National Cornhusking Contest Keeps Traditions Alive

120 cornhuskers gather in Marshall, Mo., for the annual National Cornhusking Contest

Cornhusking

Wagons, teams and competitors stand ready for the next round of husking competition.

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It’s a mild morning in October 2012 as a shotgun blast signals the start of the next round of competition at the National Cornhusking Contest. More than 120 competitors from 12 states have gathered at a cornfield on the outskirts of Marshall, Mo., to celebrate an event that traces its origins to 1924.

This is the big show, the culmination of nine state cornhusking competitions, with state champions coming from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota, along with competitors from Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. Today’s event won’t draw the tens of thousands of spectators who once attended cornhusking contests that Time magazine in 1936 proclaimed “... the fastest growing sporting spectacle in the world.” Still, a crowd of several hundred has gathered here in central Missouri to watch the nation’s top huskers in action.

Great family event

“We expect a great show today,” says Emma Johnson, treasurer of the National Cornhusking Assn. and the go-to person for today’s event. “The corn is in very good, uniform condition throughout the field and we have a great field of competitors. Last time we held the nationals here in Missouri in 2005, we picked in about 2 inches of rain. Today the weather couldn’t be better.”

Today’s competition will be divided into 12 classes for men and women, beginning with girls and boys age 14 and younger, and going up to classes for men and women age 75 and older. Youngsters and seniors pick for 10 minutes; the Men’s Open Class lasts for 30 minutes. All other competitors pick for 20 minutes. A gleaner follows each competitor to retrieve missed ears and husks; their weight is deducted from the husker’s total.

Twelve teams of horses and mules, resplendent in brightly polished harness, are hitched to wagons equipped with bangboards to catch the thrown ears as they sail through the air. While some states use tractor-drawn wagons in their husking competitions, Missouri, Kansas and South Dakota still feature horse-drawn wagons, adding to the authenticity of this time-honored event.

Emma is not only in charge of registering each competitor but will also compete in the Women’s Open Class. She is an old hand in cornhusking contests. “This is my third year helping run the national event,” she explains. “But I started competing when I was 8 and I turned 36 this year, so I’ve been competing for more than 25 years.

“It’s a great family event, with grandfathers, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters all competing,” says Emma, whose father and brother are among today’s participants. “We all go out in the field as competitors, but as soon as we’re finished, you’ll see us hugging old friends. We’re very respectful of one another.”

“Pick clean and fast”

Among the sport’s living legends is 91-year-old Joe Anholt, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Joe won the Green County, Iowa, husking contest in 1940, and competed in the next year’s event before the start of World War II ended cornhusking contests for more than three decades. When the first post-war national competition was held in 1975, Joe was there to capture second place. He retired from competition six or seven years ago, but Joe still enjoys meeting and greeting old rivals.

“Although my dad no longer competes, he really likes coming with me and talking to the other fellows,” says Joe’s son, Charles, a repeat Iowa state champion who will go on today to win the Senior Men’s 50-and-Up Class. “My dad taught me how to pick clean and fast, and every now and then a young fellow will ask him to come out to the field and show him how to pick.”

971 pounds in 30 minutes

Another veteran competitor, 85-year-old John Van Liere, Colton, S.D., recalls the days when all corn was harvested by hand. “When I was a kid, every fall we’d get excused from school for up to six weeks to help get the corn in,” he says.

“In 1938, when I was 12, my dad took me and my brother to the national contest in Dell Rapids, S.D. There must have been 100,000 people there, walking in the mud. My brother and I wanted to compete, but our dad said we’d have to wait until we were grown up. Of course, by then, World War II came along, and the contest stopped until Kansas renewed it in 1975.”

John entered his first husking contest in 1978, and has won multiple titles at both the state and national level. While his age qualifies him to enter the Senior Men’s 75-and-Over Class, today he’ll compete against younger contestants in the Senior Men’s 50-and-Up Class.

John, who practices before each competition on the farm he still owns, says he’s been timed picking as many as 56 and 58 ears a minute. “My all-time best was 971 pounds of corn in 30 minutes at the national finals in Kansas a few years ago,” he says. “The field had big ears that practically fell out of the husks. But two of my competitors picked over 1,000 pounds, so I only took third place that year.” Today, using a thumb hook, John will pick 316 pounds in 20 minutes with zero deductions, placing him second behind Iowa husker Charles Anholt’s adjusted score of 346.96.

“At one time, there were five companies that made cornhusking hooks, either thumb hooks, wrist hooks, palm hooks or pegs, as well as some unpatented hooks made by local blacksmiths,” explains Richard Humes, president of the Illinois Cornhuskers Assn. and national club historian from Little York, Ill. “Today, thumb hooks seem to be most popular, but some competitors use wrist or palm hooks, and a few still use pegs. And once in awhile, you’ll see someone pick barehanded.”

Look for the next ear

Frank Hennefent, regarded as the top competitor in the Men’s Open Class, says he prefers to use a Boss thumb hook that a friend acquired at an auction in Iowa some years ago.

A corn and soybean farmer from Smithshire, Ill., Frank has captured multiple state and national titles over the past 26 years, including winning the Men’s Open Class for four straight years. Today he’ll boost that record to five consecutive years with an adjusted score of 583 pounds in 30 minutes.

“I learned how to shuck corn in county contests back in 1983 with Bill Gillen and Bob St. George,” he says. “Back in the day, Bob could double his wages in a week, when he went from earning 1 cent a bushel to about 7 cents a bushel. Bob always told me it wasn’t the fastest husker who won, but the one who was most efficient. I just try to look ahead for the next ear, keep one eye open for any fallen ears and use my peripheral vision to make sure the wagon is in the right place.”

Book celebrates the past

Mitchell Burns, a retired school teacher and basketball coach from Brookfield, Mo., will also compete in today’s Men’s Open Class. He says he first heard about competitive cornhusking on the radio in 1988.

“My dad and I came down and we were watching a ‘golden ager’ contestant when he asked me if I was going to pick,” Mitchell explains. “I said, ‘Oh, no, we just came to watch.’ He took off his hook, tossed it over, and said, ‘You put that on and go enter the rookie class.’”

With that, Mitchell not only became a competitive husker, but also the author of The National, a book about the modern era of cornhusking contests. “In 1975, Leonard Jacobs wrote a book about the husking contests from 1924 to 1941 called Corn Huskers’ Battle of the Bangboards,” he explains. “I was teaching American history at the time I first got involved in the competition and I realized this was a part of America’s history. So I set out to write The National to cover the revival of the national cornhusking contest and profile contestants and contest results from 1970 to 1999.”

Preserving traditions

It’s not just experienced huskers who are on hand for today’s competition. In fact, the event includes four girls and five boys ages 14 and younger, and another five girls and six boys ages 15 to 20. Among them is Amy Bland, possibly the event’s first international competitor. An exchange student from Melbourne, Australia, Amy had never seen a cornfield, much less a husking contest, before joining her host family on a farm near Allen, Neb., last fall.

“I come from a city of 4 million, so living on a farm is very different,” she explains. “After I entered the Nebraska cornhusking contest, I told my parents and friends about it. Now my dad says he’s going to raise some corn in our backyard so I can teach him how to husk.”

“This is a great opportunity for young people to learn history,” Emma says. “For the last 10 years, we’ve been holding educational events for local schools on the Thursday before the contest begins. This year we had close to 700 kids come through here, not just to learn about cornhusking, but also to learn how to shell corn and use antique equipment to make apple cider and rope.” FC 

Check out these Videos from the Glory Days of Cornhusking Contests

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; email: gschleicher1@kc.rr.com. 

For more information:
• National Cornhusking Assn. (and links to state associations), online at Cornhusking.
• The 2012 Nebraska State Cornhusking Contest and National Cornhusking Contest will be held Oct. 20-21 at the Merrick County Fair Grounds, Central City, Neb. For more information, contact Central City Area Chamber of Commerce, 1532 17th Ave., Central City, NE 68826; phone (308) 946-3897.
• To purchase a copy of The National by Mitchell Burns, contact the author at 21397 Hwy. M, Brookfield, MO 64628; phone (660) 258-5503.
Corn Huskers’ Battle of the Bangboards by Leonard Jacobs is out of print.
When Farmers Were Heroes: The Era of National Corn Husking Contests, 27-minute DVD.