According to my sister, the corn and soybean harvest on their farming operation out in Iowa is moving along just fine, with good weather and what seems right now to be acceptable—or possibly even better—yields.
Driver around our piece of northern Illinois and you’ll see the guys and gals out in the field combining corn and beans, hauling the harvest either to giant cylindrical metal bins on their farms or using grain semi-trucks to take it right to the terminals on the Illinois River.
The corn harvest today is somewhat the same, but different in so many ways than it was during my farm childhood.
Back then, my dad had an Allis Chalmers W-D tractor for his main means of power, with an elderly Case for backup and other chores. Tractors of those sizes today are far too small to do much else than pull wagons in from the field at harvest or maybe mow the lawn.
And back in the 1950s, we didn’t combine corn, we husked it. Our 2-row corn husker—or picker—was a dangerous contraption that fit around the AC W-D so that the operator, basically, sat inside the corn picker with belts, chains and gears grinding and crashing uncomfortably close. Its advantage was that it didn’t destroy a couple rows of corn when a field was newly opened for husking. As a result, my dad opened fields for other nearby farmers when the harvest began.
As its name implies, the corn husker or picker didn’t do anything except pick the corn from the stalks and remove the husk, and then by a small conveyor, dumped the ears into a wagon being pulled behind.
Today’s combines—short for combined harvester—pick the ears off the stalks, husk them, shell the corn from the cobs, and grind up the cobs, and dump the flood of golden kernels into an onboard bin, all in one operation. Every round of so in the field, the corn in the bin is emptied, either into a waiting truck or tractor-pulled wagon. Today’s combine driver sits in a climate-controlled with a radio and CD player where he can keep an eye on the machine’s computerized operations and his exact location via GPS. Back in the 50s, even if my dad had a radio, he couldn’t have heard it over the noise of the husker.
After the corn was husked, the ears were stored in corn cribs to allow it to dry. Cribs are farm buildings with a large bin on either side of a central alley. The wooden boards that comprise the walls of the two bins are spaced about an inch apart to allow good air circulation to promote natural drying. Corn cribs are obsolete today, since shelled corn would just rum out through the slotted walls.
Back then, though, the corn was dried naturally before my dad contracted with Grant Shoger or someone else come with a corn sheller—a huge truck-mounted machine—to get the corn off the cobs.
In the days of coal furnaces and cook stoves, corn cobs came in handy as a way of getting a fire started quickly. We had a coal-fired water heater on the farm, and I remember stoking it with com cobs to get a good hot fire so my sisters, who were both in high school, could take baths prior to going on dates. I also remember my grandmother starting the cook stove in preparation for baking bread by ﬁlling the firebox with corncobs. Of course, us kids liked the piles of cobs for reasons all our own. We played king on the mountain for hours at a time, and had ‘wars’ by throwing cobs at each other.
But that only accounted for a small percentage of the cobs generated by shelling. The balance were generally burned, and I remember watching the flickering flames around the horizon as farmers burned their cob piles.
After husking and shelling was finished, the crop was hauled to a nearby grain elevator, since few farmers had suitable storage space for shelled corn. At that time, there were numerous grain elevators scattered along the area’s smaller rail lines such as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch line that ran through Oswego. The EJ&E ran just a mile or so from our farm so my dad used the elevators along it at Normantown, Wolf’s Crossing, and at Frontenac—none of which exist any more.
As I noted above, most farmers these days store their grain on the farm while waiting for better prices, or they sell on the grain futures market and take their harvested crops directly to the terminals on the Illinois River in their own grain-hauling semis.
Which is another big difference from the way things used to be. Our truck back in the 50s was an ancient Chevy with a grain box about the size of one of today’s large pick-up trucks. It sort of resembled the truck the Beverly Hillbillies drove out to California. It had a bad habit of failing to start (it was modern enough to have had a self-starter) because the battery was often dead. When this happened, my father would say a few choice words to the truck, grab the crank, and proceed to start it using muscle power instead of the fickle battery.
I remember one cold winter day when my father and I had both gotten into the truck to go to Frontenac. I was five or six years old, and had watched the truck starting ritual for years. Dad tried the starter, and it didn’t work, so he grabbed the crank and started to get out.
“Maybe it will start if you say ‘damn it’” I helpfully suggested. I couldn’t figure out why he had a smile on his face while cranked the old engine over.