Fremont County, Iowa

Picking Corn by Hand, One Ear at a Time

By Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of September 9, 2011

Millions of ears of corn hanging from Iowa cornstalks were once picked, one at a time, by hand. Starting as soon as the corn was mature, farmers all across the Midlands harnessed up their teams to wagons and put several extra pairs of shucking gloves into a box nailed on the side of the wagon. They wore those gloves until they were rags. They were made with a thumb on each side so both sides would wear out evenly. The farmer would pull on a pair and then strap on a sharp metal hook-shaped gadget known as a husking peg.

As the horses plodded down the rows of corn, the workers picked the corn, one ear at the time, and threw it against the high bang board to the right. The ears then fell down into the wagon.

They picked until too dark to find the ears. This went on far into the cold winter months for it was long, tedious work. Most corn growers tried to get the task done by Christmas. Shucking in the snow was not unusual. Sometimes if the corn was down - frozen in snow that had fallen days before--the men had to pull stalks up to get at the snowy ears.

Not only did the workers have to pick and load each ear by hand but they also had to drive the teams with the loaded wagons into the barnyard where they scooped the ears out into the ventilated corncribs for storage.

Sometimes the husks were removed as the ears were picked for the farmer would use a twisting motion as he picked that removed the husk as he separated the cob from the stalk. But they also used to pick the corn with the husks on. These cobs were brought into the nearby barn and unloaded in a big pile on the floor. Then word would go out to the neighbors for a husking bee.

The Sidney Argus Herald Newspaper tells the story of such an event:

"In November 1852, John Cooper, a resident of Madison township, invited his neighbors--then composing about all of the citizens of the county--to assist him in husking [taking off the outer husks of the corn) from about 1,000 bushels of corn.

"By 10 o'clock in the forenoon of the day appointed fully 80 people were present and surrounding the corn pile. To work they went and by evening the task was finished. There was plenty of entertainment for the frolicker and a right jolly time they had. They devoured a good-sized beef and a fat pig, besides other substantial, and washed the meal down with half a barrel of good old mountain dew whiskey. At night a dance was held. About 40 of the company stayed all night with Mr. Cooper. His cabin was only 14x16 feet in size, but (somehow) there was plenty of room for all. Ah, those were rare old times."

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Page updated on May 10, 2017 by Karyn Techau