Two boyhood friends with a shared interest in what was once a vital (but dangerous) farm implement find and restore an antique corn husker/shredder.
Bernal Tolan and Don Binkley with their restored antique corn husker-corn shredder.
The early corn husker/corn shredder is a classic example of the dangers inherent in farming. "Most of these machines … were extremely dangerous," writes C.H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques. "It was relatively easy for those feeding the shredder to become entangled in the mechanism and be drawn into the snapping roles."
Don Binkley was a boy of 6 when he first saw a husker-shredder operate, and it made a huge impression. "They wouldn't let me close to the machine," he recalls. "It was too dangerous."
Decades later, things have changed. Today, Don and his neighbor Bernal Tolan, friends since childhood, have bought and restored an antique corn husker/corn shredder made by McCormick-Deering. The unit is similar to one owned by Don's grandfather, and the men have fond memories of watching it in action. It's no surprise, really, that they yearned to replace the long-gone machine. The element of surprise came when they paid $200 for it … and then actually told their wives.
"You know what divorce is?" Don says. "The women looked at that, and said, 'You actually paid money for that?'"
On a roll, the pair then bought a second unit, one in even sadder shape, to use for parts. "I bought the whole shredder for $5, because nobody bid on it," Don says. "It had sat inside, but was covered with manure. We've only seen three of these machines at auction, and never a wooden one on display. Most people just put them in a fence row and they just rotted away."
Husker-shredders date to the late 1890s, with Keystone, Milwaukee, and Monarch among the earliest manufacturers. The Michigan pair's McCormick-Deering Special six-roll unit contains a Keystone head and shredder, and is constructed partially of wood. McCormick-Deering began producing the Special in 1917. In the 1920s, lightweight steel replaced the wood of the early designs. Production of the Special ended in the early 1930s.
Don and Bernal's parts shredder has a wooden axle and frame, while the $200 wood-frame shredder has a steel axle. They believe the latter shredder dates to some time between 1917-1922.
As a boy, Don had particular interest in watching stray kernels, crawling with corn borers, pour down a chute from the husker-shredder into a wooden box (the Special also came with a cloth bag to catch the stray kernels). "They put that shelled corn (into a bean sorter) and I'd run the treadle, and flip the corn borers out," he says. "Ice fishermen paid a penny for every two you got. That was big bucks back in the 1940s for a 6-year-old!"
"One time they had the husker-shredder parked up next to the barn," Bernal says. "It had a real long belt. My dad's small Farmall BN had a pulley on the back. The wind was blowing so hard, and the belt was so long, and the tractor so small, they had to drive a bar in the ground next to the front to keep the wheels from sliding sideways!"
Husker-shredders were typically used in late fall, after corn had been cut, shocked, and left to dry in the field. Wagonloads of shocks would be hauled to the barn, where the shredder waited. A man on the wagon put bundles on the feed table. Another man on the machine cut the binder twine and fed stalks into the machine. The husker-shredder separated the ear from the stalk, pitching husked ears into the wagon, and shredded leaves and stalk — fodder — into a pile.
"They fed their cattle the ears, stalks and leaves," Don says. "Sometimes the cows didn't like the stalks, so farmers used them for bedding. They didn't waste anything. When they got done husking the first load, they'd put that corn in the crib. The second load they left on the wagon, to feed during the week. We had sheep, chickens, hogs, and milk cows. It was hard work for everybody." In about 1947, Don's father replaced the shredder with an Oliver single-row corn picker, and an era ended.
For all their fond memories of the husker-shredder, the pair of collectors had a big job on their hands. The piece was very rough. "It was completely brown with rust," Bernal says. "The blower pipe was wrinkled. We took it apart and we've got the bolts, but we don't know where they are. We spent close to four years on it. It got to the point that I didn't remember where some of the parts went when I got ready to put it back together!"
The hardest part, Don says, was tearing apart the second shredder. "Amazingly, the bolts were not rusted," he says. "I think I broke two out of probably 500-600 bolts."
The men restored the main bearing on the drive pulley, bearings on the fan, and a number of wood parts — including the rotten conveyor deck. Friends rebuilt wheel axles and the fan shaft. The blower pipe was a particular challenge … until a tube the right size turned up at a salvage yard. "And we didn't think we'd ever find the big gear for the blower pipe," Bernal says. "That's why we bought a second machine that had a good ring gear."
Because the unit has cast iron flanges, the restorers drilled a lot of holes. Precision work was essential. "The holes have to be right so the pipe goes out straight," Don says. Since most of the original belts were rotten, Don and Bernal found a replacement drive belt for the tractor. One original belt (the one for the corn elevator) remained on the shredder. The feed table was detached from the husker, but the mounting brackets were still there.
Today, the project is complete except for stencils. Remnants of original paint were good indicators for decal placement, the restorers say.
Don and Bernal are not content to park their restored husker-shredder inside and admire it. Last fall, Don planted a field of corn next to his house where he could put the restored relic through its paces. He's even built a shock horse to aid in the process.
"It's a little like a sawhorse, but has only one end on it," he says. "We build the shocks around it. After they're built and tied, you pull out the shock horse. "The shocks are stacked in an old ensilage wagon, and mothballs are scattered in between. "The varmints — raccoons and mice — don't like them," Don says.
The shredder, fed a diet of dried corn on a cold fall day, works like a champ. Soon, it'll be running like clockwork. "We'll use it this summer for demonstrations," Don says. FC