Last night, two pairs of headlights moved in and out of sight in the field across the road. Far into the night, an engine whirred as the machine rolled back and forth among the hills and valleys. Every few minutes the lights of the machine rendezvoused with the other pair of lights---the semi. Corn harvest. The huge combine plunged through twelve rows at a time, shredding the stalks and leaves, removing the golden kernels from the cobs, and then emptying them into the waiting truck. If I walked through that field today, my boots would crunch over pieces of stalks and leaves and bare red cobs.
Sixty some years ago, harvesting corn on our farm in eastern South Dakota was an “amazingly” different operation. Dad drove the John Deere 520 tractor, pulling behind and beside it his John Deere corn picker and a grain wagon. Two rows of corn stalks fed into the snout on the picker. Snappers ripped the ears off the stalks and fed them into the rubber husking rollers. The ears of dry golden corn then traveled up the short elevator and flew out into the wagon. Delmer or Don waited nearby with an empty grain wagon. Once the picker filled one wagon, they unhitched the full one and hitched up the empty one. While Dad continued picking (sometimes into the night), one of the boys hauled the load home. Mom hightailed it out to the corncrib to help unload. Occasionally, they parked the old pickup close and shined the lights on the operation.
Months later, after the ears had dried, the kernels needed to be removed. Claus the Corn Sheller Guy maneuvered his machine next to the corncrib. The end result (with a lot of help from neighbors and family) was bins full of shelled corn and a giant pile of corncobs.
We also had a hand-crank corn sheller for small quantities. We fed the ears into the hopper on the top and turned the long-handled crank. Strong metal teeth ripped off the kernels and deposited them in a bucket. The cobs popped out the side into a small pile.
The corn provided the winter supply of food for the livestock. The cobs. Well, the cobs provided much, much more.
Free and plentiful, they were fuel for cooking and heat. I can still see Mom’s practiced hands scoop up a bunch of cobs from the basket and drop them into the round burner opening on the kitchen cook stove. They burned hot and fast, but she knew the proper formula for baking bread or cookies. On frigid winter nights, she would again lift the cover from the burner. To keep the embers burning longer, she also stuffed in a few sticks of wood. While we slept, the stove radiated heat.
Dorothy remembers when it was her job to bring in the cobs. She carried the wooden apple basket out to the cob pile then hauled it back in, loaded with the rough, red ears. She learned the hard way not to forget to fill the basket. One night of filling it in the cold, scary dark next to the trees served as a good reminder.
Later, Delmer took on the task. Once or twice, he tried to coerce his younger sister into helping. “Come on, DeAnn. You take this side.” He pointed to one curved, shiny handle on the overflowing basket. Probably, he found it easier to do it himself than put up with the dramatic moaning and groaning of the spoiled youngest.
The room adjoining the shop served as a storage place for extra cobs. In case of blizzards or ice storms, there was always a dry stash closer to the house.
Corncobs warmed us in far more ways than one. My brother recalls trying to climb to the top of the pile, most often when it glistened with a blanket of snow. We laughed and fell as the narrow, red torpedoes moved and avalanched to the bottom.
When Mom and I read “Little House in the Big Woods,” she showed me how to wrap a cob in a handkerchief just like Laura’s corn cob doll in the story.
Dad either had a talent for aerodynamics, or he just loved having fun. One November evening after Mom plucked and cleaned three rooster pheasants (a successful hunt by the guys), he brought out his hammer and a big nail. He sent me to get ten cobs from the pile, “the longest you can find.” First, he pounded the nail into the wide, soft white end of each cob. Then he pushed the shaft of a long, striped tail feather into the nail hole—corn cob darts! We spent hours throwing the toys into the air and watching them twirl down to the ground.
In the old days, corncobs were used in many ways. They provided heat and cooking fuel and sources of entertainment. They make good fodder for stories with a kernel of truth. What memories are popping into your mind? I’m all ears!
Kruempel’s newest book release, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, as well as her 5-book series, Promises to Keep, are available on Amazon.com. Once Upon a Midwest Sunset (an excellent gift) is a compilation of the stories from her NOOKS AND CRANNIES column, which was published in five newspapers in 2020-21. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and receive free stories, recipes, photos and updates
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