King Corn in Sioux City

corn harvestAbout 125 years ago in the Midwest, the summers were hot and dry. In the 1870s swarms of locusts attacked the grain fields. The insects ate up all the plants. Farmers had trouble making enough money to live. It was expensive to ship their crops to market on trains. It was expensive to borrow money from the banks. But when the farmers sold their crops they were not paid much.

Sioux City Celebrates

But the farmers around Sioux City were luckier. Enough rain had fallen there to keep the corn growing. Sioux City had grown tremendously in size too. In 1880 about 7,000 people lived there, but by 1887 the population was over 30,000. The city was the third largest meatpacking center in America. Some citizens believed the city might become as important as Chicago. They wanted to celebrate their prosperity and hard work.

But how should they celebrate? They could decorate the courthouse with cornstalks, or heap piles of corn on the street corners. The best idea was to build a corn palace. It had never been done anywhere in the world. People loved the idea. The more they thought about it, the more they realized how important corn was in their economy.

Sioux City Builds a Palace

So the citizens of Sioux City got busy. People knew how to work together to build barns and houses, but a palace would be harder. For six days, 46 men sawed and hammered. They built square towers on the corners of the palace and arches over its entrances.

And next came the corn! The plan was to cover the outside of the palace with the kinds of crops grown around Sioux City.

Help from Native Americans

The Winnebago Indians sold 5,000 bushels of Indian corn to the palace-builders for decorations. Indian corn was blue, purple, red and white. They also used 15,000 more bushels of yellow corn. The autumn colors and unusual textures of the crops would make beautiful designs.

For 15 days, teams of horses hauled loads of straw, sorghum, corn and wild grasses and vines. Steam saws sliced and chopped the materials into the right sizes. Carpenters thatched the roof with green cornstalks, and nailed tons of corn to the walls and around the windows.

Still the work was not done. Inside the palace, local artists twisted and arranged nature's products into works of art. A huge spider made of carrots hung on a web made of corn silk. For the walls artists wove scenes of Indians in canoes and buffalo in meadows.

Sioux City could not wait until the palace was ready. At special corn parties the women wore corn necklaces, and the men wore cornhusk neckties. Everyone learned the myths of Mondamin, the Indian god of corn, and Ceres, the Greek goddess of harvests. They wrote songs and poems about "King Corn." Storekeepers filled their windows with pumpkins and harvest scenes. Brightly colored globes covered the gas lights that arched over the streets. There had never been a celebration like this one in Sioux City.

The Opening of a Palace

On a crisp fall day in October 1887 the palace and festival opened. Businesses placed their newest products on floats for the industrial parade. On another day covered wagons and groups of Winnebago, Sioux and Omaha Indians paraded down the streets. At night fireworks boomed overhead. Passenger trains to Sioux City had to add extra cars to carry all the crowds into town.

Sioux City is World Famous

In Chicago, New York and London people opened their newspapers and magazines and found stories about the Corn Palace in Iowa. From Boston came 133 vacationers, curious to see it. Wealthy businessmen from the East Coast were impressed with Sioux City and the enthusiasm of its citizens, and, they sent money to invest in businesses there. More than 130,000 people saw the Corn Palace before the festival ended a week later.

The palace was torn down, as planned. But right away the citizens of Sioux City started thinking about building another palace the next year. And every year for the next four years a new palace was built—always more magnificent than the one before.

Bigger and Better

In 1888 the carpenters used so much corn and grain to decorate the outside walls that not a single square inch of wood was left uncovered—except for the flagpoles.

In 1889 the palace towers were higher than nearby church steeples. More industrial and agricultural displays were added. All of the newest products were at the exposition. Bicycles that looked similar to ours today had only been available for about ten years, and they were becoming very popular. Crowds cheered their favorites in the bicycle race. They watched with curiosity as phonograph records were made for the new "talking machines."

In 1890 a giant globe of the world topped the palace. Each country on the globe was outlined with kernels of corn. Inside the palace the ceiling was an imitation sky at night. Electric lights shone like stars and added to the wonderful nighttime effect. Most towns in Iowa had some electric lights by then, but most Iowa farm families would still have to wait at least 40 years before they would have electricity to light their evenings. The festival that year was as grand as ever, until the last day. Heavy rains ruined the parade, poured in through the palace roof, and drenched the displays.

The palace built in 1891 was more than a block long. Visitors hopped on streetcars on Pierce Street, and rode right through the palace. Other states and South America sent exhibits and Mexico sent a band. From Louisiana came live alligators. There was a race between a man on a bicycle and a man on a horse. The horse won the race—but not by much.

The 1891 palace might have been the best corn palace yet. It was also the last palace. It was torn down, and a man paid $1,211 to salvage some of the corn, lumber, cloth and nails.

The End of an Era

In the spring of 1892 the Big Floyd River flooded. People in Sioux City had to clean up after the flood and couldn't afford to build another corn palace. In 1893 the economy was worse. For Sioux City, the Corn Palace Era was over. But for the five years between 1887 and 1891 thousands of curious Americans traveled there to see why corn was king in Sioux City.

Adapted from an article printed in The Goldfinch 6, No. 1 (Oct. 1984). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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