Reporting from Mitchell, S.D. — In the cornucopia of kitschy roadside attractions, few rival the Corn Palace, a monument to maize that rises from this prairie town's main drag like a Hollywood prop tossed off the back of a big rig barreling down the interstate.
Its green-and-yellow onion domes and spires tower over Main Street, an otherwise unremarkable avenue of low-rise buildings. Golden husks and hundreds of thousands of colorful cobs — held in place by more than a ton of nails, wires and staples — blanket the exterior. Inside, the enticing aromas of popped corn, candied corn and raw ears of corn float down hallways lined with old photographs of the World's Only Corn Palace, as it is described in fliers and on billboards.
But times and tastes have changed since the Corn Palace gained fame in 1892, and there is concern about dwindling visits to the attraction, which is key to the economy in this southeastern South Dakota town of 14,500. In a September editorial, the local newspaper, the Daily Republic, called for a "new incarnation" of the venue, which was built as a means of encouraging farmers to put down roots in the region.
"In today's world, an arena with corn on it is less interesting by the year," it said, in a rare public criticism of the landmark. The Chamber of Commerce has a special committee dedicated to coming up with a plan for revamping the Corn Palace, whose exterior murals made entirely of corn are changed yearly to reflect a different theme — the bicentennial and the space race, for instance — and attract new visitors.
"It's a folk art icon. If you look at the murals over the years, you can see what was happening in our world," said Hannah Walters, director of Mitchell's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But one thing we've recognized is that over the last 25 years, travelers' tastes have changed. People want to experience a destination. They don't just want to see something."
The Corn Palace's dilemma is similar to that facing other roadside attractions: how to keep current without sacrificing its quirky, small-town character.
"That is the pressure a lot of them have: to think about whether they need to modernize," said Doug Kirby, co-founder of RoadsideAmerica.com, which monitors thousands of roadside attractions, including the world's largest ball of twine, concrete dinosaurs and countless gator, reptile and rodent farms. "This has definitely been a tough period for the attractions."
It is harder to persuade travelers to detour for such oddities when they are paying nearly $3 a gallon for gas and driving vehicles with entertainment systems that reduce the need for roadside breaks. In addition, the economy is making it difficult for owners of some spots, opened decades ago, to sell them and retire. Without new owners to modernize the facilities, some could face closure.
"Just like in the housing market; when it's hard to sell your home when it's underwater, it's hard to sell your snake ranch," Kirby said. "We're not hearing anyone reporting wonderful attendance. It seems a lot of them, if they have low overhead, are just kind of hanging on."
Take Prairie Dog Town in Oakley, Kan. — please. The 44-year-old old-fashioned petting zoo has been for sale since 2009 for $450,000. Owner Larry Farmer said if he didn't have a buyer by summer, he'd find homes for the animals and sell the land.
The owners of Holy Land USA have announced that the biblical theme park in Virginia will be auctioned off this month because of high operating costs and low attendance. In October, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas shut its doors.
Farmer insists it's not so much the economy that's problematic, but attitudes of would-be buyers unwilling to take on the job of running a petting zoo. Once they see the work required to maintain scores of prairie dogs, rattlesnakes and a six-legged steer, they balk, said Farmer, who at 78 is eager to retire.
The Corn Palace, given its unique standing, faces more challenges than most of the stopovers. Its corn-covered exterior is the main tourist draw, but the interior does duty as a sports and entertainment venue, a site for high school proms and civic events, and a corn-focused museum and gift shop. Changing one feature too much could upset the balance, said the Corn Palace's director, Mark Schilling, while a country music act rehearsed for a performance in the 3,000-seat arena and tourists scanned a display case explaining corn's role in ethanol production.
Some 20 years ago, as many as half a million visitors passed through the Corn Palace turnstiles from May through August, the high season. Last year, about 279,000 visited. It costs nothing to simply wander around the palace without attending a ticketed event. Schilling said this year's numbers reached 311,000, but that included September and October, and that is still far below what civic leaders want to see.