Homemade Corn Sheller Built to Work

Follow this life story about a homemade corn sheller built to work better and more efficient than when it was bought.

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by Leslie C. McManus
Shelled corn pouring into wagon, the kind of scene that would have made Harold Kemmerer bellow, “More corn! More corn!”

Harold Kemmerer died in 2007, but people still talk about his work ethic. He bought a farm (and equipment) in 1937 and paid it off in three years. At his farm near Plainfield, Illinois, he raised corn and oats, feeder hogs and cattle.

Over the years, he hauled grain commercially and ran a grain service to sell others’ crops. So when he bought a small, pull-type corn sheller that couldn’t keep up with him, he didn’t lose any sleep over it. He just built an implement that could.

Working with his brother-in-law, Lloyd Erickson — a mechanical genius in his own right — Harold devised a mounted sheller that would operate on an industrial scale. They started with a 1944 468ci Buda-Lanova diesel engine salvaged from a Greyhound bus once used in the Chicago area and put it into a 1932 Le Moon truck purchased for $75 from a junkyard.

In the process, the truck was lengthened by 4 feet: 1 foot in front, to accommodate the Buda engine, and 3 feet in back, where a 1950 Joliet Big 6 corn sheller (purchased for $2,400) produced by Belle City Mfg., Racine, Wisconsin, was anchored to the chassis.

Harold’s creation, completed in 1950 when he was 34, mirrored his work ethic. “It was built to go to the job, shell corn, come home, refuel and be ready to go the next day,” says his grandson, Jim Kemmerer Jr., Fort Scott, Kansas. “His sheller was bigger, faster and stronger than others of the day.”

Invention made shelling quicker, easier

Six V-belts supply power from engine to the sheller. The sheller’s main cylinder measures about 2 feet in diameter and 5 feet long. The top is a heavy steel plate; the sides are formed by 3/4-inch steel rods spaced about 1/2 inch apart. The rods run the length of the cylinder and are held in position by steel rings.

In operation, the corn and cobs drop onto shaker screens that have holes slightly larger than that of the shelled corn. The corn drops through, but the cobs remain on top and are moved to the front, where the cob auger is located.

A transfer case was added to enable easy diversion of engine power to either the rear wheels or the Big 6 sheller. “On some shellers, you had to crawl under and manually unhook,” Jim Kemmerer Sr. says. A Reeves wooden belt variable-speed transmission (designed for factory use) that supplies power to the drags was added in 1952. “Harold was always looking for something to make shelling easier and quicker,” says Dean Keeley, Harold’s son-in-law.

The truck’s fuel tank is located under the seat. To fill it, the passenger seat must be removed. And that’s not the only quirk. “The sheller’s Frantz oil filter system, installed in 1965, uses three rolls of toilet paper. The last oil change was in 1965,” Jim Jr. notes. “You change the toilet paper, not the oil. Toilet paper is great for absorbing water and contaminants.”

The starter was a 24v replaced with 12v in 2009. The exhaust pipe (the truck does not have a muffler) is aimed straight up, minimizing the risk of sparks igniting husks and dust. The truck’s copper radiator was bought in a junkyard for $30. In 70 years, it has yet to spring a leak.

Short on creature comforts

As built, the sheller had only four new parts. All other components were used or salvaged from junk. In use from 1950 to 1995, the unit had a capacity of 1,800 bushels per hour. “Over the years, it’s estimated to have shelled 14-16 million bushels of corn, which would fill the world’s second largest elevator (located in Enid, Oklahoma),” Jim Jr. says.

The engine has never been torn into after the Frantz system was added, but the sheller’s interior was overhauled every three or four years. “When rocks went through, the sheller would crush them,” Janice says. “Boards don’t crush. If something didn’t sound right, he’d know exactly what it was.”

Designed to be a workhorse, the sheller was noticeably short on creature comforts. “It had no power anything,” Jim Jr. says. “No air conditioning, no heat, no power steering, power brakes or power windows. There’s no emergency brake, but there is a way to lock the standard brakes on.”

Popular show attraction

Once part of a club collection, the sheller returned to the family when Jim brought it to his home in Fort Scott, Kansas. There it is regularly put through its paces at Fort Scott’s annual Pioneer Harvest Fiesta.

“Weather permitting, we always participate in that show,” Jim says. Club members were skeptical at first. “We don’t grow enough corn in this county to feed that thing,” one said with a wink, after watching a video of the sheller in action. Today it is a popular attraction at the show.

The street-legal sheller is occasionally displayed at area shows, driven to them under its own power. Such outings require nerves of steel. “The truck has a top speed of 32mph,” Jim says, “but you need to pay close attention at all times.”

From sunup to sundown

Harold’s children were an integral part of the shelling operation. “I was considered old enough to drive the truck when my legs were long enough to reach the pedals and my arms were strong enough to turn the wheel,” says Janice Keeley, Harold’s daughter. “I remember being pretty young when I was told to drive to a certain point outside the city limits and meet my uncle. We’d switch trucks and he’d drive the rest of the way to town,” Jim Sr. says.

Janice also remembers driving the grain truck, followed by the leaf truck and cob truck. “Us grain truck drivers were never around for breaks,” she recalls. “Dad played pinochle if he had to wait. There was never downtime for him; he never just sat around and visited.” He was, in a word, unstoppable. “You could not keep up with him,” she says. “He worked six days a week and he could get by on four hours sleep a night.”

Some farmers found someone else to shell their corn. “He was a taskmaster,” Janice says of her father. “If the elevator opened at 8 a.m., he wanted the first truck loaded by 7:15 or 7:30. That sheller fit our dad’s personality of sunup to sundown.” On occasion, the wagons were loaded the night before. “He’d finish the job before he’d go home,” Dean says.

It was not a schedule designed to accommodate a teenager’s social life. On at least one occasion, Janice drove the sheller home in order to get there in time for a date. In summer, the work was hot and dirty. “You’d just get filthy in the summer,” Dean recalls. “And you learned fast to put rubber bands around the ankles of your jeans. There were lots of mice and rats in that corn.”

Shut down by progress

Harold’s sheller could process 10,000 bushels of corn a day if the farm was set up for efficient shelling, meaning only two setups. “One of our neighbors had a 10,000-bushel corn crib and we’d shell the ear corn in one day,” Jim Sr. says. “There were no coffee breaks and a very short dinner. He was always yelling ‘More corn! More corn!’ while the corn was coming out of the auger.” Over the 45-year run, the going rate started at .5 cents per bushel and peaked at 2 cents per bushel, plus haulage.

The operation included the sheller, at least three grain trucks (he’d hire more as needed), a cob wagon and a leaf wagon. The leaf wagon’s contents were used as bedding in Harold’s cattle yard. The wagon was customized with a conveyor from an Allis-Chalmers silo filler to simplify unloading.

Advanced technology eventually shut down the operation. “Combines and dryers put the corn crib and sheller out of business,” Janice says. I was still driving the truck in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it really started tapering off when they came out with dryers.”

‘I learned three things’

In his later years, after retirement, Harold busied himself making his farm neat and orderly. Then, assessing his buildings, he rented storage space for campers and boats. “I learned three things,” he’d tell people. “I made more money from storage than from feeding cattle and hogs. The flies decreased by 90%, and most of the boats and campers left once, in the spring, and came back once, in the fall, instead of me having to go out there to feed livestock twice a day.”

Harold grew up in town, but as a boy, he spent a lot of time at a relative’s farm. “He’d ride his bike there from Naperville,” Janice says. “He might stay there all weekend.” As a youth, he played fast-pitch softball, a sport in which the catcher shoulders more responsibility than anyone else on the team.

And Harold? He was the catcher. FC

For more information:

Jim Kemmerer Jr., (620) 224-2275; email: jimkemmerer86@gmail.com. To see videos of the sheller in action, visit Jim’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/jimkemmerer.

Pioneer Harvest Fiesta, Fort Scott, Kansas, Oct. 2-4, 2020; www.pioneerharvestfiesta.com.

Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.

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