Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 40

RM

| NEIGHBORS

Chronicles of
the corn
Huskers preserve tradition
through annual competition
photos courtesy Vicki Rodgers

Left: Mitchel Burns prepares to husk another ear during the 2015 Missouri championship held
in Marshall. Above: This corn was picked during the day's competition.

of husk in a 30-pound sample from their gross load with no penalty. After that,
each quarter of an ounce knocks a percentage point off their total weight. Any
corn they miss while working the row or that doesn't make it into the wagon
is multiplied by three and also deducted. These seem forgivable mistakes, but
Mitchel knows firsthand they can mean the difference between first place and
the back of the pack.
"Honing the motion and technique is the difference," Mitchel says. "Initially
you have to have power, dexterity and hand-eye coordination. If people don't
have that they can be pickers, but they aren't going to hammer the best guy
from Illinois."
Incidentally, the best in Illinois is the husker Mitchel considers a master
of the sport: 28-time state champ Frank Hennenfent, who also has won 14
Nationals. Mitchel, who has won 10 Missouri titles, is quick to heap praise
by Zach Smith | zsmith@ruralmissouri.coop
on others who refuse to leave the old ways to the history books. Iowan mentor
very year in the Midwest, men and women from across the country and husking legend Robert Ferguson, 2005 national champ Emma Johnson of
gather to celebrate a tradition almost a century old. In the age of Montgomery City and 12-time national winner Rochelle Myers of Polo, are just
mechanized harvesters it's a sight most are unaccustomed to seeing, a few of the names which come to mind.
Across 29 years of picking, those names and numbers started piling up
but cornhusking isn't a novelty to Midwesterners like Mitchel Burns -
it's both a sport and a piece of history.
in Mitchel's memory. He knew he had to do more than compete in order to
"Years ago a greater percentage of America's population
preserve the agricultural tradition. Inspired by Leonard Jacobs' books "The
Battle of the Bangboards" and "Huskers Digest," he wrote two of his own,
was agrarian-based, so hundreds of high school kids got
jobs picking corn," Mitchel says. "Kids and adults today don't
"The National" and "The Cornhusking Tradition." The volumes compile
Brookfield
know what hand cornhusking is. Heck, a lot of people my age
the history of the contest, statistics and profiles of the sport's modern
probably haven't picked corn."
greats. As Mitchel puts it, "The history teacher in me kicked in."
What started out as a challenge to see how well he could husk
Mitchel is Missouri's only state champion in the men's division
became more than a pastime to Mitchel: He's traveled the country
to go on and win what cornhuskers simply call "The National."
with his family, made lifelong friends and in the process helped
In fact, he's done it twice. He didn't pick corn as a kid, but he's
save a piece of Corn Belt history that might otherwise be lost.
no stranger to the rural tradition. The former history teacher still
"If you start picking corn for an hour, you'll find out how hard
farms land north of Brookfield that goes back three generations.
"I had a team of horses, I pressed apples in school and made
it is," Mitchel says. "It's emblematic of America and of the Midwest.
Think of the thousands of people who worked picking a crop from the
butter, I liked doing those things," the North Central Missouri Electric
1880s on. This is hard work - I just do it for fun."
Cooperative member says. "This was right in my ballpark."
In 1922, Henry A. Wallace - who would go on to serve as Franklin Delano
For more information on The National, visit www.cornhusking.com or follow
Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, commerce and even vice president for a
term - organized the first cornhusking contest. By 1936, Time magazine called the event on Facebook. Copies of "The Cornhusking Tradition" cost $15 plus $5
cornhusking "the fastest growing sporting spectacle in the world." More than shipping and handling and are available from Mitchel Burns, 21397 Highway M,
160,000 people turned out for The National held in Davenport, Iowa in 1940. Brookfield, MO 64628.
When the United States entered World War II a year later, the contest would go
on hiatus until it was revived in Kansas in 1975.
Bottom: Huskers use different tools called hooks to split the husk around an ear of corn.
This year the Missouri state and national championships will be held Mitchel prefers the palm hook, at right, which was used to win the 2006 National in Nebraska.
Oct. 20-21 at the Saline County Fairgrounds in Marshall. Mitchel says the
crowds now average about 400, but competition at the National Cornhusking
Association's main event remains as fierce as ever.
In pre-war days, competitors picked for 80 minutes while modern contests
run 20-30 minutes depending on class. Because hybridized corn is tougher
and harder to husk, Mitchel says it's difficult to make a comparison between
the huskers of yore and today's contenders. He adds that some men who won
The National in the 1930s were still taking a run in the corn when the contest
was revived in the '70s and finishing in the top three.
When he and his father, John, visited the state competition in 1988, Mitchel
tried his hand in the rookie class. He found out the next day from a friend at
church that he had won. From that moment forward, cornhusking's hooks
were set deep in Mitchel's mind. He bought a wagon and started practicing.
"It wasn't enough for me to just compete and say I did it - I wanted to get up
there at the top," Mitchel says. It's the kind of determination not uncommon for
a man who has built two small aircraft and also his own boat to run the MR340
race down the Missouri River in 2008.
Picking a lot of corn is challenging enough. In competition, huskers have to
pick cleanly and consistently. In the open class, pickers are allowed 1.5 ounces

E

40

RURAL MISSOURI | SEPTEMBER 2017


http://www.cornhusking.com

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - September 2017

Contents
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Intro
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Contents
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 4
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Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover3
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover4
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