Antique Corn Cutter Held Kernels from Yesteryear

Corn cutter restoration includes surprise stash of stray corn kernels.

Cutter Illustration

The cutter was pulled by one horse and cut two rows of corn at a time. The two knives would be folded down to cut the stalks (typically two to four stalks) in each hill. Two men sat or stood on top of the cutter and, as the horse moved forward, each gathered the cut stalks from the row on his side of the cutter.

Illustration Courtesy Don McKinley and Marvin Huber

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If you set out to restore an 80-year-old implement, you will usually find that some bolts are missing or a cracked frame is hidden by caked grease. Bearings are often worn out, bright paint is found only under rusty washers, and square nuts can be difficult to remove. We are routinely amazed at the creative engineering involved in the use of sprockets, chains and gears that enabled these old implements to perform their tasks.

Two years ago we procured two Dain corn cutters to put in our 1930s agriculture museum. The museum is home to 45 John Deere implements from the 1930s. Also included in the museum is an exhibit intended to show the evolution of corn harvesting equipment from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. Our collection includes corn husking hooks and pegs, corn knives, corn shock ropes, a John Deere corn binder and a John Deere No. 10 1-row corn picker.

In its day, the corn cutter accelerated the harvest process and lessened the labor involved. Some corn cutters consisted of sleds with knives attached, pulled by one horse walking between two rows of corn. Other models, such as the Dain, were mounted on wheels. One of our cutters is a Dain Safety 4-wheel corn cutter built by Dain Mfg. Co. between 1898 and 1917. The other is a Dain 3-wheel steel corn cutter manufactured between 1898 and 1930.

Joseph Dain worked in the furniture business in Meadville, Mo., until 1881, when he left to build hay-making equipment. He won his first patent for hay-making implements in 1882. By 1890 he had incorporated Dain Mfg. Co. and moved to Carrollton, Mo. In 1900 the company was moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, where Dain produced harvesting equipment including sickle mowers, hay loaders, hay stackers and side-delivery rakes, as well as other pieces of farm equipment such as pump jacks, farm mixers, feed mills, corn cutters and hay presses. Deere & Co. bought the Dain company in 1911; Deere’s hay equipment line is still manufactured in Ottumwa.

Shocking with the Dain

The check-row method of planting corn was used from about 1890 to the mid-1940s. In that method, the corn planter dropped two to four seeds into the soil at the same spot. The resulting “hill” was 40-42 inches from any adjoining hill. Check-row planting enabled the farmer to cultivate a field in both directions, eradicating weeds and grass.

The Dain 4-wheel cutter had two folding knife wings. The knives’ edges are so sharp that wooden shields were used to cover the cutting edge of the wings when folded. The cutter was pulled by one horse and cut two rows of corn at a time. The two knives would be folded down to cut the stalks (typically two to four stalks) in each hill. Two men sat or stood on top of the cutter and, as the horse moved forward, each gathered the cut stalks from the row on his side of the cutter.

When each man had an armload of stalks, the horse was stopped and the men stepped off the cutter and carried the stalks to the “gallus” or “saddle” that had been made earlier by tying the tops of the stalks in four hills of corn together to form the basis of the shock (see this photo in the Image Gallery). It’s easy to imagine the frustration, anxious moments and even flared tempers present when the horse and cutter were pulled into the first field to begin the fall cutting. The horse would need to learn very quickly to start and stop at a voice command.

When enough stalks had been added to the saddle, the shock was bound by a rope with a pulley on one end. The rope was wrapped around the shock about two-thirds of the way up and tightened as tight as possible. Several wraps of twine were tightened just above the rope and tied. The rope was then released and carried to the next shock.

If this process seems labor intensive, compare it to the process it replaced, in which a corn knife was used to cut stalks for shocking. The farmer would bend over, swing the corn knife with one hand and cut the hill of stalks near the ground while gathering the cut stalks with his other arm. He then carried the stalks to the next hill and repeated the process until he had an armload. Then that load was carried to the shock. The use of a 4-wheel corn cutter would have been a welcome development, saving time and energy.

A surprise discovery

Eventually we decided to perform an “original restoration” on the two cutters. Paint particles suggested that the wheels were originally painted yellow and the wood and metal had been painted red. We decided to replace broken or rotting pieces of wood on the two decks and clean and treat all metal surfaces while leaving the original 100-year-old patina exposed.

We started with the 4-wheel cutter. Every nut and bolt was removed and each piece cleaned. A “circle pipe” (part #5014 E), an integral part of the front of the cutter, was engineered to allow the cutter to be turned about 90 degrees either way. When the pipe was isolated and cleaning got underway, out from the inside of the pipe poured 10 kernels of bright yellow corn. We were astounded! Obviously many years had passed since the cutter had been used in a cornfield. Where had the kernels come from? How old were they? Would they grow? It surely had to be open-pollinated corn, the predecessor to modern hybrid corn. For the time being, the kernels were carefully placed in an envelope for safekeeping.

Planting a vintage crop

As time passed, we realized that most of our questions about the kernels of corn would never be answered, but we were determined to see if the corn would germinate. We decided to plant the kernels in the proper season and see if they would propagate and produce more kernels.

The following spring, five kernels were planted and nourished. The kernels were planted near our museum for two reasons. First, that location would be at least two-thirds of a mile from any other corn grown in the neighborhood and thus cross-pollination would be unlikely. Secondly, water was easily accessible.

Within a short time we were elated to see five small green spears emerge. As the spring and summer wore on, the stalks developed ears and tassels. Drought, extreme heat and damage from deer and birds took their toll. When fall came and we “harvested” the crop, we found little more than nubbins and a few kernels of corn.

The second season

The spring of 2012 found us planting the remaining five kernels and the few sorry kernels produced during the summer of 2011. A woven wire fence was built around the four hills of corn to ward off deer, and an electric fence was placed around the hills to keep coons away. Fertilizer was added and the plants were watered every third or fourth day all summer. Great growth occurred. The stalks grew to well over 6 feet and expectations were high for a bumper crop.

However, just as the tassels were beginning to drop their pollen, the temperatures reached 105 degrees for several days in a row and, of course, pollination was very poor. Fortunately we will have enough kernels to try again this year. Even though our 2012 “corn crop” was disastrous, we are amazed to have more kernels than we started with when we planted kernels that were likely 80 to 100 years old. A neighbor used to say, “Don’t count on your crop until it is in the bin.” In the Midwest, that is very wise counsel.

This season we’ll redouble our efforts to raise a few hills of open-pollinated corn. Soil will be prepared, seeds planted, deer fence erected, coon fence connected, gentle irrigation provided and the rest will be left to Mother Nature.

Procuring, researching and restoring old farm equipment is often challenging and always interesting. Often surprises emerge from the process. Our corn kernel surprise will continue to hold our interest for several years to come. FC 

For more information: Don McKinley, 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; email: deerroad@adams.net; Marvin Huber, email: showhors@adams.net. 

Learn more about the McKinley/Huber Museum.