A History of Corn: Beginnings and Tall Tales of Farming Corn in America

More acres in the U.S. are planted to corn than any other crop, making "King Corn" the most valuable crop in the nation.

article image
courtesy Sam Moore
Front cover illustration from a corn harvesting machinery catalog produced in about 1903 by the Plano Division of International Harvester.

Editor’s note: This is part one of a three part series about planting, cultivating and harvesting corn, with a focus on the machinery and techniques developed for planting corn. Click here to read parts two and three.

Born in the Americas, corn fueled farms and inspired tall tales

The 2021 corn harvest is underway now. Soon the crop will be transported to bins where farmers wait hopefully for the market price to rise. In the old days, the corn harvest started in the fall and usually took most of the winter to complete.

In fact, more acres are planted in corn than any other crop, which makes “King Corn” the most valuable crop grown in the U.S., even though its price per bushel doesn’t impress the farmer who markets his harvest.

In English-speaking countries, “corn” is the most commonly used name for that country’s biggest cash crop. Thus, in England “corn” refers to wheat. In Scotland and Ireland, the term is used for oats, and in the U.S., Canada and Australia, corn is the common name of North American maize, which originated in central Mexico more than 3,000 years ago.

Learning the fundamentals

Corn, as modern American farmers know it, was cultivated in the Western Hemisphere for centuries before Christopher Columbus first noted its importance to people in the West Indies. Columbus described the newfound staple in his journal on Nov. 6, 1492: “The land is very fertile, and is cultivated with yams, kidney beans, and another grain like panic (European millet) called by them ‘mahiz’ (maize) of very excellent flavor cooked or roasted or pounded into porridge.”

William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony for many years between 1622 and 1656, wrote about the spring of 1621 in his History of Plymouth. Many settlers died of disease and starvation because the New England winter was so severe, but Squanto, the last surviving member of the Patuxet tribe (which was
decimated by an epidemic) befriended the bedraggled survivors and taught them how to properly plant corn.

He instructed them to plant four kernels in a small earthen mound, and then bury fish in each hill to provide adequate fertilizer and moisture for the seeds. When the better-than-expected harvest came that year, Bradford was reminded of a saying attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca: “That a great part of libertie is a well governed belly, and to be patiente in all wants.” Bradford went on to say, “They begane now highly to prise corn as more pretious than silver, and those that had some to spare begane to trade with one another for smale things, by the quarte, potle and peck; for money they had none, and any had, corne was preferred before it.”

A crop so vigorous it grew tall tales

Corn was always a versatile crop. It can be pounded into meal, roasted, popped, parched or boiled, and made into livestock feed, bread, pudding, hominy cakes – and even corn liquor. With so many uses, it’s a small wonder that corn is America’s premier grain crop.

The rich, black soil of the Midwest is ideal for corn cultivation. Country lore says that a person could stick a crowbar into that rich dirt at night, and 10-penny nails would sprout by morning. With seemingly endless acres to plant in corn, it’s no surprise that 20 million acres were planted in 1866, climbing to 111 million acres in 1917 during World War I, and levelling at about 100 million acres in the 1920s.

Hybrid seed corn was perfected during the 1930s and, despite a steady decline in total corn acreage since then, yields per acre have risen dramatically as a result of the new seed varieties. Records show that 30.3 bushels of corn were yielded per acre in 1920 on average. In 1940, about 45 bushels were harvested per acre, and by 1955, about 90 bushels per acre were harvested on the average farm. Today’s longer-season hybrids commonly yield 150-200 bushels per acre and are harvested with higher moisture content.

Surviving in nothing more than air

Besides a slew of imaginative corn planting, harvesting and shelling equipment spawned by the popular crop, there are also some great corn stories from the good old days. The following anecdotes come from The Book of Lies? published in 1896.

Two men were discussing the soils of their respective states. “The soil of some of the southern California counties is so rich as to become an actual detriment to the farmer,” observed Jim Hart. “In San Bernardino County, a farmer named Jones has been forced entirely to abandon the culture of corn, because the stalks, under the influence of the genial sun, mild air and mellow soil, shoot up into the air so fast that they draw their roots after them; when, of course, the plant dies as a rule. Cases have been known, however, where cornstalks thus uprooted and lifted into the air have survived for some time upon the climate alone.” “Why,” said Dr. Binninger, “we used to have the same trouble in Kentucky, but it was solved long ago by burying a heavy stone under each cornstalk and wiring the stalk down to it.”

Another farmer, this one from the “Show me” state of Missouri, offered similar testimony. “I once saw the corn growing to such an unprecedented height, and the stalks so exceptionally vigorous, that nearly every farmer stacked up, for winter firewood, great heaps of cornstalks, cut up into cordwood length by power saws run by the threshing engines. One man took advantage of the season to win a fortune by preparing cornstalks for use as telegraph poles.”

A 1941 Farm Journal article made exaggerated claims that the corn around Waynesville, Indiana, grew stalks so tall, the ears so big and the leaves so dense, that farmers carried lanterns into the fields during daytime.

“Shooting out of the soil”

My favorite tall corn tale, again from The Book of Lies?, goes like this: “A 7-year-old daughter of James Steele was sent, in the morning, to carry a jug of ‘switchel’ to the men at work in the middle of one of those vast Kansas cornfields. (Editor’s note: Switchel is a brew made of cold spring water, vinegar, a little sugar and a pinch of ginger. Many different recipes are known for switchel, but most contain mixtures of water, vinegar and ginger, sweetened with white or brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup or honey. Some prefer to add a little oatmeal to the mixture as well. Although switchel was usually consumed undiluted, farmers sometimes spiked it with hard cider, grain alcohol or brandy, which was said to “get the hay to the barn in half the time.”)

The corn was up to little Annie’s shoulders as she started, but as she went along, it rose and rose before her eyes, shooting out of the soil under the magic influence of the sun and the abundant moisture. Almost crazed with fear, she hurried on, but before she reached the men, the stalks were waving above her head. The men were threatened in a like manner, but by mounting a little fellow on a big man’s shoulders, to act as a lookout, they managed to get out, when they promptly borrowed a dog to follow little Annie’s trail. It was not until late afternoon that they reached her, where she lay, having cried herself to sleep, with tear stains streaking her plump cheeks.”

Although tall tales exaggerated reality behind corn as a crop, the fact remains that corn towered above all other crops in terms of its importance to farmers who made a living off the staple and those who ate it. Today, the cash crop remains among the most important harvests across America each year. FC

Sam Moore is a longtime Farm Collector columnist. This column originally appeared in the November 2003 issue.

Read part two of the series: Hand-held Corn Planters and Checkrows.

  • Updated on Sep 13, 2021
  • Originally Published on Nov 1, 2003
Tagged with: cultivation, maize, Plano, Plymouth, switchel, The Book of Lies, versatile
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