The large Quonset hut serves as simple storage now, but Randy Cook remembers when things were different. 'When I was a kid, my grandma and grandpa lived in the house next to the shop. I'd go visit them and go out to the shop and, well, just basically raise hell out there,' he says. He would run in and out of a heat known only to those who've worked in a machine/welding shop. He would listen in on the bull sessions of the workers and just soak up the atmosphere.
When it wasn't a playground for children, though, the shop served as the birthplace of Cook Corn Shellers -a line of corn shellers which were produced in Washington, Ill., for nearly 50 years.
Randy's grandfather, Amer Cook, was the founder of Cook Machine Company, which produced the shellers. He began building them in 1939, but refused to use assembly line techniques to speed up the process. Amer felt that assembly lines let too many errors creep into the work and wanted to be able to customize each corn sheller to the needs of its buyer. His dedication to getting it just right meant that each corn sheller was built by hand - no two were ever built alike, the workers would say.
None of the Cook machines ever looked like any other corn sheller, either. Yes, the parts might have been the same, but Cook corn shellers towered over their competition. They were the biggest corn shellers ever produced, according to Amer's grandson, Don Cook, who once told a reporter that no other corn sheller was 'even half as big' as a Cook.
Amer made them big for the industrial customer. As Randy tells it, 'The corn shelling business used to be a mobile business. Since the mid-1970s, farmers started getting their own corn shellers or using combines.' It was toward the end of the 1960s when the agricultural industry leaders quit making corn shellers, switching to combines - which could pick the corn, shell it and then dump it into a truck itself. The corn shellers required a separate picker.
The Cooks should be forgiven for missing the market trend. How could they have known that the business was fading when they were so busy? Orders for the shellers often ran over a year behind and, as itinerant corn shellers themselves, their talents were in high demand during the corn harvest season. Randy remembers his uncle Marvin (who took over after Amer's death in 1965) working constantly. 'There was one place close to where I live,' Randy recalls, 'where he would run (a sheller) 24 hours a day for a week.'
Considering the size of the Cook machines, you would have to speculate that many tons of corn would have gone through the sheller in that week. The Cooks produced three basic models, the largest of which could shell 2,000 bushels an hour. It was powered by a 170 hp diesel engine and weighed over 8,500 pounds, measuring 30 feet in length and 13 feet high.
Corn shellers have always had their advantages over combines, however. Combines have been known to harm the kernels, cutting into the profits of those fanners growing seed corn. Popcorn, also, seemed perfect for the corn sheller. Orville Redenbacher thought so, buying his own 'Cook XL Special' just a few years before the company went out of business.
The family tried to keep the company afloat. After Marvin Cook retired, Don Cook took over and fought market trends, steadfastly refusing to violate his grandfather's principles and convert the business to mass production. Near the end of the company's run, he told a reporter that assembly lines would never be seen in his family's shop. 'This is the way things used to be done,' he said. 'There's real pride in what we make here.'
An obituary for the company would be a hard one to write. Its 'time of death' depends on which witness you ask. As inflation began rising in the late 1970s and continued to rise in the early 1980s, the company's orders for new equipment began to drop off sharply. One day workers looked around and saw only repair work to be done. The next day, even the repair work had quit coming in.
Don moved on to a carpentry job and Marvin, looking to leave the shop in the hands of a Cook, sold it and the remaining equipment to Randy, who, though he had never been employed at the company, still had fond memories of it. As a self-proclaimed 'nostalgic guy,' Randy has been working to find homes for a number of the old Cook shellers, but, like a man giving away the puppies of a beloved dog, only wants the best homes for them. He recently turned down a man's offer to buy one sheller, because the prospective buyer only wanted the truck to which it's attached, a 1947 REO Speed wagon.
And Randy knows that home is out there. His grandfather was a collector of antique farm machinery himself. The CMC Special attached to the REO Speed wagon was actually shown at the first ever Old Steamer's Reunion (now called the Central States Thresherman's Reunion) in Pontiac, Ill. Amer served repeatedly as the emcee of the festival.
Randy Cook says that, although he never worked in his family's shop, he always knew that there was something special about the place, something more than just well-made machinery. At the end of a long day of work, he says, the men who put the Cook Corn Shellers together, both family members and employees alike, would gather, still dirty from their labor, to shoot the breeze. It seemed they weren't ready to leave, no matter how hard the work; it seemed as if it was all more than a job. It was something that, like machines made one at a time by hand, Randy says 'you just don't see anymore.'
Randy Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.