How did a farmer of the early 1900s harvest and store the corn crop?

He followed the same methods that his ancestors had used, handpicking and husking the ears of corn. A farmer walked up and down the rows, throwing the individual ear corn into a slowly moving, horse-drawn wagon.

Men, women and children worked this way in the fields during the fall to bring in the harvest. They used a metal husking hook or smaller husking peg, worn over a hand and secured by leather straps. Parents took their children out of class at one-room country schools to help with the farm work.

    It was important to allow the ears of corn to dry on their stalks in the field for as long as possible, but still harvest them before wind, rain, or snow might blow down the mature plants. Corn that had fallen on the ground was difficult to harvest and could easily begin to rot. At a time when open-pollinated corn was planted, the stalks were far more affected by problems of weather than sturdier hybrid corn that would be developed later in the century.

             Etching by Carolyn Splear Pratt

Harvesting two wagonloads of ear corn per day was considered good progress, but safely storing the important crop presented another challenge. Storage buildings, called corncribs, provided one solution, allowing the ears of corn to air-dry naturally through good ventilation.

Kernels of corn remained on the ears until they were shelled from the cobs (the woody core) for use as livestock feed, or before being taken by horse and wagon to sell at a local grain elevator. Using a mechanical burr mill, dry shelled corn was also ground (cracked) into smaller pieces to feed farm animals.

Farmers sold their stored corn when they felt the market was favorable, as well as whenever they needed cash. Towns flourished where grain elevators were located along the railroad tracks, direct lines of transportation to major markets. During the fall harvest, the farmer also saved the next year’s seed corn.

    A corncrib was built of heavy lumber with boards, nailed on as slats, with narrow gaps between them. This allowed a natural air circulation for drying ear corn. Stout wooden bracing within the interior gave stability to the building and supported the weight of the harvest. It was necessary to store corn on the ear to keep the kernels from retaining moisture and spoiling. Dampness caused corn to rot or mold, making it unfit as livestock feed, or to sell.

The roof of a corncrib was covered with wooden shingles or sheet metal, to give protection from the weather. A pitched, overhanging roof directed water away from the building. Regular maintenance was necessary to keep the crib in good repair for storing ear corn between the harvest seasons.

The appearance and layout of corncribs varied throughout the years, as farmers tried improved ways of storing their valuable crop, as well as new techniques for moving it more easily in and out of storage. Many of these buildings remained in use for generations.

Larger corncribs had a central aisle or driveway, for access to the ear corn, and so that a horse-drawn wagon could be driven through the building. Other cribs were filled from the outside.

A cupola on top of the roof could provide headroom for a mechanical conveyor that elevated the corn. Some of the cupolas had vents for additional airflow, or windows that increased natural light inside the building. Before the availability of mechanical conveyors, farmers shoveled ear corn from their wagons to fill corncribs and to empty them. The simple force of gravity was an important part of moving ear corn.

    Inside the building were a series of slatted crib sections, for ease in handling the stored ears of corn, as well as providing the necessary interior airflow for drying. Some corncribs also had space for solid wooden bins, on the first or second level, to store oats, wheat, barley, or other grain.

    In early years on the prairie, settlers had built small, single cribs from hewn logs for storing ear corn to feed livestock and to make their own cornmeal. Because it was important to keep the corn dry, these structures were built with simple roofs and raised wooden or fieldstone foundations. Larger log cribs were constructed as more land was cleared to grow corn.

These farmers also gathered stalks of corn into shocks, for drying in the field, and later harvested the ears of corn from them. Shocking corn was a labor-intensive, time-consuming practice, but it continued for years as another method of saving and drying corn, as well as providing additional feed for livestock in the winter.

In order to achieve the maximum use from the annual corn crop, livestock was put out to graze in the harvested fields, eating whatever ears had been missed. This practice of making use of any remaining corn in a field continued for a greater part of the century.

By the early 1900s, milled lumber and cement were available to create larger corncribs. Mechanical conveyors, called elevators, were used to move the ear corn to higher levels inside a crib. These devices to elevate the corn were powered by horses, or a small gasoline, or steam engine.

Drive shafts and drive belts were used with a system of gears (power transmission) to mechanically transfer power to various pieces of equipment. Rural electricity had not yet come to the farm.

Horizontal bottom conveyors (chain drag conveyors, called drags) were used to move the corn out of the crib and mechanical flight elevators were positioned to move ear corn into a wagon for shelling. Corncribs continued to be built to accommodate additional farm acreage devoted to corn and the increasing bushels per acre harvested.

Although innovations in machinery improved the storage and movement of ear corn, shoveling, raking and much handwork were still necessary. Farmers tied the bottoms of their pant legs over their boots with twine, as protection from scurrying mice and rats when corn was moved or shelled.

Country neighbors frequently helped each other, by trading labor when corn was shelled or ground for feed. Men who specialized in custom corn shelling made their regular rounds to farms throughout the countryside.

On the farm of the early 1900s, the corncobs left from shelling were used as fuel for the kitchen stove and as livestock bedding. A separate small building, called a cob house, kept this important fuel dry. Often it was the children’s responsibility to keep the cob box in the kitchen filled, as well as to hand-shell and manually grind small amounts of corn for feeding poultry and livestock during daily chores.

At a time when much of the annual corn crop was used to feed animals on the farm, any surplus from a good harvest was important to sell for extra cash. If the weather was wet or snowy in the fall, the harvesting of corn could continue throughout the winter and into early spring.

During some harvest seasons, the wet ground had to freeze solid, before it could support the weight of a horse and wagon in the field, so they wouldn’t become stuck. Dirt roads might also become impassable because of mud or snow.

Early horse-drawn, mechanical corn pickers were tried, but these missed ears of corn, leaving part of the valuable crop in the field. Harvesting corn by hand, with horses and wagons, continued as a reliable, but laborious farming practice of the early Twentieth Century.

Throughout the passing years, the corncrib continued to serve its purpose, as new tractors and mechanized corn pickers changed the technology of the harvest. Major agricultural advancements during the last half of the 1900s included the use of a corn head attachment for combines.

As the century ended, farmers were using self-propelled combines that harvested and shelled corn on the go, expelling chaff and crop debris directly back on the field. Corncobs no longer existed after the harvest and corncribs gradually became part of history.

    Ear corn storage in cribs gave way to new drying bins for shelled corn and more of the crop was brought directly to commercial elevators at harvest time. Farm corncribs were modified to hold additional bins for grain and soybean storage.

    Very few farmers now store and dry ear corn in corncribs. Some farm families carry on this tradition in a limited way, if they have an existing corncrib and a few pieces of older, restored machinery (typically a small tractor and a two-row corn picker). The ear corn dries naturally, as in the past, and is ground for their own livestock or chicken feed, using all the kernels and the cobs.

Old corncribs are used to store pieces of machinery, wagons and other farm equipment. However, the building’s function, to promote airflow, makes it less efficient for other uses. Many have been torn down or abandoned.

The corncribs that remain today across the landscape stand as vintage sentinels to an earlier time in North American agriculture and as memories of the harvest.

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