Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Hard to say. But it's a safe bet the small hand-cranked corn sheller came next. In the 1800s, chickens were a vital part of the family farm mix, producing meat and eggs for the family's consumption as well as market commodities. And it all started with shelled corn.
"You'd shell daily for chickens," says Jim Moffet, Modesto, Ill. "Hogs will eat it off the cob, but we'd shell for chickens, and we used to grind ear corn for dairy cows. We also ground corn with supplement for beef cattle."
And then corn also played an important role in the kitchen, becoming the basis for countless hearty meals and side dishes. This corn pudding recipe is just one example: Phyllis Moffet's Corn Pudding.
Jim and his wife, Phyllis, have spent decades building an immense, museum-quality collection of corn collectibles and countless other farm relics. The small hand-cranked shellers in their collection cover a span of more than 100 years. Pieces they've gathered range from primitive handmade pieces to fairly sophisticated mechanical devices produced in factories. A selection of 10 types and styles:
Peck corn sheller: With a patent dating to 1824, this sheller is the granddaddy of the Moffet collection. The massive, rare piece features a flywheel with shelling ribs and a bat-like device studded with spikes that rotates the ear of corn. "It was way, way ahead for its era," Jim marvels. Patent 3844X was issued April 9, 1824, to Lemuel Peck, Brookfield, Ct.
Rufus Porter corn sheller: Unique in both its artistic appearance and its use (the Porter sheller was designed to be attached to a permanent post), this sheller was the product of a prolific inventor. Porter has been tagged as the first man in the world to plan and try out the possibilities of a power-driven passenger plane. He invented countless devices (many of which he patented), including a portable horse power, clock, floating dry dock, self-adjusting cheese press, churn, corn sheller and revolving rifle he sold to Col. Samuel Colt. He also worked as a sailor, dance instructor, portrait painter, musician and editor. Patent no. 912 was issued to Porter Sept. 12, 1838, when he lived in Billerica, Mass.
Dickinson corn sheller: Pocket-sized it wasn't: Measuring 42 by 47 inches, the wooden structure housing this sheller was big. Still, the cumbersome, fragile frame (yet light enough for one person to move easily) housed an efficient device. Patent no. 10,003 was issued to Porter Dickinson, Amherst, Mass., Sept. 6, 1853.
The Little Giant corn sheller: "I call this the world's fastest corn sheller," Jim says. "If you were a farmer in the 1870s and saw this demonstrated, you'd have said, 'That's the one for me.''' Featuring spring-loaded shelling bars, the device strips kernels from the ear with just one sweep of the handle, and separates shelled corn from the cob. Patent no. 109,315 was issued to Jonathan R. Hamilton M.D., Kingston, Minn., Nov. 15, 1870. The 1860s were a golden era for the small sheller. "There was really a huge number of shellers invented and built then," Jim says. The Little Giant was manufactured by Clarke & Utter, Rockford, Ill. Jim considers the piece, which is in original condition, to be very rare.
Lewis box corn sheller: Although most box shellers featured a sheller wheel, this model has spring-loaded jaws that helped separate shelled corn from the cob. A slide-in trough routed the kernels while cobs dropped out of the sheller through a tube. Patent no. 178,536 was issued June 13, 1876, to J.E. Lewis, Worcester, Mass. Jim's advice to the novice collector: "Get a good sheller that's complete. You don't want to be looking for parts."
Hawley spring-jaw corn sheller: This spring-jaw sheller features two handles. An ear of corn, held in the left hand, was inserted (small end first) in the shelling jaw on the left side. The operator used his right hand to turn the right crank handle. When about half of the kernels were removed, the operator grabbed the bare cob with his right hand and then began turning the left crank handle with his left hand, pulling the ear through with his right hand, and ultimately removing every last kernel. "It was probably set up in a barn or near the chicken house," Jim says. Patent no. 187,850 was issued to James M. Hawley, Odin, Ill., Feb. 27, 1877.
Father and son corn sheller: The apparent product of a cottage industry or small factory in the 1800s, this handmade sheller has shown up in several collections. Assembled with mortise-and-tenon construction, the paddleboard-style shelling bench employs round pegs to rip kernels from the ear. It's most commonly seen in two sizes: One that appears to be designed for an adult, and a smaller one that could be used by a child. The piece lacks the mechanical sophistication of other shellers of the era but was likely offered as an affordable alternative.
Shaker-style corn sheller: Although no known documentation traces this piece (and others like it) to the Shakers, it is commonly referred to as a Shaker sheller, possibly because of the style and quality of woodcraft. The working parts were likely manufactured as a component that could be mounted on an easel or fence rail. A wooden hinge pin with a spring-ear was sandwiched between two shelling boards, one moving and one stationary. "It was undoubtedly mass-produced because a lot of these survived," Jim says. "It was probably inexpensive and even kids could use it." Shelled corn landed on the floor and was swept up. "Nobody had a tarpaulin in those days," Jim notes. The piece dates to 1850-70; there is no known patent.
Humphrey Cyclone box corn sheller: A conventional box sheller in every other regard, this Humphrey Cyclone corn sheller (stamped with 'Joliet Ill.') rotates the stripped cob back to the operator. No patent has been found for this piece, which is likely a product of the Humphrey & Soets Co. That company operated out of Joliet, Ill., in the early 1900s.
Combination tool: Did anyone ever get rich selling combination tools? Probably not, but hope springs eternal. Dating to 1926, this model shows its farm roots with a hinged corn sheller feature. Patent no. D70,218 was issued to Henry S. Gilbert, Chambersburg, Pa., May 25, 1926. FC
For more information: e-mail Jim and Phyllis Moffet at firstname.lastname@example.org