Jake Rens has a great interest in preserving the history of agriculture. Although his life’s work took him away from the farm where he was raised, he never really left the farm. He began collecting antique farm relics decades ago, always looking for the uncommon item.
“Corn shellers caught my attention,” he says. “They were an important tool on any farm, big or small. Before the corn sheller, farm families manually forced the dried corn off the cob to feed their chickens and other livestock. Shelled corn, the main ingredient in cornbread, was also consumed by farm families.”
Although the invention of the corn sheller saved a lot of hand labor on the farm, shelling corn remained a manual process. To use a hand-crank sheller, an ear of corn is fed into the device. The ear is caught by the mechanism’s teeth and the kernels are separated from the cob. The kernels fall into a basket below and the cobs to the floor, to be used as fodder or fuel for the kitchen’s cook stove.
As the farmer used corn, he was constantly analyzing the ear. If one looked exceptionally good, it was set aside for next year’s crop. Later, it too made its way through the sheller. Open-pollinated corn made it possible for the farmer to be his own seed supplier.
As the corn sheller evolved, a tipper was added to the unit. Kernels on the end of the ear are less desirable for planting purposes; the tipper was used to collect those, which were set those aside as feed for fowl or livestock.
An early entrant in the market
One of Jake’s oldest shellers is a Marseilles unit dating to the early 1900s. Marseilles Mfg. Co., originally based in Marseilles, Illinois, began producing corn shellers in the 1800s. Marseilles shellers were shipped throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Taking note of the Marseilles’ exceptional quality, Deere & Co. purchased the company in about 1910. Deere continued to market shellers under the Marseilles name, eventually relocating the factory to East Moline, where it was renamed the Marseilles Works.
Jake’s Marseilles Diamond sheller is a fine original showing rich color and detail. Manufactured by Marseilles in East Moline, the piece carries an 1873 patent date. Marseilles began producing full-size mechanized rigs in 1887, when it launched the Cyclone line.
Collecting John Deere shellers
In 1915, Deere & Co. began producing a line of shellers identified simply as “No. 1.” When Jake saw one in an antique store some 25 years ago, he was hooked. The Deere No. 1 launched his collection, which quickly doubled when his sister gave him another No. 1.
In 1924, Deere introduced the Model 1A. The No. 1B, Deere’s final sheller design, was launched in 1936 and remained in production into the 1950s. The 1B’s flywheel could be powered by an electric engine.
Jake has one two-hole sheller, an early John Deere No. 2. This one is rare because it is made of wood; most Deere No. 2 models were made of metal. The No. 2 was produced from 1915 to 1931. It was followed by the No. 2A, produced from 1920 to 1940.
The parts book for the No. 2 sheller offers two replacement cranks: a one-hand crank and a two-hand crank. “It obviously took a lot of muscle to turn the gears to shear the kernels off,” Jake says. “Most farmers probably used the engine with this model.”
Jake’s collection also includes a sheller produced by New Idea Mfg. Co. in Coldwater, Ohio. Manufactured in the 1930-40s, the sheller is an all-metal design with a fluted tray. New Idea bought out Sandwich (Ill.) Mfg. Co., an early sheller manufacturer, in the early 1930s and continued to produce shellers for several years. “New Idea was a great early day company,” he says. “They never produced a tractor, but they did make engines.”
Adding interest to a collection
Jake hasn’t limited his collection to corn shellers. He also looks for accessory items that would have been used in the work of corn harvesting and shelling. Take the wagon scoop board. Similar to an end gate, the scoop board laid all the way down to make it easier to unload the wagon. Scooping corn off was the hardest work of the harvest, and many times, Jake says, the hired man drew the line at that job.
Anyone who’d ever tried to scoop out a wagonload of ear corn would understand the need for a scoop board. A firm surface is needed to get a scoop under the corn.
“Remember the hand work involved,” Jake says. “First the corn was hand-picked. Then the wagon was scooped out and the corn thrown into the crib. Later it was scooped again and put into the hand-crank sheller, one ear at a time.”
John Deere – and more
Collecting antique farm items is a fun pastime and interest for Jake and his wife, Sharon. He traces his interest in Deere tractors and equipment to his dad, who used John Deere tractors on his farm.
“It helps me to focus just on John Deere,” he says. “I know their books, their history. But when I’m at the shows, I am more interested in learning about all tractor and farm companies, and I enjoy visiting with other collectors.” FC
Improving a Labor-Intensive Process
Two centuries ago, life on the farm had changed little since the days of ancient Rome. But in the new land of America, new ideas for making work less tedious and faster were encouraged and readily accepted. Agriculture was ripe for change.
For Europeans, the discovery of America also marked the discovery of corn (also known as maize). The crop saved the pilgrims from starvation and proved to be a valuable crop for the early settlers. It was easy to grow, harvest and store.
Corn yields were higher than those initially achieved with the small grains the European settlers were familiar with. Higher yields were important, as corn is a primary ingredient in livestock feed. Corn was also adaptable as it can be grown in all 50 states.
In 1716, minister and scientist Cotton Mather was one of the many to lay the groundwork for hybridization. He planted two very different types of corn – a row of red-and-blue kernel corn surrounded by rows of yellow corn – and documented the results:
“… to the windward side, this red and blue row, so infected three or four whole rows, as to communicate the same color unto them; and part of the fifth, and some of the sixth. But to the leeward side, no less than seven or eight rows had the same color communicated unto them; and some small impressions were made on those that were yet further off.”
Thus began the idea of improving corn through cross-pollination and hybridization. As yields increased, so did the work involved in a crop where plenty of hand labor had already been utilized in planting, growing and harvesting.
The work didn’t stop there, as kernels needed to be separated from the ear. Farm families may have spent their evenings sitting near a warm stove, removing kernels with their fingers and thumbs. It is a cozy picture, but in real life, “Ouch!” would be a better description.
At first a wooden box with a handle that pushed down on a turning ear of corn was an improvement over true hand shelling. The first patented corn sheller came on the market in the 1880s. A tedious chore had been eliminated. I suspect a great deal of cheering ensued when a corn sheller was unloaded from the farm wagon! – Renae B. Vander Schaaf
For more information: Jake Rens (712) 737-2210 (home)
or (503) 381-5505 (mobile);
Renae B. Vander Schaaf is a columnist and author of two works of historical fiction. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; (605) 530-0017.