Bushels of Fun with Antique Corn Shellers
Oscar H. Will III
View of corn falling from the unnamed sheller into the wagon from the rear.
Photo by Hank Will
Without fail, the golden cascade of kernels flowing from one of Bob Overmohle's engine-powered antique corn shellers captivates crowds at small tractor and engine shows throughout west-central Iowa.
"I really enjoy demonstrating the corn shellers because so many people have never seen the kernels removed from the cob that way," Bob Overmohle explains as he loads ear corn into the top of his Sandwich sheller. The Carroll, Iowa, sheller collector has a passion for just about any thing related to corn processing — the old-fashioned way, that is.
Straight from the farm
As a kid growing up in the 1950s, Bob got plenty of experience growing and harvesting corn, and even hired out to neighbors where he received more specialized training. "I worked for a neighbor who had a big Minneapolis-Moline corn sheller with an IH 350 Farmall to run it, and I detasseled corn for the Renze Brothers' seed company," Bob explains.
Much more labor was involved with both the growing and harvesting of corn and its hybridization for seed back then, he adds, which is why he now knows so much about the 'hands-on' nature of corn equipment.
Bob's youthful experiences with corn eventually grew into a collecting passion that now includes hundreds of cloth seed-corn sacks from the 1940s and 1950s, husking tools, shelling tools, seed-corn drying racks, hand and engine-powered shellers, a two row picker and plenty of International Harvester Co. horsepower.
Along the way, however, the Overmohle family built a seasonal business detasseling corn for hybridization, and it was just plain, hard work. Bob, his wife, Judy, and their children contract-detasseled more than 20 acres of seed corn each year for many years. Their customers were several Carroll County seed-corn producers, including Renze Brothers. The Overmohles and their crew were well known for doing thorough work, which ensured high purity of the resultant hybrid seed crop. The contracts provided summer jobs for the kids and some extra income at home.
"It was wet, hard, hot and nasty work, even if the pay was good," Bob says.
The Overmohle family's detasseling days are over, and Bob now enjoys picking and shelling corn for wildlife feed as much as he likes collecting, showing and demonstrating vintage tools of the trade.
Labels on seed-corn sacks and his relationships with many of the seed-corn growers first whet Bob's appetite for collecting corn-related farm items. Bob has collected cloth seed-corn sacks for about 16 years, and while he's always on the lookout for sacks that originated in Carroll County he owns sacks from many national brands such as Funks, Northrup King and Crows.
"The local brands all have some meaning to me, and they used quite a few different labels over the years," Bob says, explaining that a county focus on seed-corn sack collecting yields bushels of collectibles as well as a challenge to find the bags.
"I have about 250 unique seed-corn sacks in display condition and another 250 or so that really aren't nice enough to show," Bob says as he sorts through hundreds of cloth sacks, ironed and neatly arranged on hangers for the next event. Amazingly, most of the sacks come from Carroll County producers.
"My favorite sack would have to be one of the Farmer's Pride brand sacks from the Renze Brothers that date to the 1950s," Bob adds.
Bob's collection includes a seed sack from Carlson Hybrid of Audubon, Iowa. Elmer Carlson, a company owner, enjoyed participating in hand corn-picking contests — and winning. He used the image of a young man picking corn with the words 'Champion Brand' to let farmers know that the seed in that sack was, like his picking skills, exceptional.
Bob's most valuable sack is an original 1940s vintage Pioneer-brand seed sack. This beautifully preserved and framed sack sports an old trademark, which ironically doesn't include the word 'Pioneer.' Bob's collection also includes unused sacks from Highland Hybrids of Kimballton, Iowa, and Pingles of Shelby, Iowa.
Shellers of all shades
Although the seed-corn sacks are a big hit at area shows, Bob was naturally interested in collecting other items related to corn processing. "As my sack collection grew, I became interested in collecting things related to other aspects of corn growing and processing," Bob explains. "About 10 years ago, I picked up my first hand-crank sheller at a sale."
That first corn sheller was a small, red, hand-cranked model designed to clamp onto the edge of a wooden box, into which kernels fell as the cob was cleaned. The 'box sheller' has neither a name nor identifying marks cast into it, but many of Bob's other shellers can be readily identified. Among his several box-shellers, the Root & Heath Mfg. Co. Sheller and the Never Fail are particularly interesting because they both were manufactured in Plymouth, Ohio, by the company that made the Silver King tractor - Fate, Root & Heath Mfg. Co. Bob also has a couple of Fulton box-shellers, as well as David Bradley and Blackhawk models.
"My box-Sheller demonstrations were also popular at the shows, so I took it one step further," Bob explains about how he became interested in larger shellers, such as his Sandwich Mfg. Co. two-hole model. Bob runs the big machine with an IH Model LB 1 1/2 - 2 1/2-hp stationary engine.
Shortly after obtaining the Sandwich, Bob added two large, single-hole hand-cranked shellers, a New Idea and an IH McCormick-Deering to his collection. Unlike box-shellers, these large devices are stand-up models and have a much larger shelling wheel designed for considerably more corn capacity.
About four years ago, Bob obtained a wooden two-hole sheller mounted on steel-wheeled wooden running gear. Although he's uncertain about its age and manufacturer, the two-hole machine is a spring-type sheller, with a loading conveyor, cob stacker and grain elevator. Spring-type shellers employ a spring-loaded plate to press the ears of corn against the knobby shelling plate. This ensures good contact for ears of all sizes and protects both the kernels and the cobs from crushing damage. Bob's unnamed sheller also has a blower that cleans the grain before it reaches the elevator and helps prevent husk debris from clogging the machine.
"I think it may be a Sandwich, or possibly a Eureka," Bob says while describing how the machine works. Like any curious farm collector, he'd really like to find out who the maker is. Bob powers the unnamed sheller with his 1947 Farmall Model B, and runs it each fall to shell most of the corn that he picks.
"I try to save enough ear corn for shelling demonstrations at shows, but most of it gets shelled like this," Bob explains while cranking the Farmall to life. He sets the operation up along the road so that passersby can see how corn was handled before widespread combine use.
Although Bob's collection includes husking hooks and wagons, he prefers to machine-pick his corn using a 1950s pull-type IH McCormick-Deering Model 2-PR two-row picker attached to his 1953 Farmall Model Super M. The 2-PR picker, a champion in its day, sports a husking bed and blower to ensure that only cleanly husked ears of corn are elevated into the wagon. Bob doesn't currently grow his own corn, but he can see that day coming.
"I buy about a dozen rows of standing corn from my neighbor right now and keep track of the number of picked bushels," Bob says. From the picked corn, Bob calculates the bushels of shelled corn and pays market value for it.
Unfortunately, Bob's neighbor plants corn in narrow rows — the modern way. "Since I can only pick one of the narrow rows of corn at a time [with the 2-PR picker], I'm looking for an IH or New Idea one-row unit to replace this one,' Bob explains as he pulls the two-row picker into a single row of corn. Of course he won't rule out the possibility of planting the corn himself some day with a vintage one- or two-row IH planter — in which case the 2-PR will work just fine. "I have plenty of tractors that would pull a planter," Bob says with a smile as he considers the added seasonal enjoyment he'd get out of taking his crop from start to finish.
Although Bob's father farmed with a John Deere tractor, he mainly collects letter-series Farmall tractors. "I learned to drive when I was quite young on Dad's John Deere A," Bob explains.
During grade school, however, he became inseparably attached to IH tractors after a neighbor hired him to pull bundle wagons with a Farmall Model H during harvest.
"You can't imagine how thrilled I was to run the H all day at that age," Bob says.
In addition to the Farmall models B and Super M, Bob's tractor collection includes a 1948 Farmall Cub that he uses to plow the garden and exhibit at local tractor shows — often with a one-row cultivator mounted beneath. Bob also owns a Farmall Model Super A with mounted cultivator and fertilizer attachment, a Model Super MTA and a Model 300 Utility, which does many of the acreage chores around the Overmohle home.
"I would love to finish out the Super series with a Super H and a Super C, both with wide front ends," Bob explains about his tractor collection's future.
Bob's wish list includes a vintage IH one- or two-row planter, an IH sheller and an old IH truck to take the seed sacks and shelling equipment to area shows. He'd also like to find his dad's John Deere Model A.
In the meantime, Bob continues to share his fine collection and demonstrate corn shelling at farm shows. Come this fall, it's a good bet that Bob will belt up the old wooden sheller to the Farmall for bushels of fun once again. FC
Oscar 'Hank' Will III is an old-iron collector and Editor in Cheif of Grit magazine. Write Hank email@example.com.