Antique Corn Collectibles at The Barns

Iowa farmer builds museum of corn collectibles.

Cyclone corn crusher

JR Pearson's Marselles Cyclone Sheller was built about 114 years ago.

Photo by Loretta Sorensen

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In the heart of America’s corn country — Marcus, Iowa — JR Pearson is amassing a collection of vintage horse-drawn and rare corn equipment at his museum known as The Barns.

JR, who raised corn on his own farm for more than 40 years, has collected and restored several John Deere corn shellers, a J.S. Bloom corn crusher, McCormick-Deering corn binder, Superior Hay Stacker Co. corn harvester and much, much more.

“It wasn’t something I set out to do,” JR says. “These are pieces I came across either at auctions or found through Internet searches. Sometimes people have a piece of equipment that’s rare but they don’t have any use for it. If they know about the museum and want to see it be preserved, they often donate it.”

Creating a home for corn collectibles

One of the donated pieces JR recently added to his collection is a John Deere 4-hole corn sheller that Alan Sorensen and his father, Walter, used on their Yankton, South Dakota, farm for at least 10 years. The Sorensens paid $60 for the sheller at an auction and used it to shell corn for their horses. When the sheller broke down, the Sorensens were unsure how to repair it and parked it behind their machine shed.

“The sheller is a perfect addition to the models I already have in the museum,” JR says. “This one was probably made in the early 1900s and is a good representation of shellers from that period.”

The first thing JR did when he brought the sheller home was to determine what it would take to repair it. “I started at the top of the machine and went through it all,” JR says. “I put in all new chain guides and a new auger. The metal covering on the bottom was rotted out so I replaced all that. Then I sandblasted it and applied three coats of paint.”

Another sheller that will soon graduate from JR’s paint shop came from a large collection of old equipment at Armour, South Dakota. “The first time I saw all the equipment lined up in that field, I had no idea what I might find,” JR says. “This sheller is a John Deere No. 3, which isn’t easy to find. The sheller was a complete basket case when I brought it home. It looked like it had melted down over the years, so much of it was rotted away.”

All of the sheller’s metal pieces were intact, making it possible for JR to rebuild and paint it. “I’ll paint the John Deere No. 3 yet,” he says. “This one will be red because all John Deere shellers were red until after the first World War. McCormick-Deering shellers were painted green until after 1925. The only thing I really need for this sheller now is a flywheel that’s missing. I don’t intend to use it, but putting the flywheel in place would make the restoration complete.”

The rise of the corn sheller

According to C. H. Wendel’s Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements & Antiques, corn shellers were virtually unknown prior to 1850. Until the first commercial corn shellers were perfected, corn was shelled by hand. Augustus Adams, Sandwich, Illinois, launched the corn sheller industry by perfecting the original spring sheller in the 1850s. During that era, cylinder sheller designs were also improved.

By about 1900, Deere & Co., Moline, Illinois, had entered the market, selling its No. 2 Deere & Mansur sheller. Marseilles Mfg. Co., Marseilles, Illinois, founded in 1859, was also active in the early sheller market and by 1908 was one of Deere’s major suppliers. In 1911, Deere acquired enough Marseilles stock to take over that company.

The Marseilles Cyclone self-feed corn sheller was first sold in 1887. The 2-hole spring sheller was offered with several options, including a cob stacker and a shelled corn elevator. Special gearing for use with a horse power was also available. Using the horse power, the unit was said capable of shelling 200 to 300 bushels of corn per day.

JR’s Marseilles Cyclone 4-hole sheller is more than 100 years old. An estate sale find, it had been stored inside its entire life. “The wood is in really good condition,” he says, “and the original paint and markings are also in very good condition.”

In its day, JR’s Marseilles sheller was powered by horse powers, treadmills or stationary gas engines. It has a cob stacker, corn elevator, steel wheels and steel horse power. It has a capacity of 400 to 600 bushels of corn per day.

It is unusual to find wooden pieces of that era in good condition. “It has a good home now,” JR says. “It won’t rot away.”

JR’s collection also includes a 2-hole, hand-crank John Deere corn sheller that he restored and a 1-hole International Harvester sheller in original condition. “Most corn shellers have very similar operating principles,” he says. “The biggest difference between them is capacity and slight variations in design from one model to the next.”

His Appleton corn slicer, which is in very good original condition, was built by Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia, Illinois. “It was first offered in Appleton’s catalog in 1917,” he says. “A pair of 6-inch knives attached to heavy cast arms slice corn ears as they pass through. Corn slicers weren’t used very long because corn grinders came into use shortly after slicers were first introduced.”

Corn crusher for feed

One of the most unusual pieces in JR’s corn equipment collection is a corn crusher manufactured prior to 1915 in Independence, Iowa, by J.S. Bloom. Used to make livestock feed more palatable, crushers processed 100 to 250 bushels of corn per hour.

JR bought the crusher from a nearby family who live on a Century Farm and found the crusher in one of their sheds. “Because it was always stored inside, there’s very little damage to it,” he says. “The legs had some deterioration just from sitting so long.”

The crusher was purchased new between 1910 and 1913. “It was used some but not a lot,” JR says. “There’s some pinstriping and lettering on it yet. Because there’s so much wood in the corn crusher, many of these didn’t survive over the years.”

Binders and harvesters

JR’s McCormick-Deering corn binder, which dates to about 1920, was in perfect condition when he found it in central Minnesota. Shortly before he brought it to the museum, the previous owners used it in a demonstration.

McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. began offering a push-type harvester in about 1890, but it proved unsuccessful. The company’s “self-binding corn harvester,” later known as a corn binder, was offered until at least 1953. Unique among the competition, it cut standing corn, laid it down for binding and discharged the bundle.

“The driver could accumulate five or six bundles in the chute so they could be set up to dry right out of the binder,” JR says. “Once they dried, shocks were picked up and run through a chopper for feed.”

At first look, JR’s Automatic corn harvester (built in 1915 by Superior Hay Stacker Co., Linneus, Missouri) appears to be little more than a pile of twisted steel. However, the unit cut stalks and held them in an upright position for shocking or loading. The harvester was sold through Parlin & Orendorff Plow Co. and Rock Island Implement Co. branch houses in Missouri and Oklahoma.

JR found the unit on a Missouri farm. He was told the original owner had used the harvester for only four years. “This harvester design didn’t go over well in its day because the mechanism was too elaborate for the gears that ran it,” JR says. “Castings weren’t as good back then as they are now, either. The company only made the machines for four years so there aren’t too many of them around.”

Husker-shredder, and more

A Rosenthal husker-shredder rounds out JR’s corn equipment collection. Rosenthal Corn Husker Co., Milwaukee, pioneered development of the husker in 1896. By 1908, the company’s husker-shredder design was upgraded from the original machine. Sold as the “Special Four,” the unit was often used to blow silage and other shredded fodder into barn lofts.

“My Rosenthal is from the 1920 era,” JR says. “It was in pretty good condition when I found it. It had been shedded, and since it was metal there wasn’t a lot of deterioration. Some of the original paint and lettering can still be seen on the machine.”

JR’s collection also includes corn-related items such as planters, driers and grain graders. His growing collection occupies four buildings on the southeast side of Marcus — and he enjoys showing visitors through the display. FC

For more information:

— JR Pearson, 5506 B Ave., Marcus, IA 51035; phone (712) 229-4809; email: pearson41@evertek.net. Museum tours by appointment only.

— Taking a corn tour? Check out Steve Kenkel’s Hybrid Corn Collectors Museum, located about two hours south of Marcus in Shelby County, Iowa. By appointment only: (712) 579-1320; nskenkel@fmctc.com.


Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at sorensenlms@gmail.com.