Corncribs Were on Every Farm
It’s safe to say that most every farm, no matter what size, had a corncrib. Standing alone or built into the side of the wagon shed or other building, the slatted sides of the corncrib allowed free air circulation around the ears of corn and so prevented spoilage or mold. Even when picked in the fall after the stalks have dried up, corn kernels may have twenty percent or more moisture that will cause spoilage if sealed in an airtight space; hence the storage outdoors in open sided cribs.
The sides of the classic freestanding corn crib splay outwards toward the top, so the top is larger than the bottom. This makes the structure a bit top heavy. When he was asked why they were built that way, one old Dutchman said, “That way they could upset more quickly!” He knew what he was talking about as many corncribs on the old farms had started to list one way or another and were buoyed up by props.
Maize was unknown to the Europeans. The Dutchmen called it Welshkaan, literally “wildcorn.” They were likewise unfamiliar with wild turkeys which they called Welshane—“wild chickens.” They usually called cereal grains such as wheat, rye, and barley Kann—“corn.” Indian maize which we now call “corn” was unfamiliar and little cultivated. At 7s. 6d. a bushel in Pennsylvania, wheat was the crop for ready cash. In the British money system, 20 shillings equaled one pound Sterling. In the very early days, 100 acres of good farmland here in Goschenhoppen could be bought for 50 pounds or less. It’s easy to see why no farmer would waste his time growing corn for sale.
Corn, though, was an excellent animal feed and was soon adopted for the farmers’ tables too. It is said the settlers used the Indians method of cultivation by planting in hills, and interplanting with pumpkins, squash and beans. In addition to “Indian” corn in all colors, the settlers were introduced to pop corn and sweet corn. We do know that cornmeal mush soon became a staple of the farm family diet.
Probably the most gushing paean to Pennsylvania field corn is found in the Englishman, Victor Oldham’s 1855 book, “Transatlantic Wanderings”: “India corn cribs run along and overhang the south side of every barn, bursting with its golden plenty, and loved of all four-legged and two-legged animals, including man. Oh, sweet, beneficent, pure, wholesome grain! How does one bless God for sending it on earth, a standing miracle of Thy care and goodness!…
“I wish we would take to it more in England; it is so very good, so very plentiful and cheap, so very sweet and nutritious; of this was the unleavened bread! It is made in a minute. As mush, it is eaten all over America; and how superior to oaten porridge. It is made, too, into cakes, bread, pies, in infinite variety. …I brought some home with me, and I insist on having a little mush now and then (cut in slices when cold and fried) for breakfast! But alas! One or two men I tried it on, have but d__d it with faint praise.”
More than any other structure on the farmstead, corncribs varied widely in size and shape. Their size depended on the acreage they served and probably their construction depended on the materials at hand. Usually four large stones established the corners and two long timbers ran lengthwise about a foot above the ground. Crosswise upon these long timbers short floorboards or split timbers made up the floor. Keeping the structure in the air allowed for air circulation beneath it and also discouraged rats and mice. These vermin seemed to always infest corncribs.
Later tin sheeting would be nailed along the bottom or in the 20th century hardware cloth to form a rodent barrier. In very early days a large flat plate of rock would sometimes be placed atop the corner foundation stone on the assumption that the rats would be unable to scale this to get to the crib. This system worked mainly in the farmer’s minds.
On the frame of the crib, slats or narrow boards were nailed a few inches apart, usually horizontally. Often there would be several openings along the top of the sides where the ears were shoveled in from the wagon. Usually there was a hinged door in the middle or end to allow access to get the corn out.
Horses, pigs and chickens could eat the corn from the cob, but usually the kernels were shelled and sometimes ground. This could be done by hand by holding an empty cob in one hand over a container and using it to rub against and loosen vertical rows of kernels from the full cob. Sometimes it was threshed with a flail on the barn thresh floor or sometimes a sharp spade was set over a sawed off barrel of half-bushel measure and the cobs pulled over the sharp edge to dislodge the kernels. But sometime toward the end of the 19th century, mechanical corn-shellers came along and were soon found on most every farm.
Powered by a belt from a hit-or-miss gasoline engine, the corn-sheller saved hours of work; or if powered by the farmer’s children produced hours of sweat! But in any case, it speeded up the shelling process. I recall Saturday mornings as a child spent filling bushel baskets of corn in the corn crib where they were retrieved by my father and the ears sent point first down the corn-sheller two at a time. A few hours would produce five or six hundreds pounds of shelled corn.
Also we had a special bag where we would put particularly large and fine ears that were saved for seed. Saving the best specimens of field and garden for seed was done with a variety of crops in the old days. The thought occurs to me that when done every year over decades and even centuries the farmer was selectively breeding a variety of plant that was specific to his microclimate and soil type. Maybe that was why the ears of corn seen in early photographs seem so large compared to field corn today.