Part 2 of Corn
In making Indians’ maize a field crop, the Pennsylvania colonists were faced with the need for tools for which there was no European counterpart. A variety of corn choppers evolved that were used to slice corn stalks from their roots in order to build corn shocks. Similarly, husking pegs or “huskers” evolved to help pull the dried husks from the ears.
If a tool is an extension of the human hand, then the husking peg is an extension of the human thumbnail. The earliest huskers were probably just sharpened pieces of wood held loosely in the palm of the hand or later loosely attached to the fingers with a leather strap. The wooden pegs were soon joined by others made of bone, forged iron, steel, antler, and even, rarely, copper. With the coming of the industrial age, huskers of every shape and description were readily available in stores and catalogues. The 1902 Sears Catalogue illustrates huskers of every invention with all sorts of leather bound pins and pegs as well as studded gloves and mittens. It’s safe to say that several huskers could be found in every farm house. Husking pegs were commercially available until the 1950s, long after tractor mounted corn pickers were universal.
In use, the point of the husker is thrust through the husk wrapped tip at the point of the ear. With the thumb pinching a section of the husk against the husker, a quick pull exposes the ear. The other hand can then slip beneath the remaining husk and push it back while the hand with the husker snaps the ear from the stalk. The whole process takes but a second or two.
Most husking was done in the field after the stalks had dried in the shock. The first step was to lay over the shock. This was a two man job as one person had to tip the shock enough for another to cut the rooted stalks that formed the nucleus of the shock.
Usually the huskers just knelt on the flattened shock to husk the ears. The ears from several shocks were then tossed onto a central pile. Groups of huskers often worked together providing plenty of opportunity for gossip, jokes, and laughter as the Dutchmen were generally good natured and jolly among themselves. Many times a small handful of red seed was mixed in with the seed corn and “finding the red ear” became a sport. Sometimes finding a red ear gave the finder permission to give his partner a kiss as well as the opportunity for fun and laughter. Lore held that if a single woman found three red ears in a single day she would become engaged. If a woman husked three red ears in succession she would surely become pregnant.
Lore held that if the husks were found to be especially tight on the ear it predicted a severe winter. Even if the husks were tight, a large party of huskers could finish a considerable amount in one day; so toward evening when the children came home from school they got busy too. The team was hitched to the body wagon to haul the corn to the corncrib before nightfall. The children went from pile to pile filling bushel baskets which the men emptied into the wagon.
Sometimes the ears were snapped from the corn stalks and hauled unhusked to the thresh floor of the barn for a husking party or frolic. As noted by Russell S. Baver in a 1961 issue of Pennsylvania Folklife, one autobiographer, The Reverened William A. Helffrich of Lehigh County, describes the threshing floor husking parties thus: “The farmers bring their corn in the husk onto the threshing floor; when everything is in its place, the neighbors, especially the young folks, are invited to the husking. Over the threshing-floor hang lanterns; the boys sit down beside their girlfriends and the floor was often full. The husks are striped from the ears and the ears fly merrily in arcs away over their heads to a place where heaps of them are quickly built up. And so it goes amid merry chatter until 10 or 11 o’clock, when they play “bloomsock” [a game played with a knotted handkerchief] for a few more hours, or now and then dance.”
The Reverned Helffrich at times disapproved of these parties as he continued, “Now, this fall, incited through some who still had the frolic-devil sitting in their hearts, these apple butter-boiling and husking-matches were worked up into genuine frolics, at which things went just as roughly and wildly as at the tavern-keepers’ drinking-frolics.”
When all the farmers in the area had finished husking it was even a news item worthy of publication. A Hamburg newspaper of October 24, 1893 noted, “Beinahe alle Bauern hier sind nun fertig mit Welschkornaushulsen” (Nearly all the farmers in this area have now finished corn husking).