By the late 1930s, as they slowly climbed out of nearly two decades of agricultural depression, U.S. farmers were slowly changing over from horsepower to tractor power as soon as their finances permitted.
During that pre-World War II era, horses were still ubiquitous on farms and mechanization had yet to completely replace a lot of the hand labor on farms. Producing small grains—oats, wheat, barley, and rye—was the most mechanized of the crop cycles of that time. Machines planted, cultivated, cut, bundled, and threshed the grain, although admittedly a substantial amount of physical labor still went into the production process.
With corn, however, while the planting and cultivating cycle had been largely mechanized, the harvest portion of the crop cycle was still labor-intensive. Although mechanical corn huskers had begun to be introduced, until after the war most corn here in Kendall County and the rest of Illinois was still picked by hand. The farmer walked the long rows of standing corn, twisting off each ear and smoothly removing the dried husk with a small device variously called a husking hook, husking peg, or husking mitten before pitching the ear up and into the wagon pulled by a team of horses that matched his pace down the row.
My father told me that a skilled hand husker could keep one husked ear of corn in the air and one ear bouncing off the tall bang-board on the opposite side of the wagon all the way down the row, an astonishing feat when you stop to think about it.
Farmers were justifiably proud of their husking skills, which required a combination of endurance, timing, and manual dexterity. On Nov. 20, 1935, a news note in the Kendall County Record reported: “In the Lisbon items, Mrs. Jones tells us that five brothers husked an average of 156 bushels of corn each one day. The ‘boys’ are all over six feet tall. They issue a challenge to any other five-brother team in the vicinity to a husking match.”
Husking matches were just one of the contests, formal and informal, farmers engaged in to test and advertise their skill at various parts of the agricultural process. Probably the most famous of the formal contests were the plowing matches that were established by Scots and English settlers starting in the late 1800s. The matches tested how skillful farmers were at plowing straight furrows at specific depths as a measure of proficiency.
Husking matches weren’t so much aimed at testing farmers’ scientific proficiency as they were aimed at demonstrating the dexterity prized by their peers and providing a good time for all concerned, with a bit of prize money at the end for the lucky winner.
Husking matches began in Kendall County in the 1920s, with the Kendall County Farm Bureau sponsoring the first match in 1925. The winner of the Kendall County match, August Wollenweber Jr., went on to the state competition. After that, while Kendall farmers often attended the state matches, another formal husking contest wasn’t held until the fall of 1936, possibly encouraged by Mrs. Jones’ tale of five brothers husking challenge in 1935.
The Kendall County Farm Bureau was again the sponsoring organization for the contest, held on Nov. 2 on the Bert Kellogg farm in NaAuSay Township—his descendants still farm in that area, by the way. Ed Olson won the 1936 contest.
The 1937 contest was again held on the Kellogg farm, and this time Roy Johnson was the county winner who went on to the state contest.
There was apparently no contest in 1938, but in 1939 the Farm Bureau again hosted a contest, this time at the Thomas Fletcher farm at Lisbon Center. And luckily for us, either the Farm Bureau or the Fletcher family decided to document the year’s contest with a nice batch of professionally produced photographs. Today, a couple of Tom Fletchers still farm down on Lisbon Center Road, the grandson and great-grandson of the 1939 Tom Fletcher. Today’s elder Tom recently allowed the Little White School Museum in Oswego to scan in a batch of photos from the 1939 contest. For those keeping track, the winner in 1939 was the same Ed Olson who won in 1936.
Since this year’s corn harvest is now on-going, and this marks the 80th anniversary of the 1939 Kendall County Hand Husking Contest, I thought it would be of some interest to post some of the photos of the contest. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do…