Old Style Cornpicking
There were some fast Nebraskans
During the days of cornhusking
[From the Centennial edition of Nebraska Farmer Magazine, January 17, 1959, by Dwight Howard]
One of our greatest sporting events died during World War II. This event attracted only abou 800 persons in 1924 but by 1936 it had grown until it attracted about 160,000 persons. The only event surpassing it was the Memorial Day automobile race at Indianapolis, which attracted approximately 8,000 more.
What was this great contest? It was the National Cornhusking Championship. the last contest was held in 1941 and was to be stopped for the duration of the war, but was never started again.
It is true that mechanical pickers have taken over the conrhusking work, but people would still like to see hand pickers in action. We ride tractors and automobiles and don't do much foot racing as individuals, but people gather to watch the track athletes compete. We don't get to play too much but we enjoy watching. I believe we would still like to watch "old style" cornpicking.
First Contest in 1924
Since colonial times farmers have tried to make husking lighter. The "husking bee" was one attempt at this. Neighbors would gather for a social evening of visiting and shuck corn. By 1922 this custom had nearly died and Henry Wallace pushed plans for husking contests. Various groups worked and by 10924 it had become a national contest.
The main piece of equipment needed was a husking peg or a hook. The hook seemed to be a little more popular. This steel peg or hook was strapped to the hand and was used to tear the shucks open on the corn. Many huskers wore gloves but some shucked barehanded. The method mostly used in husking was to grip an ear with the left hand, yank off the husk with the right hand, twist the ear from the stalk with the right hand and throw the ear into the wagon with the right hand.
The rules were outlined by Floyd Keepers, who for many years was a farm magazine editor. The contest was to last for 80 minutes. Each husker was allotted by draw a land with six, eight, or 10 rows of standing corn. The number of rows depended on the length of the rows. Between each land, 10 or more rows were husked out and the stalks broken down so the spectators could follow their favorites.
Each husker was to take two rows as he went and to get all hanging or down ears. Two gleaners followed to bring in all ears that were left. These were weighed and for each pound of marketable corn left, the picker was assessed 3 pounds from his load. From the husked load, 100 pounds were taken and all husks and ribbons were removed from the corn and weighed on a fine scale. The contestants were permitted a maximum of 5 ounces of husks per 100 pounds of corn. For each ounce above five and up to 10, 1% of the load was deducted as a penalty for "dirty" husking. More than 10 ounces drew a penalty of 3% per ounce.
Tractors Replace Horses
Each contestant had a wagon with team and driver. Later the tractor was substituted for the team of horses. In addition to the two gleaners, there was a judge or timekeeper with each contestant. These officials worked under an official starter and timekeeper. Several hundred persons would volunteer to aid in the tremendous traffic problem in handling the viewers.
The 1924 championship contest was held in Polk County, IA. There was snow on the ground and it was a cold Monday morning in Webster County, IA, but Fred Stankek bundled his family into the car and they drove 80 miles south to the husking field. Fred had been second to Grimmius in the Iowa championship. He was still sore from his efforts the preceding Saturday and was slow getting started. It was a cold day for the contest with a temperature around 26 degrees. By the end of the first half hour it looked as though the race was going to be between Grimmius and Dinklage of Nebraska. Grimmius had drawn a bad land and was handicapped by thin corn so it looked as though Dinklage was leading. Niehaus, the champion from Illinois who was 53 years old, lagged in the rear but he was shucking his corn very clean. He used a peg in shucking while Archer, the Nebraska champ, used a wrist hook.
Stanek began to get warmed up. He had been throwing about 36 ears a minute; he speeded up to 42 and then increased the tempo until the last 10 minutes of the contest he was throwing over 50 ears a minute. Excess husks had cost him the Iowa championship so he was husking cleaner. Stanek's husking impressed everyone. There was a rhythm to it as though he were keeping time to music. Stanek grasped the ears a little closer to the tip than most huskers did. At the end of the contest when the wagons were weighed it was found that Stanek had a lead of 80 pounds over the nearest man; but the next four men were so close that gleanings decided the issue. Many people thought that a man husking with a hook had a big advantage and you could do well with a peg only in upstanding corn. Niehaus, the 53-year-old Illinois champion was the oldest man in the Illinois contest. Twenty years previously he had husked 109 bushels and 50 pounds of corn in 5 hours. He husked bare-handed with a 10-cent peg. Stanek was declared the winner of the contest with 24.3 bushels husked.
The average farmer could husk about 300 ears in 80 minutes. They were amazed at Stanek's performance as he was husking about 2,000 ears.
There wasn't a large crowd at the first contest, but they really turned out the next year. They were dubious about such husking. The 1925 contest was held in Mercer County, Ill., and the champion was Elmer Williams of Henry County, Ill. His net bushels husked was 35.8 for the 80 minutes. This boosted the husking to about 3,000 ears. Williams was the only man who ever beat Stanek in national competition. He wasn't a big man being but 5 feet 6 inches tall.
Fred Stanek was champion in 1926 at Dodge County, Nebr., where he shucked 30.3 bushels. He won the 1927 contest at Faribault County, Minn., whith 15.47 bushels. The contest that year was held in almost impossible weather with snow and icy conditions. Stanek retired after this victory.
Walter Olson, of Henry County, Ill., won the 1928 contest at Benton County, Ind., with a 26.62 average. This was the year that the National Broadcasting Company thought the contest was worth describing on the air. The 1929 contest at Platte County, Mo., was won by Olson with a 25.27 average. He was a spectacular shucker, using both a peg and a hook; using peg on the high ears and the hook on low ones. By 1930, champions from nine Corn Belt states were entered and the crowd had swelled to 30,000. Frank Stanek had been lured from retirement and was back again. The contest was held in Norton County, Kans., and the champion was Fred Stanek with 30.3 bushels. This made him a four-time champ, more than anyone had or would become. He later turned professional and won the Sweepstakes. This contest was sponsored by seedsmen and had a $1,000 purse -- $500 going to the winner. This attracted many stars from the National Cornhusking championships. The association sponsoring the national contest declared anyone who husked in competition not sponsored by the association to be a professional and not eligible for future competition. The Sweepstakes didn't attract as large crowds as did the contest held by the association. After husking professionally, Fred Stanek retired.
By 1930 the championship became the fastest growing spectacle in the world. In 1931, 50,000 people turned out to see Orville Welch of Piatt County, Ill., shuck 31.37 bushels at the contest held in Grundy County, Ia. He was dubbed the "boy wonder" as he was just 26 when he won the national honors.
The 1932 contest was held in Henry County, Ill., where Carl Seiler of Knox County, Ill., won the title with 36.914 bushels. He was a "southpaw," so his bangboard was on the side opposite to other contestants. He once shucked 42.06 bushels in an Illinois County contest. He was a man of great endurance and stamina; he had at one time averaged 136.5 bushels a day for 22 days, getting 183 bushels his best day. He had shucked from dawn to dusk, taking time off for a noon meal.
The 1933 contest was held on the Ben Stalp farm near West Point in Cuming County, Nebr. This was a year for Nebraska to be very proud because a home state boy was to win the national crown. Sherman Henricksen, 38-year-old farmer from Lincoln in Lancaster County won the state championship with 38.36 bushels, shucking agains 46 other huskers. The runner-up was Harry Brown of Cuming County who placed second with 37.96 bushels. T. A. Leadley, editor of the Nebraska Farmer, awarded the cash prizes offered by the magazine to the top five individuals, who received $100, $50, $25, and $10. The state championship was well attended with about 18,000 spectators seeing the contest and also a fine horse show of draft horses. The contest was held in Dawson County at Cozad. Many contestants shucked barehanded with a hook on one hand and many hands were bleeding before the contest was half over.
Henricksen was a powerful 190-pound man between 5 feet 9 and 5 feet 10 inches tall. One of the newspapers said, "he doesn't eat corn in any fashion. Nor does he drink it."
It was a cold day, but more than 15,000 automobiles streamed to the national contest in a solid line hours before the contest was to start. The roads soon became one-way roads. It was estimated between 30,000 and 40,000 people were on hand for the contest.
The Ben Stalp farm looked like a small tented city. There was a large display of farm equipment. The International Harvester Company brought five carloads of farm equipment to exhibit. The Allis-Chalmers Company had equipment there, too. Plowing demonstrations and mechanical corn-picking demonstrations were held. The Firestone Tire Company and the Goodyear Tire Company each had large tents erected to house their exhibits. Barney Oldfield, of race car fame, was there with a tractor that he had driven for a 64-mile-per-hour record.
The National Broadcasting Company broadcast the event for its radio network. Frank Mullen, NBC director of agriculture, conceived the idea 5 years previously. A portable transmitter was used so that real sound effects could be brought right to the listeners. The 1933 contest was sponsored by the Nebraska Farmer and six other farm papers in the Midwest.
Henricksen was very kind in giving an interview to the author, referring to the contest, and I will relate what he told me. It was a blustery day and very cold, but the field was dry. However, the corn wasn't too good the ears were rather small.
There was a large crowd on hand. Tractors were fairly new at that time and Barney Oldfield was there racing one up and down the road. It looked almost like a fairground with lots of booths and tents, and acres and acres of parked cars. The corn was yellow and was hybrid at the national meet. In the state contest the corn was open-pollinated. The wagons were pulled by horses in the state contest and by tractors in the national contest.
Henricksen had to drive around 100 miles to the contest. He was the only contestant who preferred to train at home; the others arrived a day or so early in order to get the feel of the corn at the site of the contest. Henricksen seemed to be a natural born husker. His brother was one of the first in that neighborhood to husk 100 busels a day. Henricksen's two oldest boys were good huskers and could husk 100 bushels a day. He said he never had any special training but when he went to the field he wanted to get a load in a hurry. He always husked bare-handed in a contest. He used a thumb hook, called a "royal success." He said, "I husk different from most huskers. I take an ear just as it hangs. A lot of people thought I was using a peg; then I would hear some of them say, 'no he is using a hook, I saw it before he started.'"
There were 16 contestants from eight states in the contest. It was close. Harry Brown was next to Henricksen. When the contest started the sheer weight of the spectators forced back mounted men who were trying to handle the crowd, and the spectators streamed into the field by the thousands. The contestants were almost overwhelmed, but Henricksen remained calm and cool. He worked silently and ignored those on the sidelines. He won the championship and $100 prize with 27.624 bushels and Harry Brown was second. After the interview for news reporters, news reel photographers, news cameramen and radio announcers, the champion said he had to get home because he had 70 acres waiting to be husked.
Henricksen quit husking competitively in 1937 since he entered the Husking Kings Sweepstakes and was then a pro. He finished second to Fred Stanek with a difference of only 1.64 pounds or about three ears of corn. This meant a difference of $250 since that was the second prize and $500 was first. He was one of the most popular competitors. In 1938 he was third in the Sweepstakes. Fred Stanek had permanently withdrawn after the 1937 Sweepstakes victory and was the official starter in 1938.
Henricksen said the contest was discontinued in 1938 and he hasn't husked in contests since then. He now uses a mechanical picker; started using it in 1944. He still farms. His five children are all married and gone from home. The Henricksens now have a larger family though, with 17 grandchildren to be proud of.
The 1934 contest was held in Fairmont County Minn., and Ted Balko of Redwood County, Minn., was the victor with 25.78 bushels. From 1930 to 1938 he husked in every contest excepting 1937 and placing high in all of them.
The champion in 1935 was 27-year-old Elmer Carlson of Audubon County, Ia., with 41.52 bushels. The contest was held in Fountain County, Ind., on Leslie Mitchell's farm. The 1935 tournament was an all-star show and the most spectacular; the winner and four other men shattered what had been the world's record. Carlson shucked approximately 41½ bushels of corn in 80 minutes. This was about 3,744 ears of corn or 2,995 pounds. The average farmer did well to husk 10 bushels in 80 minutes. About 110,000 persons were at the 1935 contest.
Thirty-eight-year-old Carl Carlson, Elmer's older brother, won the 1936 contest at Licking County, Ohio with 21.04 bushels. It was a rain-soaked and muddy field that the competitors had to fight. Nine inches of snow had melted and made the field very muddy, and the corn looked bedraggled. Spectators started pouring in the night before and by 5 a.m. cars were really streaming in. The Literary Digest magazine reported that 140,000 persons (more than ever saw a football game of prize fight) were there. State highway patrolmen mounted on polo ponies guided 45,000 automobiles into a score of parking lots. Newsweek magazine reported that 160,000 people were there. Time magazine reported "The spectacle of men husking corn drew a crowd of 160,000, second biggest ever gathering at a sporting spectacle in the U. S., to a remote 485-acre farm owned by Alva Oyler, 25 miles east of Columbus in Ohio's Licking County." The biggest U. S. sporting crowd was 168,000 at the 1936 Memorial Day automobile race in Indianapolis.
It was hard to estimate the crowd for certain since spectators attended the corn-husking contests free. It was a real celebration with cider and fried chicken being bought at the stands. The crowd eyed exhibits of 1937 cars. And the midway had exhibits of farm machinery. For 35 cents you could get an all-white-meat chicken dinner. Bookmakers and pickpockets were in the crowd. Farm implement dealers had booths to show off all their wares. Mechanical pickers were demonstrated. The contest was like a football game as well as a county fair. A band played Sousa marches. Pickpockets shucked over two sore of farmers' pockets. At 12:45 a 5-minute warning bomb burst. One hour and 20 minutes later a bomb exploded to signal the end. Some huskers were leapers and some had trick motions, but Carl Carlson was plodding and cool under fir. The Iowan wore tennis shoes, white duck pants And an undershirt. He received a prize of $200 and a gold mug. It took the referees more than 2 hours to decide the winner. Meanwhile the crowd was entertained by bands and hog-calling contests.
Ray Hanson of Cottonwood County, Minn., won the 1937 contest held in a driving rainstorm in Saline County, Mo. He husked 21.38 bushels, plowing his way through the muddiest field in national cornhusking history.
Ted Balko was the champion in 1938, repeating his 1934 championship. He shucked 22.24 bushels in the contest held in Minnehaha County, S. Dak. At that time Minnesota had held only eight state contests and he had won six of them. He was a big, good-natured fellow who husked in a white shirt and duck trousers. They were as neat and clean at the end of the contest as when he started. This was another big contest. It rained the night before but 32,000 cars were counted going to the contest. It took five pastures covering 1,300 acres and 800 volunteer traffic directors to handle the parking.
The 1939 contest was held in Douglas County, Kans., and the author was privileged to see it. It took a lot of preparation for the contest. In fact planning started a year before the contest. There was a crowd of about 112,000 on hand to watch the huskers tackle the hybrid corn. There was a terrific noise when the contestants got warmed up and really started throwing corn. They were tossing more than a thousand ears a minute before the contest ended. The winner was Lawrence Bitzer of Fountain County, Ind., with 28.39 bushels.
The 1940 champ was 27-year-old Irvin Bauman of Woodford County, Ill. He set a record of 46.58 bushels at Scott County, Ia. More than 150,000 persons arrived at this contest in 50,000 automobiles.
Floyd Wise of La Salle County, Ill., won the national championship held in La Salle County with 45.37 bushels. This was better than60 ears per minute.
The huskers were hardy competitors. Some would come in a the end of the contest with knuckles bleeding and fingers raw. Many contestants had callouses as big and hard as a quarter. They kept up a pace that would kill an ordinary athlete. A baseball pitcher might not throw more than 120 balls in a game, while a husker threw that many in 3 minutes.
World War II marked the end of an era in many ways. Some changes were made never to return, and the Cornhusking Championship was a casualty. It is a shame that it couldn't have been reactivated. The contest didn't lack for interest; spectators were still thronging to see the contest. I know many persons would still like to see sturdy athletes making the ears fly and the bangboards ring.