According to archaeologists, the domestication of corn (or maize) started in Mexico approximately 10,000 years ago. Selective breeding of corn by man, over thousands of years, has brought the development of an ear of corn from the wild teosinte plant to the large, compressed ears we have today.
For thousands of years, corn was harvested by removing the protective husks by hand, without the aid of any device to help in the labor-intensive process. To realize the magnitude of that labor, consider this. In 1880, 62 million acres were planted to corn in the U.S. Every stored ear of corn from those 62 million acres was harvested by hand.
Between 1880 and 1930, there was no significant difference in corn yield per acre. In 1900, 95 million acres of corn were planted in the U.S., yielding an average of 25 bushels per acre. (By contrast, in the year 2000, American farmers planted 79 million acres in corn, producing an average yield of 137 bushels per acre.) In 1917, 111 million acres in the U.S. were planted to corn, the largest number ever.
In the late 1930s, farmers were planting 12,000 kernels of corn per acre. If each stalk in a 10-acre field produced an ear of corn, it would result in the farmer husking 120,000 ears of corn from that field by hand. Again, try to imagine the time and labor involved! Mechanical corn pickers came into being in the 1920s, but thousands of acres were still harvested by hand until after World War II.
Literally countless devices
Many stories describe the days of husking corn by hand. Most of those stories, however, reveal that hand aids were used by most of the corn huskers. How and when did these hand aids first appear, and how did they evolve?
The book American Corn Huskers by Jim Moffet traces the patent history of hand-husking equipment used to remove the husk from the ear of corn. Jim’s research indicates that the first U.S. patent for a hand-husking device was granted in 1856. The device was described as a “husking thimble.” After that, the floodgates opened: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unpatented husking devices were produced.
But patents were awarded for many hand-husking devices. The hundreds of patents granted from 1856 to 1938 fall into five main classes (with a huge number of variations within each class): pegs, thumb hooks, palm hooks, wrist hooks and other aids (gloves, wristbands and protectors of the thumb and fingers). And each inventor suggested his device was the best aid that a farmer could use to accelerate the husking process and make it less labor-intensive.
Contests keep tradition alive
State and national cornhusking contests began in 1924 and continued until 1941, when the contests were suspended during World War II. The 1940 national contest was held in Iowa; 126,000 people came to watch 21 contestants from 11 states compete for the national championship.
In several state contests, four men picked more than 50 bushels of corn in 80 minutes. Weather and soil conditions varied greatly across the Midwest, affecting yields and thus the amount of corn that could be husked in a given period of time. The typical farmer felt satisfied if he could harvest 80-90 bushels per day by hand.
In 1980, the tradition of state and national cornhusking contests was revived, and the contests continue today. Today’s contestants use pegs, thumb hooks, wrist hooks and palm hooks. Only rarely does a contestant go it alone, without using any device.
In my experience attending husking contests, the thumb hook is the device of choice. Each of these devices has the same purpose: They are used to grab the ear and tear some of the husk away. Probably no two people would use the same device in exactly the same way, just as no two people swing a golf club in exactly the same way.
Good exercise for mind and body
Few understand exactly how hand-husking devices were used. Very little has been written about the actual use of a given device, and very few videos show precise technique. Photos on the preceding pages show in detail how a palm hook is used to separate an ear of corn from the husk and cornstalk and get it on its way to the wagon. A good picker can accomplish that series of actions in about 1-3/4 to 2 seconds. A national champion can go through the whole process of grabbing the ear and sending it on its way to the wagon in slightly over 1 second.
The actual practice of husking corn by hand, which has been done for hundreds of years, is seldom seen today. Despite that, the art of husking has been discovered by a new generation. State and national husking contests now include competitions for young people. Some of the entrants in the girls’ and boys’ age 10-14 and 15-20 classes are extremely proficient. They have developed their skills to the point that some are worthy opponents for many old-timers.
Corn husking is an excellent form of exercise, but it can be very tiring after an 8-hour day. There is something refreshing, however, about being alone in the cornfield with your team and wagon while listening to the continual thump of ears on the bangboard. It is gratifying to watch the bushels pile up in the wagon. Driving the team from the field to the corncrib gives the body time to rest. When you finally lift the last scoop from the wagon into the crib, you have a great feeling of accomplishment, fulfillment and peace.
Perhaps it is a stretch, but husking corn by hand, day after day, can be extremely therapeutic for the body, mind and soul. It would be a shame for the art and science of hand-cornhusking to yield completely to the giant mechanical corn pickers of today that we call combines. FC
Don McKinley, a retired school principal, grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa. He has competed in several state-level corn-picking contests in Illinois, and placed in the national contest in 2015. He has created a museum of 1930s-vintage farm collectibles at his home in Quincy, Illinois. Contact him at 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; email. Visit his page on Facebook.
Cornhusking contests are held each fall in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. The 2015 national contest will be held Oct. 17-18 at The Farm at Prophetstown, Battle Ground, Indiana. For more information, click here.
American Corn Huskers, A Patent History, by Jim Moffet, 88 pages, paperback. Send check or money order for $14 (postage included) to the Corn Items Collectors, 9288 Poland Rd., Warrensburg, IL 62573.