by Lois Hoffman
Over three inches of rain fell. There was mud everywhere. Horses and wagons tromped through deep gullies as did tractors and people. As the day wore on, it only got muddier. Still they came, young and old… to husk.
This was my third year of attending the Indiana State Corn Husking Contest. I went the first year because I was curious. I remember hand-husking corn as a kid to “open up” the fields so Dad could get his corn picker in the fields without knocking any corn down. I wanted to try it that first year because of the memories. I met a lot of nice people, it was fun and I was helping to preserve a bit of history. Did I also mention that it feeds the competitive side of me? So, I came back last year and again this year. Yep, I am hooked.
It all started in the early 1900’s when families and neighbors would gather to harvest corn by hand. Even though it was hard work, it was fun and brought folks together. Soon local competitions blossomed to see who was the best husker. From there it grew to state and national competitions. Tens of thousands would come to witness these contests and the winners were as well known as today’s major athletes.
The National Husking Competition peaked in 1940 with an estimated 160,000 spectators. However, with the onset of WWII, all competitions halted due to the war effort. After that, modern combines replaced hand-husking since a machine could harvest 100 bushels of corn in five minutes and it would take a farmer 9 hours to do the same by hand.
“We are trying to preserve the history and traditions of farming that are being lost,” explained Clay Geyer, president of the Indiana Corn Husking Association. “Our goal is for everyone to understand where their food comes from and how it is produced.”
Clay’s enthusiasm about the competition was sparked in 2009 when he competed in his first husking competition. Indiana has had a state contest since 1926 and only eight other states hold state competitions; Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota. The national contest is rotated between these states.
Essentially, how the contest works is a field of corn is divided into lands and competitors choose which lands and rows they want to shuck. When it is their turn, they have so many minutes, determined by what class they are in, to see how many pounds of corn they can husk and toss into a horse-drawn wagon that is pulled alongside them. A “judge” and a “gleaner” both follow each contestant. The judge times the competitor and the gleaner carries a bag and picks up all corn that the contestant misses on his/her assigned row and any that is laying on the ground or misses the wagon.
After each husker is finished, his or her corn is weighed. Then a 20-pound random sampling is taken. Husks that are attached to the ears in this sample are removed and weighed. One ounce of husks is allowed with no deduction. After that, 1% of the gross weight is deducted for each ¼ ounce of husks up to 2 ounces and for any amount over 2 ounces, 3% of the gross weight is deducted for each ¼ ounce. On top of that, 3 pounds of corn is deducted for every pound of gleanings. This competition is pretty serious business!
It also has no age barriers and young and old alike turn out to try their hand at husking. “Kids” aged 2 to 92 were at the event. The reasons that they come year after year, and especially this year to brave the mud, are varied. Larry Fervida has been husking since 2002 and won last year in the “Golden Agers” class which is for men and women 75 years old or older. It’s just part of his life.
On the end of the spectrum, 13-year old Gage Richard has been to Nationals twice and has been husking in the state competition for four years, and his friend Marshall Finke has been husking for three years. They both were pretty much “born” into the event. Gage’s grandfather Ted Richard has been to Nationals four years and won the men’s senior champion in 2016.
Marshall’s grandfather Jerry Calloway brings a team of draft horses to the event every year. His horses, Bob and Tom, are as seasoned at this event as the huskers. “Lots of people come to see the horses,” Jerry adds. “It reminds them of the old days.”
Sophia and Melanie Gebhart came back this year with their grandfather Robert Hamilton. I had met Robert two years ago when he told me about his own story. He and his family grow and mill their own specialty corn meal. Melanie is 15 and this was her second year of husking while her sister Sophia is 17 and is an “old pro” with this being her third year. They both come so they can “hang out” with their grandfather and hear his stories. Meeting folks with stories like this warms my heart year after year here.
Seasoned huskers like Rolland Miller and Atlee Lambright love the thrill of competition and being around other farmers. Rolland took third in seniors class last year at Nationals and Atlee was second at Nationals in 2015 and won the state open class.
Other contestants’ stories touched my heart. Janice Hurford was the first husker of the day. With a tear in her eye she told me, “My dad won the state contest years ago and since then this has been on my bucket list. It was just time.” Dave Shafer has been coming since 2002 because “you meet lots of great people who end up as friends even though you only see them once a year. I always have a great time.”
Charlotte Triplet, who at three years old, was the youngest supporter here this year. Yes, she was a bit too young to husk, but her dad Zach Triplet is the vice-president of the corn husking association and her mother Emily Porman is the secretary. Little Charlotte came to see what it was all about because you are never too young to learn.
And then, for some like Clay and myself, we remember husking as a chore turned into a passion. Clay remembers, “We always husked 2 rows around every field, and sometimes through the middle, plus we husked corners to allow us to turn on end rows with our New Idea 324 picker with a 12-roll husking bed. Grandpa would never turn a corner without husking corn by hand. I learned early on that I’d rather husk the ear of corn from a standing stalk than dig it out with a screw driver!”
Whatever the reasons for coming, the competition is real. Ted Richard told me the story of a man who husked over 500 pounds of corn and after they deducted the weight of the husks and the ears that he missed, he ended up in the negative. I guess you can get a little too aggressive!
The reasons of keeping the old farming ways alive and preserving our heritage are pretty simple ideals for the corn husking association but, as Clay will tell you, there is so much that goes on all year long to make this event happen. This is the 6th year that Geyer Farms has hosted the event. He has met with businesses, made new friendships, promoted the competition throughout the year at fairs, contests and shows and met with farmers across the state of Indiana to help get a corn crop planted, managed and ready for contest day.
This particular year, Clint Watts, Ag teacher and FFA advisor for LaVille, IN, brought 15 kids to help glean, time and shovel corn from the wagons. It was a win/win situation as it was a great learning experience for them.
It’s about so much more than husking. It’s about remembering the old ways, making friends and enjoying a wholesome day with other farmers. Curiosity first brought me here, the sense of family, fun and being part of something down-to-earth keeps bringing me back. Hopefully, for many years folks will husk on!