Showcasing American Agriculture: The History of Corn in America

The Corn Items Collectors Association takes a broad look at America's agricultural heritage through this unique hobby.

Jim and Barbara Sorrell

Jim and Barbara Sorrell, Sparta, Tenn., with their collection of corn shellers.

Photo by Leslie C. McManus

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Want to see the big picture of America’s agricultural heritage? Drop in on a meeting of the Corn Items Collectors Assn. Members of that group share a passion for literally everything related to corn.

At a recent CIC meeting held in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (the group’s meetings are held all over the Midwest), displays ranged from scale model toys to handmade husking hooks, early hand-cranked shellers to shock tiers, husking contests to sweet corn cutters. Some of the pieces dated to the American Civil War; all told eloquent stories of the past.

Hitting the road with cornhusking hooks

An avid contestant in contemporary cornhusking contests, Richard Humes, Little York, Illinois, has a particular interest in collectibles related to husking contests of yesteryear. At the Mt. Pleasant show, he displayed an original salesman’s case packed with 33 husking hooks and pegs produced by R.F. Clark Mfg., Chicago.

The case, which dates to about 1911, looks to be made of leather. In fact, it is made of a heavy cardboard, a material commonly used in inexpensive luggage decades ago, stained to look like leather and trimmed with metal buckles and hinges. “That’s what makes it so neat,” Richard says. “It’s the only salesman’s case I’ve ever seen.”

Boss and Key were the leading manufacturers of hooks and pegs, he says. A smaller competitor, Clark was a glove manufacturer that must have sensed the possibility in a related market. Volume business was the key. “Hooks and pegs didn’t sell for much,” Richard says. “Hooks for maybe 25 cents, pegs for about 8 cents. You would have bought them at the general store.”

Rare Hawley sheller

Roger Sullens showed his pride and a joy, a cast iron corn sheller patented in 1879 by Illinois minister James Hawley. Roger, who lives in Salem, Illinois, spent years searching for a Hawley sheller. His motivation? Geography. “James Hawley lived in Odin, Illinois, just 5 miles from our home,” Roger explains. “We had heard about his corn sheller patent for years but nobody had ever seen one of them.”

Then, while reading a magazine’s mystery tool section, he saw a photo of a Hawley sheller. A North Carolina man had one but couldn’t identify it. “He’d bought it at a yard sale,” Roger says. “He had no idea what it was.” Three months later, the sheller was in Roger’s collection. Since then he’s only seen one other Hawley sheller like his. The piece remains a bit of a mystery. “No one around here remembers a casting facility near Odin,” he says. “I don’t know where it was made.”

Husking and planting corn by hand

Bill James, Forest, Ohio, displayed a very nice set of corn tools: hand-held shellers, shock tiers and binders, husking pegs and hooks. The tiers are his favorite item in the category; he concentrates mostly on those made of steel. “I have 50 different brands,” he says.

In his youth, Bill worked on a farm. Later, he attended a state cornhusking contest, “and I met the nicest people,” he says. Today his collection includes tiers like those his granddad used. “A lot of them are just completely worn out,” he says. “You know, if a strap broke on a peg or a hook, they didn’t throw it away. In those days, what you made was what you had to work with.”

A corn jobber dating to about 1865 recalls an era when every kernel of corn was basically planted by hand. Using a jobber, the farmer walked the row, stabbed the device into the ground. Kernels were released into the ground, the jobber was lifted to stab a new hole and the farmer scuffed dirt over the hole with his foot as he advanced across the field. “When I was a kid,” Bill says, “farmers would use an old jobber like this to fill in a place the planter missed.”

Dealer premiums

For years, Fred Pickett hauled seed corn for Cargill all over Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Today he manages an entire fleet of semis: immaculate 1/32- and 1/64-scale semi trailer trucks once used as seed corn dealer premiums.

When he became interested in seed corn collectibles, Fred said he knew he’d have to find his own niche in the hobby. “A lot of these people have been collecting for a long time,” he says. “I knew we couldn’t get the same stuff they have.” Instead, he focused on patches, buckles and trucks.

In the past, he’d find scale model semi trailer trucks on online auction sites, at antique malls and flea markets. But the supply is drying up. “You really don’t find these anymore,” he says. The trucks date to the 1980s; his favorites are Ertl products (“they’re heavier,” he says). Several he found in original packaging. “That didn’t mean anything to me,” he says, “because there’s no picture on the box.”

Museum-quality relics

Jim Moffet, Modesto, Illinois, displayed very fine pieces from the collection he and his wife, Phyllis, have spent a lifetime building. Among them: a half-dozen museum-quality corn shellers, including one dating to 1824. But he also showed a wonderful variety of rarely seen farm relics – some related to corn, others not.

A carefully hand-made seat with a blade at the front made a simple, portable and easily stored sheller. The user sat on the seat and basically scrubbed an ear against the blade at the front of the seat. The primitive piece is a remnant of a time when the pace of life was slower. “Just put granddad on it,” Jim says. “Granddad didn’t have anything else to do.”

His EZ Way potato-picking belt dates to about 1928. A belt outfitted with leg brace held a burlap bag between the picker’s legs, allowing maximum efficiency as he moved across the field, gathering potatoes as he advanced. A pair of vicious-looking hooks on the back of the belt held a day’s supply of bags. As each bag was filled, it was replaced by an empty bag. The full bag was left behind on the ground, for later retrieval by a wagon.

Preserved for the next generation

Lyle Krug, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, demonstrated a trio of sweet corn cutters. Each of the ungainly looking devices made very quick work of separating kernels from ears. He also has a mechanized kraut cutter with eight blades and two wheels. “It’ll shred a head of cabbage in less than a minute,” he says.

“It’s fun to own something that everybody is interested in,” he said, acknowledging a crowd of onlookers at his demonstration. “But it’s more fun to do things like this. I’ve taken things like this to nursing homes and care facilities, but when you take them and give a demonstration, it’s twice as much fun.

“I’m fortunate to have some of these pieces,” he added. “But I don’t really own any of this stuff. I’m just a caretaker. I’m trying to keep it intact until I can pass it on to somebody else who’ll take care of it for future generations.” FC

Members in the Corn Items Collectors Assn. (founded 1981 as the International Corn Husking Hooks and Pegs Collectors Assn.) receive a quarterly newsletter (The Bang Board), a detailed listing in the group’s membership directory, information on upcoming events and a free ad in The Bang Board’s classified advertising section. One-year memberships are available for $25. For more information, visit Corn Items Collectors Association or contact Robert S. Chamberlain, 9288 Poland Rd., Warrensburg, IL 62573.


Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector Magazine. Contact her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.