In an era when satellites steer tractors, it’s hard to imagine the days when an improved corn sheller represented cutting-edge technology. But in the 1840s, a corn sheller manufactured by Thomas D. Burrall, Geneva, N.Y., did just that.
“In the 1840s, most shellers did not separate the cob from the corn,” explains collector Chuck Heckroth, Dryden, Mich. “Burrall was perhaps the first to invent a sheller that did.” In use, shellers of the 1840s simply deposited cobs and kernels in a pile on the ground. The working mechanisms of most were fully exposed and made no accommodation for a bucket to catch the corn.
Patented in 1845, the Burrall sheller was an important improvement in corn shellers. Decades later, it remained a hot commodity. “Even after 1900, it was still shown in the Farm Implement News Buyers Guide as being produced by a number of companies,” Chuck says. Replacement parts were offered by Messinger Mfg. Co., Tatamy, Pa., as recently as 1948.
Thomas D. Burrall Mfg. Co. was established in about 1812 in Geneva. Burrall designed and produced threshing machines, cultivators, corn shellers, plows, mowers, reapers and a drill that applied seed and manure in a single operation.
In 1855, with a workforce of 40, Burrall Mfg. produced 250 reapers and other implements with a total value of $30,000 (approximately $770,000 today).
Almost no formal documentation exists on Burrall shellers, so Chuck has had to draw his own conclusions through exhaustive research and conversations with collectors. “I’m sure that Burrall manufactured shellers, but by the 1880s, other companies — including Goulds Mfg. Co. and Rumsey & Co., both of nearby Seneca Falls, N.Y. — also manufactured Burrall shellers,” he says. “Whether they paid royalties or not, I don’t know. I do know that in one case, Burrall sued another manufacturer for patent infringement.” That case was ultimately dismissed.
Burrall later won patents for improvements to his 1845 design, including one awarded March 24, 1863. “I’ve had trouble interpreting all the patent language,” Chuck admits, “but it had something to do with the hopper recess, making it possible for irregular cobs to pass through the opening. And that’s what the lawsuit was about.”
Motivated by popcorn
Chuck’s hobby has its roots in a snack. “When I was growing up on the farm, my parents grew popcorn,” he explains, “and we always shelled it by hand. I remembered my dad saying that there were antiques that they used to shell corn in the old days.” At age 16, Chuck found his first sheller and put it to work. “I thought it was pretty neat,” he says. “It was sure quicker than shelling by hand.”
As a novice collector, it took a while for Chuck to narrow his interests. “I bought box-mounted shellers for a while,” he recalls, “but mainly I looked for 1- and 2-hole floor shellers. I ended up getting rid of the box shellers about 15 years ago.” At some point, he discovered Burrall shellers.
“They’re my favorite,” he says. “Maybe it was because it was a while before I even saw one. They’re not that rare, but when I saw the first one, I was intrigued. I like cast iron better than wood, and I really like that raised lettering.”
Spanning eight decades
Today Chuck’s sheller collection tops the 165 mark, down from a peak of 275 floor shellers. Among the lot are some 40 Burralls, each unique. “There are still a few known of that I don’t have,” he says. The earliest Burrall in his collection goes back to about 1845; the latest — Burralls built by Goulds Mfg. Co., Munnsville (N.Y.) Plow Co. and Standard Harrow Co., Utica, N.Y. — may have been manufactured as recently as the 1920s.
When he began collecting, Chuck scouted shellers at farm auctions, flea markets and engine shows. “You used to see shellers listed in auctions in the local newspaper,” he says. “But it’s way down from what it was back then. Last year I bought six. That’s a lot these days. I’ll still buy them, but they have to be pretty interesting.”
Early on, Chuck painted some of his relics. But tastes have a way of changing. “I prefer to leave them original now, even if they’re rusty,” he says. “I just like the look.” Built of cast iron, most shellers are found in fairly good condition, but some show the effects of age. Working from an extensive parts inventory, fabricating and welding, Chuck is generally able to get them back to decent condition.
Once an essential farm implement used to shell corn for livestock, domestic use or as a market commodity, the old shellers are now housed in Chuck’s barn, along with his collection of stationary gas engines (mostly International Harvester models) and vintage seed corn signs. The Burrall sheller is a remnant of a time when nothing came easy. “When you feed in one ear after another, it can wear you out after a while,” Chuck says. “That flywheel gives it momentum, but you still had to crank it vigorously.” FC
For more information: Chuck Heckroth, 5725 Bordman Rd., Dryden, MI 48428; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector; email her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.
Read more about corn shellers in 10 Remarkable Relics: Corn Collectibles and Corn Shellers.