The Time Capsule | Roy Marshall
This is a follow-up to last week’s column on corn husking.
The challenges of competitive corn husking started with scheduling. County contests could not take place until corn was mature, yet had to be completed a few days ahead of the district finals, which were a few days before the State Championship. There were interstate contests, including a Tri-State that Iowa participated in. This meant the national finals were in early winter, and they didn’t play in a dome.
Pickers battled rain, mud, snow, sleet and numbing cold, with husks sometimes soaked or crusted with ice. Rules that sought to fairly assess results were unavoidably complex. Each contest lasted 80 minutes. Contestants drew for a “land,” which consisted of a block of 6, 8, or 10 rows; the number depending on length of row. Between each land several rows were picked and flattened to allow space for spectators. Huskers took two rows at a time, stripping the husk, snapping the ear from the stalk, and tossing it into a wagon. Gleaners followed to pick up each ear dropped or missed. These would be weighed. For each pound gleaned 3 pounds were deducted from the amount picked. From the husked load 100 pounds was taken at random and all husks and ribbons removed and weighed on a finely calibrated scale. Contestants were allowed 5 ounces of husks per 100 pounds of corn. For each ounce above 5 and up to 10, 1 percent of the load was deducted as a penalty for “dirty husking.” Anything over 10 ounces drew a penalty of 3 percent per ounce. Contests were sometimes razor-close and an ear or two or a handful of husks could determine the winner.
The sport is so foreign to us today (many don’t think of it as a sport) that we find the popularity surprising. Estimates for the annual National Corn Husking Championships were as high as 160,000 spectators, about the same as the Indy 500.
A husking record was established at the National Championship in 1935 by Elmer Carlson from Audubon County, who husked, picked and threw at a rate of just over one second per ear.
Sanctioned competition following standardized rules began in our area in the early 1920s. News articles tell us that fields were soon being chosen, in part, for suitability of parking and spectator space. The state finals were held near Red Oak in 1928. Ruel Harmon of Malvern, one of the all-time best from southwest Iowa, won that year, repeated as Mills County champ, and returned to state several times.
Controversy arose in our 1930 county contest when weights were challenged. Exactly what happened we don’t know, but results were declared void. In 1932, Martin Olson finished on top, husking 2,311 pounds. His brother, Stanley, won in 1935, with Martin finishing second. There was no contest in ’36. That year, with sustained drought and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for weeks on end, there wasn’t a suitable field to be found. In 1938 Bernard Steffens of rural Villisca won the county title with 2,269 pounds. Although he didn’t win the district, a news article reports that he out-picked the national record holder, Elmer Carlson.
Other good ones include Harry Rae, two-time Montgomery County winner. Vernon Peterson was tough to beat, as were Chester Benskin, Helmer Johnson and Jesse Peters.
According to our paper, the all-time Montgomery County record was set by Martin Olson. His record has stood for 84 years and there’s no challenger in sight. Olson finished sixth in the state in 1932, one of three from this county to do well in state meets, but none from here made it to the Nationals.
Husking contests were temporarily suspended during WWII, and mechanical pickers put a permanent end to them.
Roy Marshall is a local historian and columnist for the Red Oak Express. He can be contacted at email@example.com.