Picking Corn by Hand

Corn picking was an annual autumn and winter job for our parents and grandparents who lived on Nebraska farms.  However, few people today can remember when corn picking by hand, one ear at a time, was the fall harvest ritual.

Corn picking was hard physical work requiring tough hands and strong shoulders. As late as the 1940s most corn picking in the Midwest was done by hand.  It wasn’t until the early 1950s that machines were commonly used.  Picking began after a killing frost when the corn was ripe and dry. A wood wagon with high boards on one side, called the bang board, was pulled by a team of horses.  The team walked slowly down the corn row to the end where they were turned into the next row.

This photo belonged the Charles Trausch and is identified as Vern Trausch with his grandfather, Nicholas Kaiser.
This photo belonged to Charles Trausch and is identified as Vern Trausch with his grandfather, Nicholas Kaiser.  Grandpa Kaiser died in 1935.  There hadn’t been a corn crop since 1932 when Vern was 14 years old.  The young man definitely looks like a Trausch, perhaps Charles who was 23 in 1932?

Most corn pickers used a husking peg or hook.  A husking peg and a husking hook are two different devices for removing corn shucks from the ear of corn. The peg fit across the palm of the hand just below the fingers.  A small curve in its pointed end was fastened to leather that fit around the finger bases and buckled on the back of the hand.  The device fit over the husking glove.  The corn husker stabbed the peg into the corn shucks with one hand, slid the peg down the length of the ear and ripped the husks away, using the other hand to grasp the ear, break the ear’s shank, and throw the ear into the wagon.  There were right and left handed pegs and hooks.

The husking hook was probably the more popular device and fit the hand differently.  It was fitted to a metal plate that curved to fit the lower part of the palm.  The hook protruded from the palm and curved toward the wrist.  The picker had greater hand usage with the hook as it was fit to the hand with leather fittings and straps.  The straps buckled on the back of the hand.  Some hooks also had leather straps around the wrist.   The husker reached forward and sharply drew the hand back toward the body as the bent hook hit the ear ripping away the shucks.  The second hand grasped the ear, broke it from the stalk, and threw it into the wagon.

My mother's husking         straps around the palm and also around the wrist.
My mother’s husking hook has straps around the palm and also around the wrist.  She was left-handed. The leather is dry and brittle from years of storage.   My parents lives were rich with the legacy and value of good hard work. This simple corn husker and my mother worked together for many years. Now they both rest from their labors.

 

Some people wore shucking gloves. They were made with a thumb on each side so both sides could wear out evenly. When they became worn through from the rough corn kernels, they were turned over and the other thumb used.

If the picker was right handed the wagon would be on the right side and the row of corn on the left side as he faced forward. The left hand grips the ear first, with the thumb up.  The hand with the hook moves across the ear to open up the shucks.  The left hand thumb pushes the shucks toward the fingers of the left hand so it can grip the shucks. The right hand pushes the ear forward and down while the left hand pulls the shucks back and down. The hands work in opposite directions to clean the shucks off the ear. Then a quick jerk breaks the ear from the stock.  The ear is tossed into the wagon with the right hand while the left hand is reaching for the next ear.

The work of corn picking becames a rhythmic movement of the hands and body down the rows of corn.  A picker usually picked two rows as he moved across the field.

When the wagon was full, the farmer drove the horses to the crib where the corn was scooped from the wagon. The crib could be a building with walls of narrow boards spaced about an inch apart. The space between the boards allowed air to circulate and dry the ears of corn. Wood slat corn cribbing, also known as snow fencing, was also used to crib ears of corn.  In later years round cribs of heavy metal wire with tin roofs were used.  After the corn had dried in the crib, farmers shelled the corn.  At first, shelling corn was done by a hand-turned machine. Later corn shellers used a power machine with sharp wheels to separate the kernels from the cob. Shelled corn was sold as a cash crop or used for animal feed. Leftover corn cobs were stored in a cob house or in the crib to be burned in the kitchen stove for heat and cooking fuel.

Recently I called my Uncle Vern Trausch to ask him about his memories of picking corn by hand.  He is 97 years-old, born in April 1918.  This is his reminiscence:

”During the 1930s our corn dried up. 1934, 1935, 1936, we raised absolutely no corn.  I worked out where ever I could find work.  I worked for the neighbors for $1 a day shocking wheat, doing odd jobs, repairs on buildings.  I helped Dad when he had a carpenter job.  A tornado took John Schifferns’ barn and I helped rebuilt it.  Dad was the supervisor.

In 1938 we had no corn crop here.  It got about two feet tall and dried up.  There was absolutely no work here.  We heard that they had good corn in Iowa, so Al, Elmer, Floyd Weber and I drove 125 miles to Odebolt, Iowa.  I had a 1929 Model A Ford sedan.  We just sat on a corner and waited for someone to come along who needed help.  We worked for Otto Siebreck, an old German.  We got room and board, plus 2 ½ cents a bushel for the corn we picked.  We could pick 100 to 110 bushels a day, and made $2.50 to $3 a day.  We stayed about three months.  I came home with $150 in my pocket.  I used the money to go to the Los Angeles Aeronautical Institute of Technology.

After I returned from the military, I moved onto my farm north of Assumption in the spring of 1947.  I farmed for ten years.  The first two years I picked corn by hand.  Mary Jane helped those two years.  That was very hard work–stooped all day long.  The corn only made about 20 bushels per acre.  The worst thing picking corn by hand was the smut.  If you hit that a black cloud came out.  [Corn smut is a fungal disease.  It replaces corn on the cob with large galls similar to mushrooms. The galls are filled with black dust-like spores.]   Ralph Trausch shelled my corn those two years, then I bought a cylinder corn sheller.

In 1949 I bought a Woods Brothers single row corn picker.  I bought it at Ford Farm Equipment in Hastings.  It cost $985.  I used that three years then I got a mounted two-row picker.  In 1950 Lawrence Parr and I put in irrigation wells.  We irrigated with ditches and tubes.  That was a lot of work.  But after irrigation I raised 110 bushel of corn per acre.  When I was farming I sold Funk Seed Corn.  The best seed corn cost $8 a bushel.”

Bob Trausch remembers that his father Elmer reminisced that during corn picking season, on a nice still morning one could hear all around, bang, bang, bang—the ears bouncing off the wagon bang boards. He also remembered that his brother, Bert, (my father) was always anxious to get an early start at picking corn.  Sometimes when an ear hit the bang board, the milk would fly—the ear wasn’t dry.

In a 1984 interview Bert Trausch recalled picking corn–he called it “shucking” corn.  “In 1942 Mom [Edna] and I shucked 150 acres of corn.  It took all winter.  We got laid up in January of ’43 for a while because of the snow. I was out shucking corn the afternoon before the blizzard of ’49 came up.

One of my earliest memories is of my parents picking corn by hand. It must have been the winter of 1949-50, as Agnes wasn’t born yet.  I would have been 3 ½ years old.  I remember it was a nice sunny winter day.  Mom and Daddy were picking corn by hand, throwing it into the horse drawn wagon.  I was laying in the sun along the front side of the wagon relatively safe from the ears of corn which hit the bang board and fell into the wagon.  I was warm, sleepy and contented.   The last year Bert listed horses on his Federal income tax return was 1950 when he depreciated three.

Corn cribbed using snow fencing.  Date is  but about 1950.
Corn cribbed using snow fencing.  The date is but about 1950.

Near the top of the wall of the drive-way along the corn crib which was located in the north side of our large barn, were rows of corn ears sticking on long nails.  Each ear had the year written below.  Charles and Daddy had picked the largest ear they raised each year and displayed them.  Before the development of hybrid seed corn,  as the corn was picked, the largest ears were thrown in a box at the front of the wagon.  Those ears were used for the next year’s seed corn.

 

Corn Meal Mush

Because mush required few ingredients to make and cornmeal was plentiful, corn mush was the food staple that kept the pioneers alive during long winters and lean times.

Corn mush is made with finely-ground yellow corn meal. Yellow cornmeal is made from field corn which is harder and more starchy.  Once you have cornmeal, mush is pretty simple. Other than cornmeal, the only ingredients are water and salt. There are variations, but here is a recipe:

3/4 cup – cold water,  3 cups — boiling water,  1 cup – corn meal,  1 tsp – salt

First make a paste with the cold water and cornmeal/salt mixture.  Then stir in the boiling water. Continue to cook (stirring often) over a low heat for about 20 minutes.  Then pour into a narrow loaf pan and let cool until the mush is set. Slice and fry in oil until crispy brown.  A breakfast dish, it was served with butter and cream, or sausage gravy, or if available, maple syrup, or apple butter.  My mother liked fried corn meal mush. We ate it with butter and syrup, usually KARO clear corn syrup.

3 thoughts on “Picking Corn by Hand”

  1. Thanks, Catherine ! Really amazing how much change has happened to the process in the latest generation or two ! Before that, the process was pretty much unchanged for many generations around the world ( in some countries, it still is the old way right now !). The use of big energy has changed life, and not just in farming. Can fly to anywhere on Earth just by hopping on an airplane. Hard to keep things in perspective without such valuable history lessons! Great work, Karl and Linda

  2. Hi Catherine,
    Read your article Hand corn picking Thought you would like this information
    as I remember it.
    This contest was open to anyone. You needed a team of horses wagon and your self
    There were usually about 15 wagons They were assigned their rows of corn. Two
    hours picking time. Then the judges would take over.
    weigh the corn, check how many husks were left on the ear that would be a penalty
    also how many ears missed in the field. After deducting penalties from the weight a
    winner was chosen
    One year all the corn dried, but up a farmer north of Roseland installed an irrigation well his yield was a whopping 40 bushels an acre. I don’t recall the farmers name.
    Love, Uncle Vern

  3. This contest is held in a corn field in Roseville, a community in western Illinois. It’s one of nine competitions happening during harvest season all across the Midwest. For some, picking corn by hand is about more than winning. It’s about a connection to the past and remembering the older generations who labored in the fields.

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