The farms were smaller, yes, and rows were spaced farther apart – but still, try to fathom a time when corn was harvested one ear at a time. One ear at a time, by hand; by men, women and children, working for weeks at a time, in all kinds of weather.
By the late 1930s, mechanized corn pickers harvested the majority of the ear corn crop in the U.S. But up to that time, the harvest was conducted in the way it always had been: by hand. That tradition is honored today by members of the National Cornhuskers Assn., who bring the past to life each fall in cornhusking contests held in nine states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.
Each state holds competitions in 10 age classes. The top three placers in each class are eligible to attend the national cornhusking contest. In 2010, the national contest was held in Kansas; the 2011 nationals will be in Missouri.
If there’s anything more difficult to believe than a hand-picked corn crop, try this. Time was, tens of thousands of people dropped everything to attend cornhusking contests. The 1938 Illinois competition, for instance, drew a crowd of 85,000.
Today’s events pale in comparison. Contemporary cornhusking contests are considered a success if the combined total of competitors and spectators tops the century mark. But where the early competitions were bona fide sporting events, covered by the national media, today’s contests are in their own way much more serious business. Today’s cornhuskers are having fun, to be sure, but their real mission is to make sure the toil of their predecessors is not forgotten.
Grabbing the next ear
At 77, Ardith Clair, Manden, is a seasoned contender in the women’s 75-and-up class at the Illinois state cornhusking contest held just outside Roseville in early October. Warming up for her turn, she reluctantly agrees to be interviewed. “Just don’t make it too flowery,” she orders.
“I started picking corn when I was 9 or 10,” she recalls, “and I was an only kid, so there was nobody else there to help. In those days, if we were lucky, we’d get 40- or 50-bushel corn. If we finished by Thanksgiving, we were doing good.
“We were still shucking by hand in the early 1950s,” she adds. “It was just a little farm with 35 acres of corn. You could keep picking because the corn would dry on the stalk. If you did 100 bushels a day, it couldn’t pile up too fast. It took a good picker to get 100 bushels a day, but you couldn’t get 100 bushels without working dawn to dusk.”
No stranger to work, Ardith allows as how she’d be on the job that night at the local nursing home where she’s worked for 33 years. Her knees, she says, “are absolutely gone.” But when she’s competing, thoughts of work and aches evaporate. “You just concentrate on grabbing the next ear and keep moving as you pick,” she says. “You don’t think of anything but the next ear. You just go on adrenaline.”
Fifty bushels in 80 minutes
Hank Endress was a spectator at the Roseville contest in October. Seventy-two years earlier, in 1938, he was the first competitor ever to husk 50 bushels in 80 minutes; only three other huskers ever achieved that mark in competition.
“We got a lot of practice,” he says with a smile, “because we had to pick corn every day. I guess I started when I was 6 or 8. We picked corn in the morning before we went to school. We’d try to get out there by daylight. The frost wasn’t nice.”
With six brothers and one sister, Hank was part of a ready-made farm workforce. “Our folks couldn’t afford a picker for a long time, and they were kind of skeptical about some of that modern stuff,” he says. “We picked 6,000 bushels by hand. A lot of guys would sprain their wrists, but they’d just keep picking. It usually took two months.”
Weather was always a factor. Rain and cold created its own misery, one compounded by field conditions. “That open-pollinated corn would go down pretty easy,” Hank recalls, “and that was hard picking. There were lots of times the horses couldn’t even get down a row.”
Now 96, the Wyoming, Ill., man hung up his hook six years ago when he injured his shoulder and retired from competition. “I kind of miss it now that I can’t do it anymore,” he admits. The secret of his success? “If you do it right,” he says, “you win. If you don’t, you don’t win. You’ve always got to be looking ahead for the next ear.”
“You get hooked”
Dick Humes, Little York, was both a competitor at Roseville and a volunteer helping produce the event. In the manner of sports fans everywhere, he reels off statistics as easily as he takes a breath. “This is the 30th year for the Illinois contest,” he says. “They quit in 1941 for the war. The first cornhusking contest was held in 1924 in Alleman, Iowa. Illinois has hosted three national contests: Burgess in 1925, Galva in 1932 and Tonica in 1941.”
When he started husking competitively, the state field might include up to 90 people. “Now it’s more like 50 or 60,” he says. “But once you get started, you get hooked; it’s in your blood.” Dick’s father competed in 1936. When he husked for pay, he worked six days a week, husking 1,000 bushels and scooping it in the crib. “He got four cents a bushel and that was good money,” Dick says. “When I was a kid, we’d get 60 bushels an acre, and that was good corn. That old open-pollinated corn had bigger ears and the rows were farther apart. Hybrid corn came out in the late 1930s; these days we get 200 bushels to the acre.”
Three years ago, Dick won the national title in his class (men 50-and-up) picking 372 pounds in 20 minutes. A five-time state champion, he’s still competing and he’s all business. “If I lose, somebody will have to work to beat me,” he says. “He’ll have to earn it.” His wife competes; his sons compete. All use the same technique. “Keep your elbows in and your hands close together,” he says. “And pick clean.”
Rhythm of the bangboard
Picking clean is not a reference to sportsmanship but to skill. Contestants are penalized for husks left on ears and for ears left on the ground or stalk. A “gleaner” follows each husker, retrieving anything left behind. At the end of competition, the contestant’s haul is taken to the scales where it is weighed. Remaining husks are removed and weighed, as are missed ears; deductions are made from total weight.
Old timers make no excuses, but they do make allowances. “It’s worth noting,” one says, “that they didn’t breed this corn for hand picking. They bred it to stand on those stalks through all kinds of weather.”
“Everybody develops their own technique,” adds Don McKinley, Quincy, competing that day in the men’s 75-and-up class. “The hard part is when you get hold of an ear that won’t let go; it messes up your rhythm.” As a youth in western Iowa, he picked hill-dropped corn, pivoting through two rows at a time. “You can’t do that now; the rows are too close,” he says. “But the guys that are really good know three ears ahead how they’re going to pick it.”
First-time competitor Miles Stevenson, Andalusia, took tips like those in stride as he awaited his turn in the men’s 21-to-49 class. His father-in-law, Paul Van Arsdale, Raritan, has competed for years; his wife, Jenny, was the national champion in her age group when she was 15. Miles has practiced husking two or three times in recent weeks; he’s quick to admit his skills are not fully developed.
But his appreciation for the tradition is. Although he works in the city now, he grew up on the farm. “I was a pretty typical farm boy,” he says. “Maybe because I baled hay, I can imagine the hard work of hand picking.” One of the tragedies of modern life, he muses, occurs when the younger generation doesn’t ask how the older generation lived. But on a crisp October day, as he works his way down a row of corn, bouncing ears off a wagon’s bangboard under the watchful eyes of family and friends, tragedy is in short supply.
Painting Flag Corn
If corn was king at the Illinois state contest in Roseville, Bud Thompson was crown prince. Bud is a regular at cornhusking contests, where he finds a ready market for “flag corn,” ears of corn he’s hand-painted with an American flag motif.
It started with one ear he painted on a whim. He gave the finished piece to a friend. The next day he had orders for eight more. Four thousand (yes, 4,000) ears later, he’s still going strong, though he admits the painting does grow tedious at times.
One thing he’s learned: The kernels almost always come in an even number of rows. “I never say ‘never’ because there’s always one exception,” he says. The flag’s blue field is seven rows deep, and Bud always counts the remaining rows to make sure there are enough to accommodate the red-and-white rows. “One ear I counted four times to make sure, and sure enough, it had an odd number of rows.”
He starts each ear with two coats of blue, then red, then the white. Then he applies touch-up paint and a clear coat. “I’ve never painted any other vegetable and I’ve never painted any other flag,” he says. “It’s an interesting hobby.” FC
For more information: Bud Thompson, 175 East Gossett, P.O. Box 118, Roseville, IL 61473; (309) 426-2253
For more information: Illinois State Corn Husking Assn., Dick Humes, Illinois Corn Husking president, (309) 729-5262; www.illinoiscornhusking.com. National Cornhuskers Assn., www.cornhusking.com.
For more on cornhusking competitions of the 1930s, check out our holiday review. Among the featured products: When Farmers Were Heroes: The Era of National Corn Husking Contests, a 27-minute DVD.