I am a city dweller who, like many others, grew up on one of the thousands of small farms that once dotted the countryside. Over the years, country roots were forgotten as we embraced an urban lifestyle. Today, many of us frequently drive by the remaining farms and fields, oblivious to them in the air-conditioned solitude of our vans and SUVs. A recent open-window drive past a cornfield undergoing harvest ended that oblivion for this farm boy of the 1960s. The smell of newly harvested corn triggered memories long forgotten.
The 1960s were the best years for a boy to be part of the corn harvest. Long days of picking corn by hand were distant memories for fathers and grandfathers. The giant corn-harvesting combines of the future, capable of swallowing and digesting 12 rows of corn simultaneously, had yet to be invented. The harvester of choice was the 2-row, tractor-mounted picker and in the 1960s it was at its zenith.
Every major farm equipment manufacturer and several short-line companies designed and sold mounted pickers. On our farm a New Idea No. 20 corn picker mounted on our Farmall M (later a Model No. 307 mounted on a Farmall 400) harvested thousands of bushels every fall. Regardless of design and manufacturer, a corn picker demanded maturity, competence and respect from an operator. Another step on the journey to manhood was achieved when a boy was given the responsibility to operate one.
Such opportunities usually came for me on Saturdays. Dad captained the harvest through the week. On Saturday the first mate manned the helm. A typical harvest Saturday began before sunrise. Livestock were tended to first, then people and finally the equipment.
Proper equipment servicing was vitally important to prevent a breakdown. Every rotating bearing or shaft on the New Idea corn picker was thoroughly greased before heading for the field. The grease had a sweet smell and the appearance of blackberry jelly. According to Dad, a bearing or shaft was not properly lubricated until the grease oozed out like jelly between two slices of breakfast toast. The grease job was followed by filling the tractor's gas tank and checking air pressure on all tractor and wagon tires. Once all preparations were completed, it was time to head to the field.
Driving down gravel roads at 15 mph was still fast enough to leave a cloud of limestone dust in our wake. The constant dust clung to every vehicle traveling the white rock roads and easily invaded even the tightest Fisher bodies. Dew hung heavily from partially opened cattails and all manner of dormant ditch weeds and grasses. Occasionally a pheasant called from its hiding place in the fence line. Its call sounded like two quick passes of fingernails on a rusty bucket. If it felt threatened, it would take flight, rising almost vertically and then crossing the road in a blur, just as a helicopter rises from behind a tree line and disappears in a blur of rotating blades.
After arriving at the field, I turned in at the open gate and paused to gaze upon rows of cornstalks that would soon collapse under the relentless friction of metal snapping rolls. The pause lasted only long enough to engage the PTO for the corn picker and shift the tractor into a field gear. With a pull of the throttle and release of the foot clutch, boy and machine plunged headlong into a sea of standing stalks.
Through a normal growing season, cornstalks grew arrow straight and remained so until mechanical harvesting severed grain from stalk. Occasionally harvest hopes were dashed as insects, disease or wind pummeled the field, leaving stalks bent to the ground. Whether straight and true or bent and askew, each stalk bore fruit … fruit in the form of one or two ears, each ear harboring hundreds of valuable kernels nestled within protective husks. Each kernel was food for livestock or future cash in storage; every kernel mattered.
Driving a corn picker through a field of standing corn can be compared to nothing else. All senses must be on heightened alert to react to the first indication of trouble, such as a clogging husking bed or weeds wrapping around the snapping roles.
This was no time to sit down on the job. Dad and I always stood to get a better view. Standing also meant the steady rhythm of the machinery passed through shoes and two pairs of heavy socks. Any change in rhythm meant a problem might be developing.
It was also important to listen for unusual noises such as a growling jump-clutch, or the dreaded high-pitched whine of a failing bearing, often a portent of a lengthy repair. Visual acuity was the best sensor. Constant rubbernecking ensured the crop entered and exited the machine as the manufacturer intended. Operator and machine worked in harmony throughout the day as golden yellow ears filled wagon after wagon.
The autumn sun was low on the southwest horizon when the day's final bounty was pulled home behind the picker. A weary boy and the machine left another trail of gravel dust. A final tug on the hitch-pin rope freed the wagon from trailing bondage. One last shift into a forward gear and the picker was soon safely sheltered in the machine shed. Sunday was a day of rest on our farm: Another week would pass before I'd have an opportunity to drive the great machine.
Almost four decades have passed since those sensory-rich, open-air harvest days were part of my life. That chance encounter with the fragrance of harvested corn released a wealth of memories. Although memories of helping with the corn harvest were the most vivid, the most poignant was an event that happened before I was old enough to actually help.
I happened to be in the field one autumn afternoon when Dad finished the harvest. The last ears of corn had not yet been in the wagon five minutes when he motioned for me to kneel down beside him among the broken cornstalks. "Do you know the Common Doxology?" he asked. I'd heard that term in church but didn't associate it with the words and music I'd already sung so many times in my young life. But I knew instantly what we were doing when Dad started to sing, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow …" FC
Read more about the New Idea corn picker.
Dale Jensen grew up on a small grain and livestock farm in central Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. Retired from the U.S. Air Force, he now lives and works in Springfield, Ill. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org