Husking Corn Before Mechanical Pickers

Before labor saving machinery like mechanical pickers husking corn was done by hand

| October 1998

  • Bill Hanby at the 1997 Illinois Nationals
    Bill Hanby, Macomb, III., at the 1997 Illinois Nationals held at Monmouth, Ill.
  • An early one-row, horse-drawn corn picker
    An early one-row, horse-drawn corn picker
  • Hand corn-husking hooks
    Hand corn-husking hooks were used into the 1940s. Most were "palm" types, but thumb hooks and pegs were also used. The hook shown at the top left was made by the Kees Company. The one at the bottom is a "Commonsense Husker," made by B.N. Thomas Co., Shenendoah, Iowa
    Photo by Gary Van Hoozer

  • Bill Hanby at the 1997 Illinois Nationals
  • An early one-row, horse-drawn corn picker
  • Hand corn-husking hooks

This fall, as you drive by a field of corn ready to be harvested, imagine doing that job by hand. No combines. No tractors. Just a man, a horse, and a wagon.

Beginning in the 1920s, labor-saving machinery was available for the corn harvest. But even into the '40s, horses still plodded along on many farms, as men hand-husked corn, then threw ears into a high-sided wagon. A hand-husked field was picked clean, and the ears were virtually free of shucks, which meant the ears could be air-dried in cribs. Plus, horses had the easy work, so feed wasn't as heavy a requirement. It's hard to imagine improving the efficiency of the process ... unless, of course, you were the one doing the hand husking.

More than 50 years have passed since Chester Larson last husked corn by hand. But memories of the work have not faded for the retired Griswold, Iowa, farmer.

"A little wrist or thumb hook was used to rip the husk open, so the ear could be easily broken off the shank leading to the stalk, making the ear ready to throw into the wagon," he recalled. It was tedious, exhausting work.

"Husking corn is very tiring," Chester said. "I haven't worked so hard since, and we did more things by hand then, such as some of the haying."

Most farmers – loath to waste even one ear of corn – saw no alternative.


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