Pickers of the Past
by Rex Gogerty of Hubbard, IA
This year’s 14 billion bushel US corn crop would have been unimaginable for farmers in the early 1930s. For one thing, the technology didn’t exist to produce such a mountainous crop. Moreover, harvesting such a whopper crop by hand would have taken months rather than days or weeks needed now to pick, shell and store with mechanized, computerized equipment.
When manpower and horsepower were common, farmers usually figured on spending from early October to perhaps early December to harvest the corn crop one ear at a time. “Thanksgiving was a common goal for scooping the last shovel full into the crib,” says Lawrence Kadolph. “Some years that wasn’t possible because of late maturity, a shortage of pickers, and bad weather. One of the worst years was 1940 when the Armistice Day blizzard drifted a lot of acres and lots of cattle, turkeys and people in the field. Some guys didn’t finish picking until spring.”
Even during average harvest seasons, rain, snow, even heat dictated harvest progress. Eighty degree October days made some pickers strip down to their underwear (T-shirts were rare then) to survive tough physical hours in the field. Martin Winter considered picking corn the hardest work on the farm. There was no let up for a man bent to his task, which included (if you were good at it) keeping one ear in your hand and one in the air at all times. For Martin, picking was at times competitive. He and two brothers and their father each picked into a separate “triple box” wagon equipped with a “bang board.” The boys all wanted to reach and surpass their father’s steady 100-bushels per day average, which he encouraged to speed the harvest.
The Winter’s harvest crew was larger than most. Most quarter section farms could muster no more than one or maybe two wagons during sometimes rainy, snowy days. Open pollinated corn stalks fell over more as the season progressed, so workers were picking up corn from the snow covered ground as well as ripping it from standing stalks. Either way, hands in gloves or mittens got wet and cold. Gloves usually had two thumbs so they could be turned over because of snow or excessive wear. Bill Gogerty and most other farmers said standability of the new hybrid corn in the mid-1930s converted almost as many farmers to the new hybrids as the 15 or 20 bushel yield increase. (ISU agronomist Bill Russell identified the so-called stiff stalk gene for later hybrids.)
I picked little corn by hand, mostly “down rows” run over by a tractor to open up a field with a mechanical picker. Dad’s two full-time “married men” each took a team and wagon to the field. We also hired single men to help pick 150 or more acres of corn. Corn, some oats, and hay were the crops before 1940 when soybeans joined the rotation. Quite often the family living in the house where I live and also Pat’s place would have a relative who could join the picking crew. Day workers like Barney Havens and Martin Wooster were available from the work bench pool in front of Henny Moon’s tavern. But Missourians were a major source of pickers. Their farms and soils didn’t yield as well so they were happy to spend a couple months in Iowa picking corn for two to five cents per bushel. Some stayed to become full-time hired hands or possibly rent a farm.
Schools in most rural areas had a two week corn-picking vacation in late October. Kids of all ages went to the field, often at first light, with parents and siblings to gather the crop the only way they knew how, with their hands. Sometimes it was hazardous work. Jim Mannetter, picking the corn row nearest the wagon, said he would occasionally get hit in the head with an ear his dad tossed from an outside row. Jim’s mom picked right along with her men, following the routine of fixing dinner while the men scooped the 50-bushel load into a crib. Lots of mothers and daughters became pickers. One neighbor picked while their four-year old kids rode in a box attached to the back of the wagon. Doris Womeldorf helped her dad during corn picking vacation from Liberty school. At 12, she was the oldest of four Tucker girls and became the hired hand for her dad, not only during corn picking but also hay and oats harvest and driving the team on the seeder wagon. Strangely, her little sister Mary was the only girl who could get milk out of their Jersey cow.
Some families recruited a work force of a half dozen, counting mom and the kids who were generally instructed to go fetch ears that missed the wagon or bounced off brother’s head. At high school age and above, Martin Winter’s crew usually finished picking their corn in time to hire out. By furnishing a team and wagon (his dad’s) Martin could get 7 cents per bushel for picking and scooping off corn. (Picking wagons were equipped with a full size fold-down end gate to stand on to begin scooping corn. A few farmers used an elevator powered by a “horse power” a team attached to a tongue pulled round and round to operate a tumbling rod and the elevator.) Martin remembered coming home from picking for a neighbor who had poor corn and good cockleburs. He spent the evening currying the cockleburs from his team’s mane, tail, and belly and his dad told him to burn the burrs and never to pick corn there again.
Some guys became expert pickers even in their late teens. Herb Nuebauer was strong and enjoyed picking corn, and like other single guys, could use the money. In the fall of 1939, he picked five weeks for his uncle Herb Ziebell, approximately 3,600 bushels of corn. “I got $175 and room and board for that job, enough to pay off the loan on my Model A coupe,” Herb said.
At 96, “Bike” Dettbarn’s huge hands and strong grip endorse him as another seasoned teen-aged picker who paced himself by using a kind of picking rhythm. In 50-bushel corn he could rip the shuck off and tear the ear from the stalk in one motion, have an ear in the air to hit the bangboard every few seconds. One October day, with judging assistance from his employer, he picked 200 bushels of corn, twice the “normal” amount. He scooped off each of the 50-bushel loads and still had time that evening to head up town for a game of pool. He was paid four cents per bushel picked.
Ears were expected to be “clean as a ribbon” in the wagon and also in the crib to dry down faster during the winter and spring. Most pickers used either a metal hook or a peg attached to their left hand to rip the shuck. Tearing the ears and shucks from open pollinated or early hybrids was easier than the new hybrids because of the OP’s weaker shanks.
Farmers and a few hired hands selected a few bushels of the very best ears as they picked open pollinated corn to plant next year. An ear with no insect or disease problems, with deep kernels and filled to the tip was tossed into a box attached to the wagon box. Those ears were later rechecked for their genetic excellence and allowed to dry on the ear. We hung lots of them by the husk to the 2×6 crossbeams in the double crib. In early spring, the ears were “tipped” and “butted” and shelled with a hand corn sheller and stored in cloth sacks until planting time. When hybrids first hit the fields in the mid-30s, a few hard-liners were somewhat impressed with hybrid yield and standability. But they couldn’t see paying $5 a bag for hybrid seed when they had their own “free” homegrown seed. Later a few guys tried planting seed from hybrids they had grown, and in all these cases, a 5 to 50-bushel yield bump convinced them to switch. What would Bill Gogerty say about today’s $300 per 80,000-kernel price tag?
For some, picking corn was truly an art, that is being revived for young guy competition in some areas. But a good corn picker needed something else, a good team of horses. A gentle, smart team responded to the picker’s command to giddyup as he moved slowly down the row. A really smart team would move ahead on their own, by instinct and hearing corn hit the bang board. They pulled a wagon heaped with ears of corn and a tired driver back to the farmstead and close to the crib to make scooping easier. So corn-harvest equipment outlay included a good team and wagon, husking peg, and a No: 12 steel scoop shovel plus strong arms and back.
Corn picking started the first week in October if growing conditions were good. Farmers often harnessed their teams in the dark to be in the field early and bring in a 50-bushel load before dinner and another in the afternoon. Nobody picked on Sunday. Truman Nelson said even the horses knew it was Sunday. They would stand in the far corner of the pasture and stare if you had a bridle in your hand. Ears containing 20 or up to 22 percent moisture were okay to begin harvesting because corn didn’t pile up very fast in the cribs. It kept during cold weather and usually dried to less than 15 percent moisture by the time it was shelled in August. Farmers tested moisture prior to picking by biting kernels and also by tossing test ears in the stock tank. Ears that sank were too wet (I think, but it could have been the other way around.)
The whole family, hired hands, and friends were tired, happy and thankful when they picked the last ear. As Ben Nassen used to philosophize during such events, “That’s the one we’ve been looking for boys.”