| October 2004

Harvesting corn in the good old days was a down-and-dirty business

When the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder's in the shock...'

Corn fodder can't be seen in the shock anymore, except in Amish country (and of course the little stuff used to decorate front doors in the fall), but I thought it might be interesting to explore the way corn was harvested in the 'good old days,' before widespread mechanization. While I never did much of it myself, I do remember the early 1940s when, as a small boy, I accompanied my father, grandfather and uncle to the fields where they cut, shocked and husked corn by hand.

If corn stalks are cut when the lower leaves are just beginning to turn brown, they retain their juicy saccharine content with scarcely any damage to the ripening ears that should already be well dented and glazed, and will cure in the shock. Many farmers who needed corn fodder for cattle feed took advantage of this fact, cutting and shocking their corn early and husking out the ears after the fall plowing was done.

Cutting corn by hand was slow, hard work. A long corn knife that resembled a machete was usually used, although a long-handled corn hook or a sharpened hoe that allowed the stalks to be cut without the farmer having to bend over was used by some. A leg knife, which consisted of a sharp blade attached to the side of the boot with leather straps, was also sometimes used. The workman, thus equipped, walked down the row, kicking mightily at each stalk. It doesn't sound very easy (or very safe) to me, but corn knives and leg knives are still available from Lehmans Hardware in Kidron, Ohio. Folks figured that a good day's work for one man with a corn knife was 1 acre, cut and shocked.

As each stalk was cut off, it was leaned against a support until a shock of some 2-to-4 feet in diameter was built, at which time the shock was tied with twine or twisted corn stalks, or even rye straw. In places where the corn was planted in checkrows, support for the shock while being built was provided by tying the tops of the stalks in four adjacent hills together without cutting them off. Cut stalks were then stacked around this support and tied. In drilled corn country - such as at my home farm - a three-legged wooden horse with a removable cross stick was used to support the cut stalks until they could be tied. After which time, the cross piece was pulled out, and the horse was withdrawn and moved ahead to the location for the next shock.

Many devices were sold to help cinch a corn shock tight and hold it until it could be tied. Commonly called shock tiers, these devices used ropes and different combinations of pulleys, levers and friction clamps to perform the job. I don't remember shock tiers being used on our farm.