Before combines and mechanical pickers, shock tiers were used to gather corn stalks for later use
Farm Collector Editor Leslie McManus received the following e-mail and photos from reader Jerry Kelly: “I just purchased a corn shock tier and can’t figure out how to rope it.”
Today, when 12- and 18-row combines chew swiftly through 100-acre corn fields, it’s difficult to imagine how, less than 100 years ago, a farmer and his son could tackle 10 or 20 acres of corn armed only with a wooden horse and a corn knife apiece, along with a supply of rye straw or a ball of binder twine with which to tie the cut stalks into shocks. In the account below, Mr. Steele doesn’t mention using a shock tier, nor do I remember my father or grandfather using such a device when they were still cutting corn by hand during the early 1940s.
In some areas, ears were hand-picked from standing stalks that were left in the field to be burned or rolled down before spring plowing. But many farmers valued the stalks as fodder or bedding for their livestock. Therefore, the stalks were cut about a foot above the ground, gathered into large bundles (or shocks) and left standing upright in the field to dry and cure. The shocks had to be tied securely so they would withstand the wind and not be blown over and scattered.
Some farmers, such as the Steeles, hauled the stalks into the barn where, as Frances tells us, the ears were husked in the evenings or on rainy or snowy days. On our farm, the shocks were husked in the field and the ears hauled to the granary and the stalks to the barn.
Trying to compress and tie a large bundle of corn stalks that one could barely reach around was tough to do – I wish I could remember how Dad did it – so, as always, inventive minds tried to solve the problem.
After searching through more than 1,000 patents, I found 101 (and I’m sure I missed some) for shock binders, compressors and tiers with the first dated 1860 and the last 1935, by which time corn pickers were coming into their own and shocking corn was falling out of favor.
Most shock tiers consisted of a pointed wooden stick a foot or two long, and a length of heavy cord or light rope with some method for joining it at varying lengths. The rope was attached to a crank or lever with which to tighten the rope and compress the shock, and there was a way to hold the crank, lever or rope in its tightened position while twine was tied around the shock. Some included a knife with which to cut the twine, and some had a bag or other means of carrying the ball of twine.
To use one of these gadgets, corn stalks were gathered and stood on the cut ends to form the shock, which was typically two or three feet in diameter. The pointed end of the stick was pushed horizontally into the stalk at tying height in order to hold the tier in position. The loose end of the rope was then taken around the shock, pulled up snug and attached to the other side of the device. Most farmers carried the loose end of the twine around the shock along with the rope, so it was already in place for tying.
The crank was then turned (or the lever operated) to tighten the rope around the stalks, compressing the bundle. A ratchet or hook was used to hold the tension while the twine was tied tightly and cut off. The tension was released, the tier pulled from the shock and a new one started.
Some later shock tiers had a movable dog that would grip the rope and hold it in place while the twine was tied. Although I never found the exact patent for Jerry Kelly’s tier I believe that’s how it worked. The sketch shows how the rope was probably attached, and it most likely was operated as follows:
The pointed stick is pushed into the shock to hold the tier while the free ends of both the rope and the twine are carried around the shock. The stick is removed from the shock and used to hold the tier while the rope is placed between the pulley and the movable dog, and the twine is hung on the hook at the end of the knife blade. The tier handle is held with one hand, and with the other the rope is pulled tight around the shock, compressing it. When the rope is dropped, the dog should hold it firmly in place, while the twine is tied and then cut off using the knife blade. The rope eyelet on the movable dog is pushed toward the pulley, releasing the rope, which may then be removed through the side opening. If this isn’t how the tier is used I’m sure a reader will let me know.
I have a rather elaborate lever-type shock tier patented in 1918 by John M. Schebler, Hamburg, Ind. It consists of a ladder-like wooden frame with a holder for a ball of twine between the uprights near the bottom, two pulleys suspended at each side of the top, and a lever with a hook and a rope-clamping device partway down its length. The frame is leaned against the shock, the lever raised, and the rope (one end of which is tied to the movable jaw of the clamp) is passed over one pulley, around the shock and through the other pulley and the hook to the clamp. When the lever is pulled down the rope is tightened, compressing the shock so it can be tied with the twine.
Mechanical corn harvesters of various designs were developed as early as the 1820s, but most only cut the stalks, which still had to be compressed and tied into shocks by hand. In 1892, Albert S. Peck, Geneva, Ill., patented a machine that cut corn stalks and carried them vertically to a binding mechanism where they were tied into bundles and ejected from the machine. Even with a corn binder to tie the bundles, if the corn was left in the field to dry, the bundles had to be gathered and tied into shocks.
Finally, during the late 1920s, successful corn pickers came onto the market. Over the next decade most farmers switched to them, which eliminated the need to shock the stalks.
First-person account of cutting corn by hand in early 1900sThe following account was hand-written in a loose-leaf notebook sometime during the 1970s by Frances Steele, then in his seventies. Frances grew up on a farm in South Beaver Township, Beaver County, Pa. My late cousin, Peg Townsend, who lived in the house Mr. Steele’s grandparents built in 1908 after their log cabin burned, copied some of the pages for me. The account is almost exactly as written by Mr. Steele, with a word added here and there for clarity, and while it doesn’t mention the use of a shock tier, it explains how corn was cut by hand.
“My father and I would take eight rows at a time. I cut four rows and he cut four. He used a regular corn cutter and I used a sickle, which I liked better. We used a wooden horse to lean the corn together between the fourth and fifth row. The horse was a pole about three inches in diameter at the big end and 12 feet long. It was about two inches at the small end. It had two broomsticks for legs at the big end and the small end rested on the ground. And one and a half foot from the large end a hole the size of a broomstick or handle was drilled and a broomstick inserted. This is what the corn was leaned on to start the shock. And when we had cut a space eight rows square, my father would tie the shock. With either rye straw for a band, or binder twine, and as soon as it was tied, I would pull out the broom stick and pull the horse ahead and we would start a new shock. We mostly hauled the shocks in (onto) the barn floor and husked on rainy days or in the evening by lantern light. Major, my dog, would always be around. He loved to eat corn, and there would be mice in the field under the shocks when we hauled them in. And I saw him have a front foot on a mouse holding it down while he killed another one, but (he) never ate one. One man is supposed to cut 100 shocks a day. We never cut that many, and we did not lose any time.” FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at email@example.com.