Earning an Honesty Living
Eighty-five years ago, an early October issue of the Farm and Dairy, a weekly farm paper still published in Salem, Ohio, carried the following news item: ‘Corn cutters throughout Ohio are making between $9 and $14 a day. The prevailing rate is from 18 to 20 cents a shock and the average cutter is able to dispose of 50 shocks a day. N.E. Shaw of the state agriculture department knows of one man who cut 80 shocks from sunup to sundown and received 25 cents a shock.’
Even though the Armistice ending the Great War had gone into effect in November 1918, the wartime boom continued through 1919. Many soldiers were still on occupation duty and had not yet been demobilized. This meant that farm labor was in short supply and wages were high, explaining how a man who was a good corn cutter could earn the princely sum of $15 or $20 a day. The pay in 1919 may have been good, but cutting corn by hand was still slow, hard work. A man with a corn knife was fortunate if he could cut and shock an acre and a half per day. One acre or less was more realistic. A shock typically held from 64 to 100 hills, although the farther away from the shock the cut hills were, the farther they had to be carried, making smaller-sized shocks more practical. In check-row corn, the center four hills of an eight-row square area were not cut, but their tops were tied or twisted together to form a gallows, or support, for the shock. The remaining hills in the eight-row square area around the support were chopped off with a corn knife and carried to, and leaned around, the four support hills. When the shock was completed, it was tied with twine, long rye straw or twisted cornstalks.
With hills commonly planted 42 inches apart, each 64-hill shock held about 784 square feet of corn, meaning it would have taken about 55 shocks to constitute one acre. In areas where the corn was drilled in rows and not planted in hills, a three-legged, wooden horse (as described in the last issue of Farm Collector) was used to support the cut stalks until there were enough of them to tie into a shock. As might be suspected, inventive people attempted to come up with a way to mechanize the drudgery of cutting corn. The earliest such machines appeared during the 1820s, and were based on the reciprocating knife blades of mowers and reapers. Unfortunately, these lighter-duty knives wouldn’t stand up to the strain of suddenly striking a hill of two, three or four thick, tough corn stalks. An elaborate corn cutter patented in 1844 by Jacob Peck Oakland, Tenn., set the pattern for the sled-type corn harvester that became state-of-the-art until the 1890s.
There were many variations on the corn sled, but it was basically a wooden platform, usually mounted on heavy wooden runners, with one or more fixed, angled blades attached. In operation, the sled was pulled close enough along a row of corn stalks that the angled blade would slice through the stalks a few inches above ground level. The operator rode on the sled and, sometimes with the help of a curved gathering arm, caught the cut stalks in his arms. When he had gathered all the stalks he could hold, they were thrown to the side in gavels for someone else to pile and tie into shocks. Some of the sleds had larger platforms and railings so enough stalks could be accumulated on the platform for a shock, at which time the sled was stopped and the operator set up and tied the shock.
Some one-row sleds had a knife along one side, while others had a V-shaped blade in the center. Two-row sleds had an angled blade on each side and were pulled by one horse between the rows. Later two-row machines had wheels as well as seats for two men to ride and gather the corn. Gathering the cut stalks was still hard work, and the shocks still had to be built by hand. The cutting blades had to be kept razor sharp and the horse had to move at a brisk pace, or the blade would ride down the stalks instead of cutting them. Lodged, or ‘down,’ corn could hardly be cut with a sled, although lifters and gatherers were devised that helped. The sharp, exposed knives were dangerous, especially in the case of a skittish horse. It was said that a two-man sled harvester could probably cut two to three times as much corn in a 10-hour day as the same two men could cut by hand.
In 1892, A.S. Peck, Geneva, Ill., patented the first successful corn binder. This machine had two pointed dividers that passed on either side of the corn row. Gathering chains carried the stalks into a heavy, reciprocating knife, which cut them a few inches above the ground, and then to the binding mechanism, which was the same as that used on a grain binder. The stalks were tied into neat, compact bundles that could be set up into shocks, or, if the corn was to be chopped for silage, hauled directly to the chopper. The corn binder could cut and bind about seven acres per day and was welcomed by corn-belt farmers. Even though corn sleds and binders were in widespread use in the corn belt by 1919, eastern farmers, who typically raised only 10 or 20 acres of corn each year, were reluctant to spend the money required to buy one of these machines. That’s why the human corn cutters mentioned in the Farm and Dairy were still in demand. As I recall, we still cut corn by hand on our western Pennsylvania farm well into the 1940s, before dad began to hire a neighbor with a corn picker to do the job.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania but he now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Sam is a longtime Farm Collector columnist. This column originally appeared in the November 2004 issue.