The first time Olan Bentley saw a hand-held corn sheller was in October 1983.
"I was buying a collection of cast iron seats," he recalled "and I saw a collection of hand-held corn shellers that belonged to the father of the person I was purchasing the implement seats from. I didn't buy any shellers that day, but I was intrigued by them."
Nearly three years would pass until this Ohio grain farmer attended a collectors club meeting and saw an Illinois couple's display. That did it: He soon became the proud owner of two "nubbers", shelling devices used to make quick work of removing kernels from the tip and butt ends of field corn. "They told me hand-held corn shellers, commonly used on farms during the late and early 1900s, were very rare, and that I should not expect to find very many of them," Olan said. "I decided then and there that collecting them was a challenge I could not resist."
Sixteen years later, his collection is fully established. "I'm addicted to the hunt," he said. "My collection now includes over 147 variations of the hand-held corn shellers."
Hand-held corn shellers served many useful purposes on the turn-of-the-century farm. A farm wife might have carried one in her apron pocket when she went out to feed the chickens, kids found they saved wear-and-tear on little fingers when it came time to remove kernels from ears of popcorn, and farmers utilized them to procure the next year's crop, since seed corn could not be shelled with an iron sheller, for fear of cracking the seed coat and ruining chances of germination.
Homemade hand corn shellers of various designs have been made for as long as corn has been grown.
"The oldest sheller I have is a homemade wooden 'scrub' type, in which the farmer would rake the ear of corn, in washboard fashion, against the sheller to loosen the kernel," Olan said. "The note taped to the back of this particular sheller states that it was from the Brown Estate in Indiana, and dates back to around 1820."
The heyday for hand-held corn shellers was from the late 1860s to the late 1880s. At the close of that period, "box" type shellers were becoming more widely used.
"The first patent date on a factory-made sheller in my collection is 1860," Olan said, "but it was around 1866, after the Civil War, before they were manufactured in any quantity." Many of the patents came from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
Proving these ag artifacts are as unique and varied as the industrious individuals who invented them, shellers were made in many styles with many variations in size, design and manufacturer's names on each type. Names given to them by collectors include clam shell, cone or sleeve, T-type, tongs, skillet, scrubbers and nubbers.
Olan's favorite find is a sheller that looks like a bird.
"A friend of mine had seen a sheller in a private museum in Tennessee, and I arranged to go see it," he said. "Of course, it was not for sale, but after we talked about my goals for collecting and preserving these artifacts, the owner agreed to sell me the sheller for $200. I'm now the proud owner of an Eagle corn sheller, patented January 1870 in Harrisburg, Pa., one of only four known pieces found in collections within the U.S."
Good ways to start your own collection? Attend engine shows, scan farm sale bills, contact other collectors who might be interested in parting with their duplicates, or advertise in a magazine geared toward antiques or farm collectibles. Hand-held corn shellers, when found for sale, can range from $75 to $1,000, depending on the style, condition and rarity.
Once you have an artifact, what do you look for? First-time collectors will notice that some shellers have no writing on them, while others have only patent dates, and still others have both names and dates. Most collectors consider those with names and patent dates "choice". Certain shellers are of one-piece construction, and others are mechanical. The most sought-after in those cases are the mechanical shellers with the names and dates. Popcorn shellers are very desirable, too, especially the folding, clam-shell type. The oldest shellers are cast iron, but in the early years of the 20th century, many businesses had aluminum shellers produced in the "cone" styles, and passed them out to their customers as advertising giveaways.
Reproductions are not as big a problem in collecting this type of corn sheller as they are in hand-cranked models, but the buyer should still beware.
"There is a fake cast iron 'skillet' type sheller bearing the name 'Jiffy Corn Sheller' out in the marketplace," Olan said. "It's similar in look to an authentic sheller with the name 'Jiffy Sheller Co., Ashland-O.'"
As a farmer and collector of agricultural antiques, Olan Bentley says it's important to preserve farm-related artifacts.
"If our generation doesn't do it, the next generation will not know it," he said, "and our agricultural heritage will be lost to future generations." FC
For more information: R. Olan Bentley, 1168 Jamison Rd., N.W., Washington C.H., OH 43160-8749; (740) 335-0964.
Susan Wildemuth is a writer who lives on an Illinois grain farm with her husband, son and Spud the dog.