Six or seven decades ago, some of the most admired Midwestern athletes were not football or basketball players, but cornhuskers. Today, the National Cornhuskers’ Hall of Fame in Kewanee, Ill., pays tribute to those men who had the physical strength and stamina to outhusk their competitors.
The Hall of Fame occupies one corner of the Kewanee Historical Society Museum in the historic Butterwick Building. When the historical society decided to restore the 1868 structure and open a museum there, a local cornhusker – Bill Rose, now deceased – suggested a Hall of Fame be established at the museum. All county, state and national cornhusking champions from 1924 to 1941 are enshrined in the National Cornhuskers’ Hall of Fame, which has a peg and hook as its emblem.
Bob Richards, president of the historical society, compiled scrapbooks on local cornhusking champions, and collectors donated hooks, pegs, and other equipment. Leonard Jacobs, author of Corn Huskers: Battle of the Bangboards, contributed photographs of cornhusking champions.
For many years, a Kewanee business, Boss Manufacturing Company, produced cornhusking wristbands, hooks and pegs. Some of those items, as well as company advertisements, are on display. Exhibits also feature patents for cornhusking equipment, newspaper clippings, and an ear of corn from the 1932 national cornhusking contest.
Cornhusking contests began when farmers found that friendly competition made an arduous job more enjoyable. In 1922, Henry A. Wallace, then editor of Wallace’s Farmer magazine, and later secretary of agriculture, organized a cornhusking contest in Iowa.
Responding to Wallace’s encouragement, local farm organizations in several states began sponsoring township and county contests, with cash prizes for the winners. Eventually, the contests were standardized.
Huskers competed for 80 minutes. They were assigned to pick four to six rows, usually one-fourth or one-half mile long. Gleaners followed the competitors to pick any overlooked corn. Horse-drawn wagons accompanied the husker through the field, and each contestant tossed his corn into the wagon to be weighed at the end of the contest. Huskers were judged on the amount of corn they husked (determined by weight) and received deductions for the shucks and extraneous material in their loads, and for the amount of corn left in the field.
Winners of county contests advanced to state competition, and state winners and first runners-up competed in a national contest. The national events grew so popular that they attracted national radio and newspaper coverage, and magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Newsweek, and Time published articles about cornhusking.
The 1936 Cornhusking Championship in Licking County, Ohio, attracted 160,000 spectators. At that time, the record crowd at a U.S. sporting event was 168,000 at the Memorial Day auto race in Indianapolis, making the cornhusking competition the second largest event of the era.
On Nov. 10,1932, the national cornhusking contest was held near Galva, Ill., just a few miles from Kewanee. Eighteen huskers from nine states competed. Rain, snow and sleet fell on the morning of the event, making it impossible for the Goodyear blimp to travel from Chicago to Galva. A broadcaster in the blimp had been slated to give play-by-play commentary for NBC radio.
The people of Galva festooned the downtown with corn decorations, and the post office offered a cornhusking cachet for stamp collectors. Schools and businesses closed because everyone wanted to watch the contest. Bands provided music before and during the event.
The local favorite, Carl Seiler, from nearby Oneida, Ill.., had a large crowd of boosters. As the 29-year-old southpaw made his way through the muddy fields, many of his fans followed him. Some of them left shoes and boots stuck in the mud.
Carl, the only left-handed husker to win the national championship, received a $100 prize. Celebrations included a luncheon in his honor in a nearby city, a downtown parade, and gift certificates from merchants. Oneida residents also held a banquet in his honor, and Kate Smith dedicated the song “Goofus”to him when she sang it on her national radio program. The champion also appeared on the WLS National Barn Dance radio program in Chicago, and demonstrated his cornhusking skills.
Carl’s prowess in cornhusking even generated fan mail: Several young women who read in newspaper accounts that Carl was a bachelor wrote to him, suggesting they become better acquainted. In a 1979 interview, Carl (who is now deceased) said that four to six weeks before a contest, he began running a mile a day, and occasionally jumped rope. Milking four or five cows every morning and night helped strengthen his arms, he said, but he maintained that the best training program was harvesting his own corn.
Cornhusking contests came to an end in 1941 when the U.S. plunged into World War II. By war’s end, mechanical cornpickers had almost put an end to cornhusking.
In recent years, however, cornhusking contests have been revived, though on a smaller scale. Now, the events have classes according to age, with contests for women and children, too.
And the National Cornhuskers Hall of Fame exists to make sure that cornhuskers are not forgotten. FC
For more information: The Kewanee Historical Society Museum is located at 211 N. Chestnut Street, Kewanee, Ill., and is open Thursday and Saturday 1:30 p.m. – 4 p.m. from May 1 to Oct. 1, or at other times by special appointment. For more information, call (309) 853-4572, (309) 853-8605 or (309) 852-3191; online at http://www.kewaneehistory.com.
Dianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.