The headline of “First Things” in the May 2012 issue of Farm Collector (All I Really Need to Know I Learned While Husking Corn) sure got me reminiscing about the days when most everyone picked corn by hand.
I was born in southwest Iowa on Groundhog Day 1931. According to my dad, 1937 was the first year after I was born that they had a good corn crop. I was considered tall for my age, so my dad decided that I could start helping pick corn. He assigned me to the first row of corn next to the wagon. He’d pick the next two rows and watch for those ears I missed. And that was my position every year until I was about 13 years old.
Dad always insisted that we pick three rows while crossing a field, as that left more stocks standing for winter cattle feed, especially if we had a lot of snow. So what did I learn during those years while picking the first row of corn next to the wagon? A lot!
My dad was 43 years older than me, so I had a vast time frame to explore. I found out at what age he began to pick corn, at what age he first drove a team of horses pulling a wagon, and whether he was nervous or scared. Whether he ever rode horseback and had a saddle. How did the team of horses pulling the buggy find their way back home in the dark or during a snowstorm? How fast did he figure a good team of horses pulling a buggy could go? And did he ever race with his neighbors? And win? How many bushels of corn did he ever pick in one day? In one season? Dad had three brothers who farmed close by: two older, one younger. Did they pick corn as fast or faster than he did? What were the earliest and latest that he ever finished picking corn in a given year? Did the schools give corn-picking vacation when he was a boy? Did he pick with a peg or a hook when he began picking? When did he get a scoop board or his first corn elevator?
How old was he before he began smoking in public? His first car was a 1919 Buick; who taught him how to drive? Was he scared? Did he drive it very fast and race with some neighbor? Did he think it was a big improvement over a team and buggy? Before they got electric lights, did he have any trouble getting dressed in the dark? Finding socks that matched, and shoes?
Wood and corncobs were the main fuel used to heat the house. Did he ever run out of wood or cobs before winter ended? What would he do if they did? Did he always get enough hay and other feed put up for cattle, horses and hogs before winter set in?
How old was he when he drank his first beer, wine or whiskey? Did he ever drink a little too much? Did he like dances and picnics, and at what age did he begin to think girls were pretty nice?
What was his thinking about doing something other than farming? He said one of his brothers worked for the railroad but didn’t stay with it very long. He said that there are good farmers and bad farmers, but he really never explained what made the difference, or at least if he did, I didn’t comprehend it. I asked him whether his brothers and our close-by neighbors were good farmers or bad farmers; I didn’t really get an answer on that.
I made it pretty plain to Dad during those years when I picked the first row of corn next to the wagon that I didn’t think I’d ever want to farm for a living. The threshing season was OK and corn-picking wasn’t all that bad, but cultivating, milking cows, hauling manure, putting up hay, fixing fence and many other tasks were so labor intensive at that time that they turned me away from farming. So after my time in the service I studied refrigeration, got an engineer’s license and spent 41 years keeping things cold. FC
John M. Gaul lives in Omaha, Neb.