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 After which time, the cross piece was pulled out, and the horse was withdrawn and moved ahead to the location for the next shock.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.
Farmers who didn’t need the fodder for feed often allowed the corn to fully ripen in the field and picked and husked the ears directly from the standing stalks. A team and a box wagon, with one side of the box made higher through the addition of a ‘bang board,’ was driven down the row. The farmer walked alongside, pulling the ripe ear from the stalk, husking it and then throwing it over his shoulder at the wagon, all in one fluid motion. This allowed the farmer – if he was good – to shuck about 1 1/2 acres per day. The thrown ears hit the bang board and dropped into the wagon box. The fodder was then raked and burned, or chopped and left to be later plowed under.
Picking from the stalk was the method used in the National Corn Husking Championships started in 1922 by Henry A. Wallace, who later became Secretary of Agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Wallace wrote at the time: ‘We believe that a genuinely good corn husker is entitled to more fame than the man who makes a touchdown in a college football game.’ He also offered a $50 prize for the best husking performance. These contests, held all over the corn belt during the years before World War II, required the contenders to pick and husk from the stalk for an hour and 20 minutes, and the winner was the man with the most and cleanest corn in his wagon. One observer said of the contestants, ‘They went down those rows like raccoons when the sweet corn’s ripe.’ Irvin Bauman of Eureka, Ill., won the National Championship in 1940, picking 46.71 bushels of corn in 80 minutes, a new world’s record.
To aid in stripping the husks from corn ears, American Indians used sharpened pegs made of bone. Farmers and manufacturers improved upon these, and dozens of different models and adaptations of husking pegs and gloves were used. Most every farmer had his favourite tool and swore by it. My father never carried a pocket-knife, but he always had a leather-strapped husking peg in the pocket of his overalls, with which he could dig, pry and scratch any number of things.
For most farmers – not to mention their wives, sons and daughters – corn shucking was a long, cold and tedious job that left them with sore hands. First, each shock was torn apart. Then the shucker knelt or sat among the stalks, stripped the ears of their husks and threw them into a basket, which was then emptied into the wagon.
Once husked, the stalks again were stood on end, bundled back together and retied for the day they would be needed for feed. At day’s end, the husker drove the wagon to the barn and shoveled the corn into the crib. After evening chores and supper, the weary corn shucker rubbed tallow, or maybe some patented Cornhusker’s Liquid, into his cracked hands and fell into bed.
– Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and other related items. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: The corn husking equipment shown here is owned by Bob Overmohle of Carroll, Iowa.
Those were the ‘Good Old Days,’ weren’t they?
The following story was hand-written in a loose-leaf notebook sometime during the 1970s. The author, Frances Steele, then in his 70s, grew up on a farm in South Beaver Township, Beaver County, Pa. My cousin, Peg Townsend, who now lives in the house Steele’s grandparents, William and Susannah Smith, built in 1908 after their log cabin burned, copied some of the pages for me. The accounts are almost verbatim as written by Steele, with a word added here and there for clarity.