Rural Missouri - October 2011 - (Page 19)

A by Jason Jenkins utumn is a great time to be an American sports fan. After 162 regular season games, the playoffs begin in Major League Baseball. NASCAR closes in on the final laps of its racing season, and from high schools on Friday nights to the NFL on Sunday afternoons, football teams return to the gridiron. There is another fall sport in the Midwest, but you’re not likely to find it on ESPN. At one point in the 20th century, however, this sport drew crowds in excess of 100,000 spectators. Its athletes were lauded as national heroes, receiving fame and endorsements on par with other sports celebrities. This forgotten phenomenon of American sport is cornhusking, which captivated the nation from the mid-1920s until World War II brought it abruptly to a halt. Although tens of thousands no longer flock to the fields to watch their favorite “cornfield gladiators,” cornhusking is still alive today. Groups of dedicated aficionados gather in nine states to battle for a chance to compete at the national contest and write their names alongside the huskers of the past. The Saline County Fairgrounds at Marshall, Before mechanical harvesters, cornfields were picked by hand, often with the aid of a metal palm hook to remove the husks. the site of the Missouri state contest since 1983, will play host to this year’s national cornhusking championship. The events are scheduled for Oct. 13-16. Once called “the fastest growing spectator sport in the world” by Time magazine in 1936, the contests were the brainchild of Henry A. Wallace, editor of the Iowa farm publication, Wallaces Farmer. He believed more efficient harvesting methods would need to be developed as corn yields increased and pricexactly 50 years since the last time,” recalls Gary The 1941 national contest in Illinois would es dropped. The contests were a way Dowell, a retired farmer from Marshall who helps be the last of the era. A little more than to compare and improve cornhusking Marshall organize the Missouri contest. “Today, our state toura month after the championship, the techniques. • nament attracts 50 to 60 huskers.” Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, pulling Wallaces Farmer sponsored the first Carolyn Taylor, president of the Missouri State the United States into World War II. state contest in Iowa in 1922. Two years Corn Husking Association, has her own personal As was the case with many pastimes, later, the first national contest featured memories of cornhusking on the family farm. cornhusking was put on hold as huskers from Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. “When I was 8 or 9, Daddy would hook up the America went to war. The first postMissouri would join the contest in 1926. team and we’d go to the field with the snow on and war national cornhusking contest The contest was no leisurely stroll down husk corn,” she recalls. “Your fingers would be so wouldn’t be held until 1975 in Kansas. the row for the competitors. The object was to cold, your feet so cold, but that’s how you fed your While the mega-crowds of the 1930s and early cleanly harvest as many ears of corn as possible in hogs, you went and husked the corn. It wasn’t for 1940s may have disappeared from the cornfields, the 80 minutes. Removing the husk — the leaves around the fun of it. It was a necessity.” national cornhusking championships are very much the ear — was important because husks attract moisTaylor says that Missouri strives to maintain its alive. Men, women and even children compete in ture, which could ruin the stored grain. Deductions cornhusking traditions. For example, Missouri is the varying age classes today. Whereas the original conwere assessed for husks left on the ears, as well as for only state where teams of horses exclusively pull the tests lasted for 80 minutes, today’s huskers compete ears that were missed and left in the field. wagons through the field during the competition. for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the class. According to Ron Deiss, a historian from Moline, “We’re trying to keep it alive the way it actually In 1983, a group at Marshall decided to breathe Ill., the contests were a true test of speed, skill and was,” she says. life back into Missouri’s state cornhusking contest. endurance. “It was grueling, to say the least,” says Lawrence “Pickle” Deal is a regular participant in “Then in 1987, we hosted the nationals again, Deiss, who conducted research for the 2009 docuthe contests. He says the key to winning mentary, “When Farmers Were Heroes,” is picking the corn as cleanly as possible. which chronicles the rise, fall and rebirth “You can pick corn all day long, but if of cornhusking contests. “Conditions you don’t pick it clean, the deductions could be terrible. Sometimes it was mudwill eliminate your chances of winning,” dy. Sometimes it was snowing. Somehe explains. times it was raining. There were instances Pickle’s sister, Emma Johnson of Montwhere some of the men would get done gomery City, has participated in the conhusking and almost fall down. They did tests for more than 25 years. She says the practically a day’s work in 80 minutes.” contest is an opportunity to return to her As interest and attendance grew, so hometown each fall and spend time with too did the scope of the events. Compafamily and friends. nies recognized that an audience of farm“I’m very competitive once you get in ers was a great place to advertise their the field, but as soon as you walk back products, and an agricultural tradeshow out, it’s just like a big family reunion,” developed. By 1937, when the national she says. contest was first held at Marshall, there was nearly a mile of exhibits. The 2011 Missouri State and National The husking contests were popular Corn Husking Championships run from Oct. for many reasons, says Deiss. “It was a 13-16 in Marshall. For a detailed schedule of reprieve from the hardships of the times events, call 660-886-2233. — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl,” The documentary, “When Farmers Were he says, noting that admission was free. Heroes,” is available on DVD from Heritage “These men also personified the rural Lawrence “Pickle” Deal of Marshall sends an ear of corn flying as he demonstrates Documentaries. For more information, visit American ideal that if you work hard, proper cornhusking technique using a palm hook. you’ll be successful.” Husking Heritage Marshall hosts 2011 national cornhusking championship OCTOBER 2011 19

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - October 2011

Rural Missouri - October 2011
Table of Contents
Dining on the tracks
Zagonyi’s Charge
Staying on target
Husking heritage
Painting memories
Out of the Way Eats
Hearth and Home
News Briefs
On the brink
Around Missouri

Rural Missouri - October 2011