Cornhusking Contests Keep History Alive

National Cornhuskers Assn. hosts cornhusking contests throughout the Midwest each fall

| January 2011

The farms were smaller, yes, and rows were spaced farther apart – but still, try to fathom a time when corn was harvested one ear at a time. One ear at a time, by hand; by men, women and children, working for weeks at a time, in all kinds of weather. 

By the late 1930s, mechanized corn pickers harvested the majority of the ear corn crop in the U.S. But up to that time, the harvest was conducted in the way it always had been: by hand. That tradition is honored today by members of the National Cornhuskers Assn., who bring the past to life each fall in cornhusking contests held in nine states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.

Each state holds competitions in 10 age classes. The top three placers in each class are eligible to attend the national cornhusking contest. In 2010, the national contest was held in Kansas; the 2011 nationals will be in Missouri.

If there’s anything more difficult to believe than a hand-picked corn crop, try this. Time was, tens of thousands of people dropped everything to attend cornhusking contests. The 1938 Illinois competition, for instance, drew a crowd of 85,000.

Today’s events pale in comparison. Contemporary cornhusking contests are considered a success if the combined total of competitors and spectators tops the century mark. But where the early competitions were bona fide sporting events, covered by the national media, today’s contests are in their own way much more serious business. Today’s cornhuskers are having fun, to be sure, but their real mission is to make sure the toil of their predecessors is not forgotten.

Grabbing the next ear
At 77, Ardith Clair, Manden, is a seasoned contender in the women’s 75-and-up class at the Illinois state cornhusking contest held just outside Roseville in early October. Warming up for her turn, she reluctantly agrees to be interviewed. “Just don’t make it too flowery,” she orders.