Harvesting Corn, One Ear at a Time

The day the cavalry arrived

| February 2009

  • picking corn by hand
    Harvesting corn by hand was a tedious job.

  • picking corn by hand

Is it possible that tens of millions of ears hanging from Iowa cornstalks were once taken, one at a time, by hand?

Our farm was too small for half-mile rows. It was sobering enough to stand in the chilly frostiness of a November morning and look down a quarter-mile row.

We had already been up at dawn, done the chores, milked the cows, separated the milk and had a good breakfast. We had harnessed the teams, hitched them to the wagons and put several extra pairs of shucking gloves into a box nailed on the side of the wagon.

We wore those gloves until they were rags. They were made with a thumb on each side so both sides could wear out evenly. When they became so tattered that the rough corn kernels scraped our hands to bleeding, we turned them over and used the other thumb.

On special days, our mother put a red apple or two among the gloves. Waiting for the treat of a cold, crisp apple at the end of two rows helped make the ears fly. With our patient team plodding down the road to the field, we stood inside a wagon – a high bang board to our right. Ears of corn, thrown against the bang board, fell down into the wagon.

Kids often got the old, battered wagons with sheets of tin nailed on the floor to cover weak boards and more coffee-can lids or other tin scraps tacked over holes in the bang board. Some of the tin might be hanging in shreds from the long hammering of a stream of ears.