The large Quonset hut serves as simple storage now, but Randy Cook remembers when things were different. 'When I was a kid, my grandma and grandpa lived in the house next to the shop. I'd go visit them and go out to the shop and, well, just basically raise hell out there,' he says. He would run in and out of a heat known only to those who've worked in a machine/welding shop. He would listen in on the bull sessions of the workers and just soak up the atmosphere.
When it wasn't a playground for children, though, the shop served as the birthplace of Cook Corn Shellers -a line of corn shellers which were produced in Washington, Ill., for nearly 50 years.
Randy's grandfather, Amer Cook, was the founder of Cook Machine Company, which produced the shellers. He began building them in 1939, but refused to use assembly line techniques to speed up the process. Amer felt that assembly lines let too many errors creep into the work and wanted to be able to customize each corn sheller to the needs of its buyer. His dedication to getting it just right meant that each corn sheller was built by hand - no two were ever built alike, the workers would say.
None of the Cook machines ever looked like any other corn sheller, either. Yes, the parts might have been the same, but Cook corn shellers towered over their competition. They were the biggest corn shellers ever produced, according to Amer's grandson, Don Cook, who once told a reporter that no other corn sheller was 'even half as big' as a Cook.
Amer made them big for the industrial customer. As Randy tells it, 'The corn shelling business used to be a mobile business. Since the mid-1970s, farmers started getting their own corn shellers or using combines.' It was toward the end of the 1960s when the agricultural industry leaders quit making corn shellers, switching to combines - which could pick the corn, shell it and then dump it into a truck itself. The corn shellers required a separate picker.
The Cooks should be forgiven for missing the market trend. How could they have known that the business was fading when they were so busy? Orders for the shellers often ran over a year behind and, as itinerant corn shellers themselves, their talents were in high demand during the corn harvest season. Randy remembers his uncle Marvin (who took over after Amer's death in 1965) working constantly. 'There was one place close to where I live,' Randy recalls, 'where he would run (a sheller) 24 hours a day for a week.'
Considering the size of the Cook machines, you would have to speculate that many tons of corn would have gone through the sheller in that week. The Cooks produced three basic models, the largest of which could shell 2,000 bushels an hour. It was powered by a 170 hp diesel engine and weighed over 8,500 pounds, measuring 30 feet in length and 13 feet high.