40 Years and Going Strong

As Corn Items Collectors Assn. marks 40th anniversary, collectors celebrate the benefits of membership

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by Leslie C. McManus
Seed corn and flour sacks are wildly popular perennial favorites among collectors and provide an entry point for those new to the hobby.

Four decades in, the Corn Items Collectors Assn. (CICA) is still going strong. And members agree on the benefits of membership. As collectors, they say they appreciate the camaraderie, the shared knowledge and the opportunity to learn about America’s agricultural tradition through corn-related relics of the past.

“Farming in this country didn’t start with a $400,000 piece of equipment,” notes CICA Secretary/Treasurer Dave VandenBoom.

Founded in 1981 as the International Corn Husking Hooks and Pegs Collectors Assn., the group’s name was changed to Corn Items Collectors Assn. in 1986. The group’s formal mission is to promote the collection, restoration, preservation and display of corn-related items. Today CICA has about 180 members located in 44 states.

man with beard wearing a yellow hat holding up a yellow framed board with a collection of patches and bag tags

The group meets annually at the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show, Portland, Indiana, and holds its annual Founders Meeting at the Western Illinois Threshers show in Hamilton, Illinois. The group’s spring regional meeting is held at a different site each year.

Members also receive the group’s quarterly newsletter, The Bang Board, as well as a membership directory, information on upcoming meets/events, free listings of items for sale or trade in The Bang Board and members-only website access.

older man in a black hat holding up a fold out corn picker and husker brochure

Last summer, CICA members set up a display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, showcasing the variety of corn collectables. There, members shared their thoughts on the benefits of membership:

Steve Link, Canton, Illinois, got his start with antique farm collectibles through gas engines. He’d set up a few at a show and take his daughter, Annie, along. Before long, she wanted a display of her own. “So I bought a hand-crank sheller and a grinder on a box,” he says.

Next thing he knew, the Corn Items Collectors Assn. had invited Annie to set up her display. And the rest is history. Today, some 20 years later, Steve has built a collection of check-wire stakes, hand-crank shellers, sacks, planter lids and cast iron planter seats (especially those from Parlin & Orendorff Co., Canton, Illinois). “It’s lighter than hauling engines and tractors,” he says. And Annie? She continues to maintain her CICA membership and helps out with the group’s website and Facebook page.

older man in a green and white hat holding a scrubber-type hand corn sheller

Steve likes just about everything in the corn collectibles category, especially inexpensive items. “That’s what I want to pass on to new collectors,” he says. “You can collect patches, planter plates, pencils, pens, keychains – and you don’t have to invest a lot of money in it. I have a collection of bag tags. It’s something different, and it’s easy to set up.”

As the newly elected president of the Corn Items Collectors Assn., Steve hopes to get more people involved. “I have a 10-year-old nephew and he wants to come to a show. We’ll sign him in as an exhibitor, and he’ll get a ribbon and a button. I want him to see how easy it is, and how fun it is.”

Merlin Hoyer, Hampton, Iowa, did not set out to be a collector of corn items. “I just liked the bullet pencils,” he says. “But things kind of got out of hand.”
Thirty years later, his collection includes signs, sacks, memorabilia, ads, dealer premiums and literature. He’s farmed and been around corn all his life, but his hobby has helped him gain new insights. “I’ve tried to learn the history of various seed corn companies,” he says.

man in red hat holding up a red dropper seat from a seeding machine

One of his favorite pieces – a Successful Corn Culture booklet by P.G. Holden – dates to 1907. “Holden organized the Corn Gospel Train that went from town to town,” Merlin says, “teaching farmers how to improve their crops.”

Joining the Corn Items Collectors Assn. 20 years ago gave Merlin the opportunity to connect with like-minded collectors. “In this group, there’s somebody who knows something that you don’t know, and they are very willing to share information. That’s really helpful for a new collector.”

In his quest for corn collectibles, Merlin has attended a lot of auctions, shows and swap meets. “That’s where you get the easy stuff,” he says. “It’s becoming harder to find the more expensive things. The stuff dealers used to give away for free isn’t cheap anymore.

red, green, and gray John Deere corn sheller with yellow wheels on display

“No matter what it is,” he adds, “don’t buy it because you think it’s going to make you rich someday. Buy it because you enjoy it. It’s all about the fun of looking for something, and meeting nice people.”

Bill Bracy, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, appreciates the history lessons he’s learned from corn collectibles. “It’s good for people to gain an understanding of how our forefathers lived,” he says. “You can’t imagine cutting 4 acres of corn by hand.”

wood and metal corn sheller closeup

He also enjoys learning about the evolution of technology. “Corn has gone from 20 bushels per acre to more than 260 bushels per acre,” he notes. The design of one of the shellers in his collection was patented in 1835. “I like to see progression from the beginning. That time period is about lost. Pieces that old are either in a collection or they’ve deteriorated.”

Bill’s collection of corn-related pieces includes shellers, seed corn driers, planters, corn company pencils, seed bags, check-row wire pieces, shock ties, planter boxes and an ear corn fork. But he also collects horse brushes, Ford tools, wood-handle tools and some 1,000 pieces of green-handle kitchen utensils.

box corn sheller with cast iron turning wheel and american flags on top

Like other collectors, he says good pieces are getting harder to find – and some are getting more expensive. “You’d be surprised by what some of these things sell for,” he says. But at the end of the day, the hobby is about more than dollar signs. “It gives us a chance to get out and go,” he says. “We’ve had great opportunities to travel, see other collections and how people display things, and we’ve met really nice people.”

At Mt. Pleasant, Tom Wilson showed an assortment of dropper seats from two-man corn planters. “These were used before check planting,” he says. “A lot of times, they’d have a kid on that seat running the dropper.”

foot mounted stalk cutter with a boot in place for display

Tom, who lives in Davenport, traces his interest in planter seats to his work at the John Deere planter facility. “But I’m also interested in planter lids,” he says. “Planter lids are a big reason why I’m involved in CICA.”

The relationships he’s built through CICA membership are a special highlight for him. “It’s that old-time camaraderie,” he says. “Compared to social media ‘friends,’ these are real friends.”

But he also appreciates the way involvement in the hobby has helped him see the big picture behind collectibles. “A seed corn sack is not just a sack,” he says. “Somebody in this group may see a sack from your home town, and you may not have known anything about that company.

red box with six bullet pencils with seed corn company logos on them

“Somebody else designed the illustration printed on that sack before there were computers to do it. A lot of people don’t understand what that sack was used for,” he adds. “Being a member of this group is a great way to learn about agriculture, and you don’t have to break the bank to do it.” FC

For more information, visit www.cornitems.org or visit CICA on Facebook. To join, contact CICA Secretary/Treasurer Dave VandenBoom, 810 S. Main St., Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641. Annual memberships are available for $25.

Don’t throw out those husks!

If you have, say, two weeks free, try your hand at producing paper from the fiber in corn husks.

Ever heard of making paper from corn husks? In a unique demonstration at last summer’s Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Steve Alt, West Liberty, Iowa, showed how it is done.

To make corn husk paper, start by cutting off the portion of the husk next to the stalk and clean the remaining leaves. It takes about two plastic grocery bags full of husks to make roughly 50 sheets of paper measuring 5-3/4 by 8-3/4 inches.

Next, break down the fiber in the husks by boiling them with a small amount of soda ash in a large pot for three hours. Remove the pot from heat and let the mixture cool overnight. The next day, rinse the husks thoroughly to remove all soda ash.

Typically, a Hollander beater would be used to break down the husks. If that piece of equipment is not readily available, a standard kitchen blender can be used. After blending for 2 to 4 minutes, the mixture is dumped into a larger tub of water called a vat. Then, use a mould and deckle (a wood frame with window screen on it, and a picture frame-like piece going around the screen) to dip into the vat of pulp. When the device is lifted out of the water, pulp remains on the screen.

Water will drip quickly out of the bottom, leaving pulp on the screen. Allow the water to drip out for a few minutes and then gently remove the deckle frame from the mould. This leaves you with a nice sheet of green corn husk paper, which is still very, very wet and not paper-like at all.

The pulp is removed from the screen in a process called couching. Basically, flip the mould over with the paper stuck to the bottom and roll it onto a dry towel. Starting with the left edge of the mould, roll it across the towel to the right, pressing the mould firmly into the dry towel, which transfers the husk pulp onto the towel. Repeat until all of the pulp has been put onto towels.

Steve uses a 1920s-vintage copy press to remove water from the pulp. “We place the pile of paper and towels into the press and apply pressure,” he says. “Water runs out as pressure is increased. Leave the pressure on overnight, removing as much water as possible and keeping the paper flat.”

The next day, transfer the corn husk paper from the wet towels onto fresh, dry towels and press again for a couple more days. The process is repeated for a couple weeks until all of the husk paper is dry. “If high-fiber paper is allowed to air-dry without pressure on it,” Steve says, “the paper will curl like a potato chip.”

Paper made from corn husks is very strong. “You can’t run this paper through a computer printer,” Steve cautions, “but letterpress printing works very well on it.”

paper made from corn husks with writing printed on it from the 2021 corn item collectors 40th annual midwest old threshers reunion

For more information: Email Steve Alt at salt@Lcom.net.

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