The Last Days of Hand Cornhusking

article image
Albert Hensler, shown here

For or a state and National Tournament, it is noticeable for what it isn’t. There are no electronic scoreboards, no official-looking officials and no big fancy advertisements. You can look everywhere and not see an over-the-hill athlete in a gold sport jacket with a microphone asking the winner to face the camera. In fact, most of the contestant who will compete at this year’s Minnesota State and National Cornhusking Contest, held this year on Oct. 20-21., at the Gilfillan Farm (located between Morgan and Redwood Falls, Minn.) are technically over-the- hill themselves and the only cameras there will be hanging around the necks of their family and friends.

Before the giant harvesters swept across the plaint of America’s breadbasket, farmers – along with their wives, children and friends – picked their cornfield by hand. Many of these contestants farmed then and remember it like yesterday, not with euphoric recall, but very matter-of-factly.

So why have a contest?

Because there were always those who would brag about how many bushels they could pick in one day. Back then they were getting two, three, and something four cents a bushel. In a 10-hour day, picking 60 to 70 bushels was respectable; 100 was super

Most would start picking at the break of dawn. At noon they would shovel off the load of picked corn, have dinner and then go out into the field again. The would come back late that evening, shovel off again, have supper, sleep – and do it all over the next day.

The first Cornhusking Contest was held in December 1921, on a bitter cold morning in Iowa. Twenty years later, World War II ended those annual competitions. With the war, nobody had time for the contests. Besides, mechanical pickers were being perfected and were picking corn many times faster and 100 times easier than could be done by hand.

Many of this year’s huskers are grey-headed, but, in this sport, age seems to be an asset, something to be proud of. Few cornhuskers are overheard discussing plans to retire.

For those who think cornhusking has something to do with football: an explanation. Cornhusking is the process, in one move, of ripping an ear of corn off the stalk and out of the husk. The cornhusker moves down a row of corn as he throws the ears in a nearby wagon. The rules of the tournament reflect what makes a good husker. Weight is deducted for corn left in the field. (In the older days, corn left in the field went to the crows.) There weren’t any second chances if you missed something the first time through. Weight is also deducted for husks left on the ears.

Contestants are divided into different categories. The men’s open class provides the stiffest competition. The men also have two older classes, 65 to 74 bracket and the 75 and older group. The women compete in the women’s open class, and both men and women compete in the under 20 class.

To the uninitiated, the starting method can seem odd, but after awhile the blast seems natural. As the contestants line up at the start of their row of corn a shotgun is fired. The first blast, aimed out into the seemingly endless cornfield, serves as the one minute warning shot. Contestants grasp their first ears of corn and, with the next shot, they are off and husking.

Most huskers use a special metal hook that quickly tears away the husk, exposing the ear, which is then tossed into a nearby horse drawn wagon.

Ask any contestant what his or her main strategy is and that cornhusker will say it’s simply to ‘give it all I got.’

Supporters and families follow contestants and judges down the row. When the heat is over, they inspect one another’s loads, trying to second-guess the scales. Finally, the loads are weighed and scored and an official marks down the score.

Despite record turnout of contestants in the past, the tournament is losing the prestige it once had. Noticeably absent are the middle-aged men and women and those mostly too young to remember the way it used to be.

In some ways, the tournament is a testament to a part of American agricultural history, but is unlike the glassed-in displays you see in roadside stops in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and elsewhere, proclaiming the past agricultural achievements of the Midwest. It is a testament because these cornhuskers are the people who made the history; these are the people who were willing to work hard but who frankly don’t miss it now that it is gone.

The 2001 Minnesota State and National Comhusking contest will be held Oct. 20-21, at the Gilfillan Farm, located between Morgan and Redwood Falls, Minn., and is sponsored in part by the ‘Friends of Gilfillan.’ There will also be displays, crafts, food and, of course, hand cornhusking. The Prairie Land Flywheelers Two Cylinder Club will sponsor a display of antique tractors and Gilfillan Farm’s agricultural heritage displays will be available for viewing as well.

Lowell Blick and Dena Bickhardt are members of Friends of Gilfillan.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment