Cornhusking Contests Keep History Alive

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

| January 2011

  • Robert Moore, competing in the men’s 75-and-up class. The oldest and youngest competitors pick for 10 minutes; all others (including those in the open class) pick for 20 minutes. Missed ears, retrieved by the gleaner (at back), count against the husker’s total.
    Robert Moore, competing in the men’s 75-and-up class. The oldest and youngest competitors pick for 10 minutes; all others (including those in the open class) pick for 20 minutes. Missed ears, retrieved by the gleaner (at back), count against the husker’s total.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Justin Wiesbrook, Yorkville, reaches for an ear in the pee-wee competition.
    Justin Wiesbrook, Yorkville, reaches for an ear in the pee-wee competition.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A field of corn is carved with channels referred to as “lands.” Each husker is assigned to a specific land. Here, the tractor-drawn wagon, husker and gleaner are barely visible through a wall of corn. A high wall on one side of the wagon is the “bangboard”: as huskers toss ears, the bangboard acts like a basketball goal’s backboard in stopping them.
    A field of corn is carved with channels referred to as “lands.” Each husker is assigned to a specific land. Here, the tractor-drawn wagon, husker and gleaner are barely visible through a wall of corn. A high wall on one side of the wagon is the “bangboard”: as huskers toss ears, the bangboard acts like a basketball goal’s backboard in stopping them.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Deena Miller, Sheridan, husks with steely concentration.
    Deena Miller, Sheridan, husks with steely concentration.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Friends and relatives follow the husker, shouting encouragement.
    Friends and relatives follow the husker, shouting encouragement.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • At 77, Ardith Clair is a comparative youngster in her age group. “You’ve got to be 75 to pick in this class,” she says. “I had a cousin still shucking at 85, so I’ve got a ways to go.”
    At 77, Ardith Clair is a comparative youngster in her age group. “You’ve got to be 75 to pick in this class,” she says. “I had a cousin still shucking at 85, so I’ve got a ways to go.”
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Adam Molitor, 13, Stockton, was all grins with a corncob pipe after stepping up from peewee ranks into the fray of serious competition.
    Adam Molitor, 13, Stockton, was all grins with a corncob pipe after stepping up from peewee ranks into the fray of serious competition. “It’s harder with a hook,” he says. “It’s a big change from just grabbing ears.” His grandmother, Sis Wiesbrook, Yorkville, acts as recruiter and coach, bringing grandchildren into the activity. “You did fine,” she tells Adam after he finishes. “What did we talk about? You pick and look ahead.”
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A few ears of Bud Thompson's flag corn
    A few ears of Bud Thompson's flag corn
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Each husker’s haul is weighed. The weight of missed ears and husks counts against the total.
    Each husker’s haul is weighed. The weight of missed ears and husks counts against the total.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Bud Thompson and a fan, admiring Bud’s hand-painted ears of corn. Bud plans to tackle 150 ears this year. “I’ve got a pretty steady hand yet,” he says.
    Bud Thompson and a fan, admiring Bud’s hand-painted ears of corn. Bud plans to tackle 150 ears this year. “I’ve got a pretty steady hand yet,” he says.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Ear of corn at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Ear of corn at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Corn stalks at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Corn stalks at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest 
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Corn stalks at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Corn stalks at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A youngster surveys the scene at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    A youngster surveys the scene at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Land 3. Lands are channels that have been cut into fields of corn. Each competitor gets their own land.
    Land 3. Lands are channels that have been cut into fields of corn. Each competitor gets their own land.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • The fruits of the competitors' labor.
    The fruits of the competitors' labor.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Corn Husking Association painting
    Illinois State Corn Husking Association painting
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Waiting to begin
    Waiting to begin
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Cornhusking hook
    Cornhusking hook
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • After competition, Ardith Clair's husked corn is moved from the wagon into a tub to be weighed
    After competition, Ardith Clair's husked corn is moved from the wagon into a tub to be weighed
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Competitor Ardith Clair shows off the hook she uses during competition
    Competitor Ardith Clair shows off the hook she uses during competition
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Clearing
    Clearing "lands" for competitiors
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Husked corn awaiting weigh time.
    Husked corn awaiting weigh time.
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Young cornhuskers get practice in before competition
    Young cornhuskers get practice in before competition
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

    Photo by Terri McManus

  • Robert Moore, competing in the men’s 75-and-up class. The oldest and youngest competitors pick for 10 minutes; all others (including those in the open class) pick for 20 minutes. Missed ears, retrieved by the gleaner (at back), count against the husker’s total.
  • Justin Wiesbrook, Yorkville, reaches for an ear in the pee-wee competition.
  • A field of corn is carved with channels referred to as “lands.” Each husker is assigned to a specific land. Here, the tractor-drawn wagon, husker and gleaner are barely visible through a wall of corn. A high wall on one side of the wagon is the “bangboard”: as huskers toss ears, the bangboard acts like a basketball goal’s backboard in stopping them.
  • Deena Miller, Sheridan, husks with steely concentration.
  • Friends and relatives follow the husker, shouting encouragement.
  • At 77, Ardith Clair is a comparative youngster in her age group. “You’ve got to be 75 to pick in this class,” she says. “I had a cousin still shucking at 85, so I’ve got a ways to go.”
  • Adam Molitor, 13, Stockton, was all grins with a corncob pipe after stepping up from peewee ranks into the fray of serious competition.
  • A few ears of Bud Thompson's flag corn
  • Each husker’s haul is weighed. The weight of missed ears and husks counts against the total.
  • Bud Thompson and a fan, admiring Bud’s hand-painted ears of corn. Bud plans to tackle 150 ears this year. “I’ve got a pretty steady hand yet,” he says.
  • Ear of corn at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Corn stalks at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Corn stalks at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • A youngster surveys the scene at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Land 3. Lands are channels that have been cut into fields of corn. Each competitor gets their own land.
  • The fruits of the competitors' labor.
  • Illinois State Corn Husking Association painting
  • Waiting to begin
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Cornhusking at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Cornhusking hook
  • After competition, Ardith Clair's husked corn is moved from the wagon into a tub to be weighed
  • Competitor Ardith Clair shows off the hook she uses during competition
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Clearing
  • Husked corn awaiting weigh time.
  • Young cornhuskers get practice in before competition
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • A competitior in the pee-wee competition at the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest
  • Illinois State Cornhusking Contest

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.