This fall, as you drive by a field of corn ready to be harvested, imagine doing that job by hand. No combines. No tractors. Just a man, a horse, and a wagon.
Beginning in the 1920s, labor-saving machinery was available for the corn harvest. But even into the '40s, horses still plodded along on many farms, as men hand-husked corn, then threw ears into a high-sided wagon. A hand-husked field was picked clean, and the ears were virtually free of shucks, which meant the ears could be air-dried in cribs. Plus, horses had the easy work, so feed wasn't as heavy a requirement. It's hard to imagine improving the efficiency of the process ... unless, of course, you were the one doing the hand husking.
More than 50 years have passed since Chester Larson last husked corn by hand. But memories of the work have not faded for the retired Griswold, Iowa, farmer.
"A little wrist or thumb hook was used to rip the husk open, so the ear could be easily broken off the shank leading to the stalk, making the ear ready to throw into the wagon," he recalled. It was tedious, exhausting work.
"Husking corn is very tiring," Chester said. "I haven't worked so hard since, and we did more things by hand then, such as some of the haying."
Most farmers – loath to waste even one ear of corn – saw no alternative.
"If you used a mechanical picker in dry weather," he said, "more husk was left on the ear, and more corn was left in the field."
A husker's day began at first light. Most huskers arrived at the field as soon as they could see, and didn't quit until sundown.
"Sometimes when I was dog-tired after husking 90 bushels," Chester said, "I scooped off the last load after I'd eaten supper and rested a bit."
Harry Broermann, a retired farmer from Atchison County in Missouri, recalls a rapid-fire juggling act.
"Dad said you always wanted to keep two ears in the air while picking," he said. "I still picked by hand into 1944, and 80 bushels per day, picked by one man, was a day's work for most. But everyone was shooting for 100 bushels."
No one got rich husking corn.
"In normal times and years, six cents a bushel was usually the wage paid, five cents if an elevator was used," Chester said. "Few had scales, but a 26-inch standard wagon box held 26 bushels of ear corn. But more was usually carried, as sideboards were often used. On top of that was a bang board on the other side from the husker, so the ears would hit it and fall down onto the load.
"Low-wheel wagons pulled by two horses were the nicest to pick in," he added. "If you had to scoop into a high crib, high wheels were the best."
Horses needed to be of good temperament. Some went along with the husker almost automatically, while others responded to commands. Either way, a steady animal was the key to the operation.
"Nervous horses were not good," Chester said.
Unlike many early farm chores, husking was done after the summer's heat had passed. Huskers wore heavy coats to the field, Chester said, and perhaps light jackets to start the day. Both would be removed fairly soon as the men warmed up.
"After doing most of the chores before daylight," he said, "I'd hope there was little frost. Otherwise, mittens or gloves got wet, and fingers were apt to crack and get sore."
The husker's tools were simple.
"Manufacturers made different types of hooks to suit the buyers," Chester said. "Some had two hooks side-by-side, but that wasn't really necessary. The hooks would last several years until the leather would wear out and break. My dad used a palm hook, but I preferred a thumb type. A few old-timers used husking pegs (with a small metal rod instead of a metal hook)."
Huskers had definite preferences for the corn they picked.
"Some hybrid corn picked easier than others," Chester said. "DeKalb was usually easier to husk, while with Pioneer, fewer ears fell off the stalks before harvest. Farmers picking their own corn did the best job of getting the husk off, and picking up any corn that missed the wagon."
In the late '30s and early '40s, U.S. No. 13 was standard, Harry said, noted for its good standability and production.
A bumper crop did not guarantee profits. Chester recalled the harvest of 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression.
"The crops were bounteous that year, and we had to put in temporary cribs and pile some corn on the ground," he recalled. "The wages for corn husking were not over two cents a bushel, and the elevator price in December was less than 10 cents, in fact as low as six. From our 240 acres, we were feeding a carload of steers and 100 head of hogs, and still had 1,500 bushels left over."
It was a grim time in rural America.
"The stores in Red Oak, Iowa, did very little business during the winter, and in late February, they tried to stimulate business by offering 30 cents a bushel for corn, in exchange for merchandise," Chester said. Some, though, had more basic needs.
"People who did not have wood to cut sometimes burned corn along with cobs for fuel," Chester said. FC
The National Corn Husking Competition finals will be held near Branson, S.D., Oct. 17-18. For more information, contact the National Corn Husking Association, in care of Warren Simons, Box 225, Fairview, III., 61432; phone (309) 778-2610.
Also: The Bang Board, a quarterly publication of the Corn Items Collectors Association, providing details on old-time corn memorabilia, activities and related issues, $15/year; write to 613 North Long Street, Shelbyville, III., 62565.
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.