Unusual Attractions Offer Towns a Mark on the Map


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — How many road trips have we all been on with parents or friends who want to stop off to see the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” or even have a stopover in that now-famous place in New Mexico, Roswell, where aliens supposedly crashed in the 1950s?

Those fun stops to see oddities and stretch our legs oftentimes turns into a town’s livelihood or, at the very least, the thing that puts that town on the map. (They can even worth fighting about. There are two claims to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, one in Darwin, Minn., that was built by one person and another in Cawker City, Kan., which was built by a community.)

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., made completely with corn, is one of the many unusual attractions in the United States that put a town on the map.

The Corn Palace was built in 1892 to showcase the corn crop and help attract people to move to the area, says Mark Schilling, the attraction’s director. In 1905, when the town was in the running for the capital of South Dakota, a new palace was built and in 1921, a third.

“Each time, it got larger with more amenities,” Schilling says. “People started coming from all around to trade crops and for the annual celebration.”

Today, the Corn Palace attracts road trippers from all over the country, who stop to see the 12 murals made completely of corn. The murals, which use a dozen natural colors of corn, are changed every year, based on a theme decided upon by a committee and the artistry of several different corn artists.

The 45,000-square-foot Corn Palace draws approximately 500,000 visitors each year to the town of 15,000 and generates $4 million to $5 million in revenue for the city. Schilling says that about 300,000 come specifically to the Corn Palace and about 200,000 come for the annual festival.

The facility also houses an arena that can seat up to 3,200 people. The arena hosts wedding receptions and other events, including sports such as basketball, volleyball, bull riding and wrestling competitions. “It’s been referred to as the Boston Garden of the Midwest, one of the top 10 facilities for high school basketball in the region,” Schilling says.

Doug Kirby, publisher of Roadside America, a site that lists unusual tourist attractions, says The Corn Palace is a good example of a quirky destination that has what it takes to make it in the long run, including an attraction unusual enough to get people off of the road, an annual festival that draws returning visitors and the use of regional marketing opportunities such as publications and billboards.

“I’ve been to the Corn Palace, and this is something that will draw people from hundreds of miles to stop,” Kirby says. “But a town also has to look if it will work for return visitors by adding sub-attractions.”

Kirby says towns can also use an event, such as the Roswell controversy, but the attraction doesn’t necessarily have to be based in fact or a legend. He cites the example of Riverside, Iowa, a town that’s claimed as the “future birthplace of James T. Kirk,” the fictional captain from the Star Trek series.

“Kirk said he was born in Iowa, so they decided to claim it as his future birthplace and they now have a future birthday celebration for him in the town, which draws throngs of ‘Trekkies,’” Kirby says.

Towns can also use sites reportedly haunted or cursed to draw in visitors. The small town of Villisca, Iowa, is a popular stop for ghost hunters, thanks to its claim to one of the most haunted houses in America – a home where two adults and six children were axed to death in 1912.

Other attractions, such as unique museums, can also be a big draw. The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Mo., has a creepy past – being housed in what was once The State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 – and is rumored to be haunted.

The museum may be second to the town’s other tourist draw, the home where Jesse James, the famed 19th century bank robber, met his fate, but still draws approximately 20,000 visitors per year.

Steve Foutes, with the Missouri Department of Tourism, says museum officials market it in AAA publications and regional visitor’s guides and do what they can to ensure they are mentioned in regional travel publications and books.

“There is quite a range of unique attractions,” Kirby says. “I don’t know of any attractions that have saved a town from obscurity, but I know of a lot that have quite literally put a town on the map.”

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