From the Crib to the Kitchen: Using Hand Crank Corn Shellers

Before the production and popularization of portable gas engines and other small, fuel-powered machines, the farmer (and the farm wife) often depended on human power, as demonstrated by the hand crank antique corn shellers in Rowe Garmon's collection.

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Restored box corn shellers in Rowe Garmon’s collection.

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You never know what you'll stumble onto at a county fair. At last summer's Hardin County Fair in Kenton, Ohio, a display of antique corn shellers spurred the imagination of writer Jim Boblenz as he considered the labor once needed to convert an ear of corn into a kitchen staple. 

The Hardin County Fair provides a prime area for the county's two antique tractor clubs to show their equipment. Between the two clubs, nearly 100 antique and classic tractors were displayed, plus about 35 garden tractors and farm implements.

Rowe Garmon of the Hardin County Restorers and Collectors brought a trailer load of hand-crank antique corn shellers. A rebuilt quad-snowmobile trailer, covered with a vinyl shelter, is loaded with stand-alone and box shellers. Each piece is identified and a bit of history is provided. Instead of just walking by, folks stop to take a look.

When the pilgrims came to this country in 1620, Native Americans introduced them to maize (or corn). For more than 200 years, those pilgrims grew, harvested and used corn in much the same way they were taught by the Native Americans. Women learned many ways to use corn: fresh from the garden, parched corn and hominy, dried corn for winter storage, and corn milled into meal. All work was done by hand, even shelling.

Shelling one ear at a time

Most small corn shellers used in the home were hand-crank, hand-fed units that shelled one ear at a time. These were essentially upright, freestanding machines with a hand crank on one side mounted on an axle shaft. On the other side was a rather large flywheel that maintained momentum as corn was fed through the sheller.

Inside the box, on the axle, was a large wheel with many protrusions called a picker wheel. On the opposite side was a flat rubbing side with grooves to remove kernels from the cob. When an ear of corn was fed into the sheller, it was immediately caught up with the picker wheel and moved downward, being turned and rubbed as it passed through. Shelled corn dropped out the bottom and the cob was spit out through an opening at the opposite end from where it was originally fed in. Some units had a small cleaning fan to blow the cob dust from the shelled corn.

Looking at Rowe's array of shellers made me consider what a monumental task it was for our ancestors to get corn from the cob to the kitchen. It was darned hard work.

To get corn from the crib, the farm wife - or her children - probably used a peck or bushel basket to gather sufficient, good-size ears from the crib. She then put a sturdy pail or tub under the machine to catch the shelled corn. With a fierce turn of the crank she fed ears, one at a time, in one end of the sheller. If she fed it too fast, cobs would jam inside. Then she'd have to stop cranking and make sure the picking wheel stopped before she started to clean out the jam. If she got in a hurry, she would rue her haste. The picker wheel's teeth were designed to shell corn, but they will also clean flesh off a hand.

Box sheller added convenience

Most freestanding one-hole shellers weighed about 125 pounds. When grinding a small amount of corn, a little box sheller could save a trip to the granary where the bigger unit was stored. A box sheller works on the same principle as the larger shellers, but it is small enough to handle easily.

Mounted to the side of a heavy wooden box, this simple machine has only about six parts: the frame, axle shaft, sheller wheel, spring, tension ring and crank. It's hand-cranked and hand-fed, one ear at a time. Kernels drop into the box and cobs are ejected from the side.

After the farm wife had enough corn to grind for cornmeal, she would winnow the chaff from the grain. Often she'd take the container of shelled corn outside, where a brisk breeze would blow away the light material as she poured kernels from one container to another. When she was satisfied the grain was clean, she took her container to a bench-mounted, hand-crank grist mill. These mills were suitable for grinding cornmeal, hominy, split peas and other small grains. Most used interchangeable grinding plates. They were especially useful for milling a small amount of cornmeal for family use.

Nothing tastes better than freshly baked corn bread made from freshly ground cornmeal. Many times the farm wife would serve it warm in a bowl with sugar sprinkled on top and topped with milk. She also made corn muffins that were delicious eaten cold.

Selecting and shelling seed corn

The farm wife wasn't the only one cranking a sheller. Farmers used corn shellers to generate feed for livestock and to clean corn for next year's crop. This was long before hybrid seed corn was readily available. That meant sorting the biggest and best ears the farmer could find at harvest. He would stick the butt end of the ear on a special drying rack to "cure" over winter. Come spring, he would begin again to sort the best ears from the many drying racks he had separated the previous fall.

First he removed kernels from the butt and tip end of each ear. He kept those grains ("rounds") separate from the rest of the kernels. Rounds were of lesser quality than "flats." Moreover, they would not feed as well through planter plates.

Sheller manufacturers made at least two different kinds of "butters and tippers" or "nubbers." Some were simply tapered devices attached to a board or post. Each end of an ear of corn was pushed into the device and twisted until the grain was stripped from the cob. Other manufacturers, especially box sheller manufacturers, produced a tapered gizmo to attach directly to the axle shaft. With that device, the farmer simply turned the hand crank on one side of the sheller to feed each end of the ear into the nubber until only good quality flat kernels remained.

After nubbing enough ears to obtain adequate seed for the new crop, the farmer began shelling, using the upright corn sheller in the granary. Flats and rounds were bagged separately. If he had miscalculated the amount of seed needed for a field, he would use the rounds to finish. And he could always use the rounds to replant flooded or washed-out spots using a hand jobber or planter. FC 

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at jboblenz@aol.com