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Long Gone

Richard Willis

A hundred bushels a day

Long Gone is .. what I recall about growing up on an Iowa farm from 1933 to 1947. Two great events shaped that period: the Depression and the Second World War. I served in the Army in Japan as an interpreter, and my story tells of country school, hand-to-mouth farms, old-fashioned farming methods, small-town life, and the dark corners where things were concealed that to this day no one mentions. The memoir is framed in my younger brother's funeral. Within that frame, it generally follows seasonal farming activities: spring planting and school; summer, haymaking and harvest; fall, corn husking; winter, blizzards and death.

Husking corn by hand was, beyond any doubt, the worst job the farm had to offer. I say by hand because before WW II mechanical corn pickers had not yet come into general use. Corn husking season started in October following the first killing frost, and after the corn had begun to dry on the stalk. It was hard, slow work, with the weather worsening as you got deeper into the season. Farmers aimed to get their corn out of the fields before Thanksgiving. After that, the weather in the Midwest could be expected to get seriously bad.

Some women worked in the fields during corn husking. They went to give a welcome hand with the burdensome job of husking, but I think they also went in order to provide some companionship in what was a long, grueling and lonely task. Our neighbors, Fern and Everett Timm, worked together during corn husking, and Fern recently told me that she and Everett played a game when they picked corn. Whoever found a red ear — in those days before hybrid seed corn you often came across an ear with all red kernels — was rewarded with a kiss. Fern asked me, with a little glint in her eye, if I thought my folks ever did that. The fact is, my mother never husked any corn, and, even if she had, I think it unlikely she and Aubrey ever played red-ear kissing games.

It takes a good man to pick a hundred bushels of corn a day. The best of them would have been urged to enter the yearly corn-husking contests held throughout the state. At the Iowa County cornhusking contest in 1935, prizes for the best huskers were $5, $3 and $2. I guess it was mainly done for the honor of the thing.

On family farms before World War II, the rule was anything that was sold, with the exception of milk and eggs, of course, had to walk off the place. Farmers raised grain to feed to cattle, sheep, and hogs; they didn’t sell it for some other use, such as alcohol or a gasoline supplement. Manure produced by the livestock went back onto the land, and a cycle of soil replenishment was maintained. All this was long before people started talking about the environment, but everyone knew who the "land skinners" were.

Today skinning the land is an accepted way of life, and the land suffers accordingly. Petroleum-based fertilizers produce yields of over three hundred bushels to the acre, and government policies seem to say ‘get big or get out.’ Oblivion is the only fate for the kind of farming I knew as a boy.

The corn we intended to feed to livestock was brought in from the field and stored in slatted cribs, not shelled and put into grain bins as it is today. Corn must be dry at the time it is picked if it is to be kept in a crib, otherwise it will get moldy and spoil. Corn shucks retain moisture, so it was important that the corn be picked clean, with no shucks left on the ears. One of the arguments against early mechanical corn pickers was that they picked "dirty," leaving too many shucks to hold moisture and cause spoilage in the crib.

On a nice bright fall day with no wind blowing, the temperature in the ’40’s and the ground fairly level, corn husking could seem at first to be at least a satisfying occupation. It tended to lose its charm quickly, however, and for any one of a number of reasons. Start with the most common.

It rains a lot in the fall of the year in the Midwest, turning clay fields into quagmires. Few farm wagons had rubber tires in the ‘30’s, and during the war, government restrictions prevented our using rubber tires. Instead, we had narrow, iron-tired wagon wheels that sank deep into the mud under a heavy load. Our horses had to work hard just to move a load across a level field. Where it was hilly, as it was on most of the farms in our neighborhood, teams had a particularly tough job, stopping every few steps and holding the wagon in place, so as not to get ahead of the man husking. Believe me, it shifted a farmer’s whole attitude toward prayer and the hereafter when his team moved forward several yards, forcing him to bowl the picked ears of corn overhand into his wagon.

Sticky clay mud clung to the husker’s feet until they seemed to grow to twice their normal width and weight. Water collected in standing pools where there were low places in the fields, and horses went in halfway to their knees. Then there were the dried stems of smart weeds and morning glories, not to mention Spanish needles and cockleburs, missed in the summer’s cultivation, to get tangled around your legs, or to stick matted to your pants.

There were also days when a good, stiff breeze made its contribution to the fun, when dry corn stalks seemed to dance and dazzle in the bright sunshine making it more difficult to look ahead to spot the next ear of corn to be husked. Stiff leaves on the stalks raked the eyes of the husker. Still, when the weather was dry, it was easier to snap an ear off a cornstalk. Wet weather made the stalks pliant and tough, and you then had to wrestle the ears to get them free of the stalk. An odd point is, with mechanical pickers, it was an advantage to have the corn stalks wet. Machines picked cleaner in wet weather. When it was dry, the loaded wagons were white with unwanted shucks.

Freezing cold eliminated the mud, but it added to the discomfort of work in the field. You can’t husk corn while wearing heavy clothing. The job calls for freedom of movement in the arms and upper body. We wore our heavy coats when we were driving back and forth from the house to the field, sometimes a matter of a mile or more each way, but once in the field, the warm clothes came off and were hung on the side of the wagon. An extra pair of overalls and a couple of sweatshirts were generally enough to wear as long as you kept moving. Even taking into account the discomfort of the cold, a hard-frozen field was better than one that was ankle-deep in mud.

Downed corn was another thing to contend with. A sleet storm in the fall of the year, or just a heavy rain with a lot of wind, would knock the corn down. The routine opening up a field for husking required knocking down one or two rows as the wagons passed over them. On the next round you had to go back and pick up the stalks your wagon had broken down on the first pass. When two huskers worked together on a single wagon, as we did when I went to the field with Aubrey, one of them had to pick up the downed corn behind the wagon.

Although this wasn’t a job I especially coveted, somehow it often came my way. Sixty years after the event, I can still see the back end of that high-wheeled wagon, the distance between it and me growing steadily greater, and my hopes for salvation getting smaller, as I shucked out my row of downed corn.

Worst of all were the days when it was cold, the temperature just above freezing, and the corn wet from a rain. Then the field was muddy, the stalks were tough and your gloves were immediately soaked through with icy water. I could move fast enough to keep up my body heat, but I never discovered any way to keep my hands warm. Taken all in all, picking corn was a grueling, disagreeable job, one I dreaded as long as I lived on the farm. Getting used to husking corn would be like getting used to suicide.

A yield of a hundred bushels to the acre was a high mark in production to which all farmers aspired in those days before commercial fertilizers, but on most places in the clay hills where we lived, farmers were pleased to settle for a yield of fifty or sixty bushels to the acre. Regardless of whether the yield is good or poor, it takes about the same time for a horse-drawn wagon to inch its way over a field. It may, in fact, take longer where the yield is a poor, because there is a good deal of fumbling involved when you are shucking nubbins off stunted cornstalks.

The number of acres of corn you planted in the spring depended on the manpower you would likely have available at husking time in the fall. Forty acres of corn is only one fifth of the land on a 200-acre farm, and that may not sound like much, but — assuming a yield of a hundred bushels an acre and a man who could husk a hundred bushels a day - it would take well over a month for one man to pick that much corn by hand. With winter coming, you can see why we sometimes picked corn on Sunday.

A man picking corn went to the field with a team of horses and a wagon that held fifty bushels, assuming the ears were heaped up above the top of the box. To make that possible, a set of "bang-boards" was mounted on the wagon on the side opposite the man picking. Inch-thick boards were cleated together in sets of three or four running the length of the wagon. The husker tossed the ears he picked against the bang-boards, and they dropped back into the wagon.

The corncrib on our farm was falling apart when we moved onto the place. It was one of several buildings that had to be rebuilt immediately. We put it up in exactly the same spot where the old crib had stood. Although it seemed large to me at the time, our new crib was a smallish structure, built in the conventional way, with cribs on both sides of a driveway, each side estimated to hold about 2,000 bushels.

People talked about rat-proof corncribs, but I would say that was mostly talk, at least it was around where I lived. Even so, we seldom saw a rat. With all that corn at hand, they were content to stay out of sight and gorge themselves. It was only when we shelled the corn out of a crib that we disturbed the rats in their nests.

One day when we were shelling corn, we had nearly emptied the crib on the north side by noon. The crew stopped to eat. Only about fifty bushels remained to be shelled in that side of the crib. The rats retreated through the grain into that small pile, driven there by the noise and the shovels of our crew. When the men came back to work after their noon meal, Aubrey carefully tied the bottoms of his pants legs shut with binder twine. One of the neighbors helping us that day, a fellow named John Bury, thought the old man’s cautious move was pretty funny, and had a good deal to say about it, "Look at that big baby. I believe he’s afraid of rats."

As that last fifty bushels of corn disappeared, the place came alive with rats, hundreds of them, and only a moment later, friend Bury had one of them high inside his pants leg against his thigh. It was a moment when you might have said John’s attention was perfectly focused.

Having heard him teasing my dad only a moment before, the crew was interested in how John intended to deal with his problem. He didn’t dare let go, but he killed the rat in his hands, in spite of the fact it was clawing his leg raw. After that, everyone went and tied his pants legs shut. Fortunately, the rat turned out not to be rabid, and John Bury lived to tell the story — rather, he lived to listen while it was told about him.

Until rural electrification brought power to the farms around us, there were very few mechanical elevators to ease the task of unloading a wagon full of corn, and those few were found only on the most prosperous farms. The farmers we knew scooped every ear into the crib by hand, and with short-handled shovels at that.

Corn huskers wore cotton-flannel gloves to protect their hands. Husking gloves were made with an extra thumb on the back so that they could be turned over and used again on the other side. When we boys were old enough to husk corn, it was common for us to wear husking gloves to school, a way of showing off how big we were. We let the extra thumb flap, or we pushed it back into the glove if we wanted to look a little more stylish.

Corn huskers wore out one pair of gloves a day. By the time the wagon was full at noon, the working side of the gloves was hanging in shreds and tatters. Then the gloves were turned over (this is where the extra thumb came in), and you wore out the other side during the afternoon. We bought husking gloves in bundles of a dozen pairs each. In 1935, you could get a bundle of Oshkosh b’Gosh gloves at the Trading Post for $1.89.

Older men talked about husking corn bare handed. There had been one brand of corn with deep red-colored and very rough kernels called Bloody Butcher. Farmers said it was Bloody Butcher when you planted it, and bloody hell when you husked it.

A good team of horses on your wagon made the difference between a hard job and one that was blindingly frustrating. There was no one in the wagon driving the team, and horses were supposed to move forward and to stop on voice command. Lines on the harness were tied off at the front end of the wagon, with the team moving along the row on its own.

On still, frosty mornings in the fall when I was walking to school, I could hear the voices of the men in the field from a long way off talking and swearing at their teams, almost in a chant: Giddap! Whoa! Back! punctuated by the whack of ears landing in the wagon as it crawled along, visible only as a set of bang-boards moving through the standing corn. "Back" was no more than a fond hope. I never saw a team that would back a loaded wagon on its own. It was hard enough to back them when you had hold of the lines.

Huskers wore a peg or a hook strapped over the glove on their right hand to aid them in getting the shucks opened and the ear snapped off the stalk. Grown men all used hooks, while women and kids used pegs.

A peg was a bit of metal three or four inches long and a quarter of an inch wide, bent just a little at one end and made with a blunt point. It was riveted to a leather strap, and was worn buckled onto the right hand lying diagonally across the palm with the point up, resting on the forefinger between the first and second knuckle. The point came just under the opposing thumb where it was used to open the shucks on an ear. You had to take care not to throw your peg away when you tossed an ear of corn into the wagon.

Men used hooks because they could husk faster with them. Hooks were buckled on around the wrist. They were designed to be worn on the palm of the hand or on the heel of the thumb. Neither one nor the other seemed to give much of an advantage in speed. The choice was a matter of individual preference. Although there were single, double and treble hooks, the double or treble hooks were a nuisance because husks and bits of stalk got jammed into them. The fast huskers I knew all used single hooks.

A hook made it possible for the husker to shuck an ear of corn in one unbroken movement: grab, open, squeeze, snap, and throw, all in one smooth, uninterrupted motion - or so Aubrey told me time and again. Toward the end of my time on the farm, I was promoted to the use of a hook, but I never in my life husked a hundred bushels in one day.

This it the way it is supposed to be done. I can hear the old man’s voice as I write out his directions. Grab the ear of corn in your left hand. It works best if the open end of the ear is pointing up, but a good husker can take the ear whether it is pointing up or down. Bring the hook on your right hand hard across the ear tearing the shucks open as you do. With your left hand, squeeze the ear so that it pops out of the shucks. Your right hand grasps the clean ear in passing, snaps it off the stalk and tosses it into the wagon. It is all done in one smooth, unbroken movement.

A good husker looks ahead for his next ear while he is shucking out the ear he has in his hands. The idea is to set up a rhythm for yourself so that you can move quickly, smoothly and without fumbling. A man husking a hundred bushels of corn a day is a blur of action in the field, and he keeps it up hour after hour. If you think any part of that sounds easy, I recommend you try it sometime.

Huskers worked with the wagon on their right side. The team and wagon move along straddling a row already picked, with another picked row standing immediately next to the wagon. Working with Aubrey, I had the unpicked row nearer the wagon, while he took the next two rows farther off. In other words, he was picking twice as much as I was. You may judge from what I have already explained that he was moving pretty fast. In order not to break his rhythm, he never looked to see where he was throwing. It requires a real suspension of disbelief to accept that, as long as I didn’t duck or flinch, I was safe in the midst of the ears whizzing past me. To do so called for nerves of steel, and mine were never that. I had only to duck reflexively, as I often did, to have the point driven home by a flying ear of Iowa’s best, a foot long and rough as a rasp, whanging me on the side of the head.

Corn had to be out of the field and in the crib before Thanksgiving, when the Midwestern winter began to set in hard. You might deal with an inch or two of snow, but a deep snowfall and the drifts that went with it made it impossible for horses and wagons to get through the fields, and then what remained unpicked was lost. There was almost no way to salvage any of it. People driving by fields left in that condition could see at a glance what had happened. Not only was it a financial loss, it was a sure sign of poor farming, and a disgrace to everyone involved. I can tell you it didn’t happen at our place.

Husking was especially hard on hands and wrists. I can’t claim ever to have done enough of it to have suffered much in that way, but the men who were out in the fields all through husking season developed deep cracks in their fingers and thumbs where the flesh split down to the quick. Their wrists on the hand wearing the hook became swollen and painful from the constant snapping motion. Some men wore leather wristlets buckled on tightly to ease the hurt. In any event, there was no stopping. The advancing season took no account of anybody’s pain. Huskers rubbed liniment on their sore wrists, put melted beeswax or Bag Balm in the splits on their fingers, swore a little and kept going.

Good huskers brought in two heaping loads a day, shoveling the load into the crib as part of the job. They did that day after day until there was no corn left standing in the field, or until bad weather put a stop to all corn picking. When things were tight, picking went on seven days a week, although, even in our non-religious family, it was considered bad luck to work too often on Sundays.

Actually, I don’t think religion had much to do with it. It was the fact that seven days a week of that kind of work was more than blood and bone could endure. It is well to remember, too, that the routine work on the farm - milking, feeding stock, cleaning barns and hauling manure — still had to be done along with the major task of getting the corn in.

The old man liked to move fast. He worked hard in spurts, and he expected everyone around him to do the same, but he was temperamentally unsuited to a long pull. The day-in and day-out grind of corn husking drove him wild. His mood darkened as the season progressed, and we had at least one domestic uproar before we were finished. The situation was eased only when we had a hired man to help with husking. In a black mood Aubrey had a voice and manner that would change the expression on the face of a Hereford steer. Even during the Depression when jobs were hard to find, it was quite a trick to keep the help on the place once he had been hired.

When the time came, as it inevitably did, that the hired man got fed up and quit, I sent heartfelt, if furtive, prayers to whatever gods there may have been for some fellow with a strong back and a thick skin to turn up at our place looking for work. As Huck Finn discovered when he prayed for a fish line and hooks, there is no reliable return on that kind of supplication. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.

The mechanical corn pickers they started to use on farms large and small after the war were a mixed blessing. They were tremendous labor savers, but they were probably as dangerous an item as we had to deal with, right up there with unguarded buzz saws. Every year after farmers started using mechanical pickers there was news of a man or a boy who had lost fingers, a hand or an arm in a corn-picking accident.

The reason was always the same. They were in a hurry, and hadn’t taken time to shut their machines down while they cleared away some stray junk jammed in the snapping rollers, the part of the machine that actually takes the ears off the cornstalks. Why they were in such a hurry when machines had already shortened the time required for picking corn, God alone knew. Maybe they truly believed that time was money. As with a number of the conveniences for farmers in the years following the war, the real price of mechanical corn pickers was high.

Farms were especially dangerous because men usually worked alone, far from help in case of an emergency. I knew one man whose tattered pants cuff got wrapped around an unguarded power take-off on the tractor he was driving. His clothing was old and worn and gave way easily - fortunately for him. The machine tore off every stitch of clothes he was wearing except his shoes, and he went to the house naked but unbroken to get something to cover himself. Owen Thompkins was lucky. A lot of others weren’t.