in place for the following season. Over the summer months into fall, the seasonal decorating crew strips the corn murals, which are then decorated by Hanson with the help of a few part-time staff members during the fall and early stages of winter. Typically, the nine murals are decorated and completed in full by early December.

“(This time), the plan for us is to store the colored corn inside once it’s picked and harvested when it warms up. It will remain dry inside, so it won’t rot,” Greenway said. “This way we can start building the murals in the summer.”

One of the other issues with cold weather is that each corn cob that is placed onto the murals is sawed in half and soaked in water before they’re nailed in the respective locations on the murals. It's a process that doesn't work well with subzero temperatures, Hanson said.

“You have to saw them when they’re wet, because they will just disintegrate when they’re dry,” Hanson said. “But when it’s 15 to 20 degrees outside, the cobs freeze, which also makes them disintegrate when we go to saw them.”

The George McGovern mural is in progress, which Greenway said will be the last mural the decorating crew will complete until the upcoming summer arrives. Greenway expects the McGovern mural to be finished by next week, weather permitting. At that time, the remaining murals will be complete, fulfilling the 2020 “South Dakota homegrown” theme.

Historically, the early stages of the Corn Palace decorating process begins in mid-May when the seasonal decorating crew begins picking the sourdock -- an invasive weed -- that is speckled around the corn murals on the building. However, Hanson said the wet spring also pushed the sourdock harvest back nearly two months.

“Usually, we’re picking dock by the last week of May, but we couldn’t even find any usable dock until July,” Hanson said. “The rye is also grown by our farmer, and we didn’t get that until about a month and a half after when we usually do in July.”

“It takes a lot more time to place that yellow corn on where the rye and dock were supposed to be placed, which prolonged the process even more,” Greenway added.

With basketball games and other events occurring throughout the next few months, Greenway said it will be good to put away the lift equipment and decorating materials. Greenway said adapting is all part of the job.

“It can only get better from here after this tough agriculture year,” Greenway said. “Just as farmers do, we have to adapt to what the weather brings us.”

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