‘It’s a heritage thing’: Ohioans keep hand corn husking tradition alive

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RADNOR, Ohio — Hand picking and husking corn was a way of life not so very long ago. Keeping that tradition alive, the Ohio Corn Huskers Association held the annual Ohio Corn Husking Contest at Ottawa Bota Farm in Radnor, Ohio, Oct. 10.

Carl Calvin
Carl Calvin took first place in the youth boys’ division, husking 122.28 pounds in 20 minutes. (Catie Noyes photos)

“It’s a revival of what started before World War II,” said Bill Byers, Ohio Corn Huskers Association president.

 

The pre-war contest was 80 minutes in length, explained Byers. “There were no breaks and no halftimes.” The last national contest was held in 1941 and wasn’t renewed until the early 1970s.

 

The contest

Other than a reduced time limit (30, 20 or 10 minutes per class), not much has been modified from the original contest. It’s a race against the clock as each competitor tries to pick as many ears as possible in his allotted time.

 

As a picker makes his or her way down a row, he or she must remove the ear from the stalk and remove the corn cleanly from the husk. A horse-drawn wagon, with a tall “bang board” catches the corn as it is tossed from the row.

 

“It’s called the bang board because you listen for the sound of the corn hitting it,” said Nita Burnside, Ohio Corn Huskers Association vice president and competitor. Hearing the sound of the corn hitting the board confirms that the ear made it into the wagon.

 

If the ear of corn does not make it into the wagon, the husker has a chance to retrieve it and toss it into the wagon — but missing the wagon can cost the husker valuable seconds.

Horse-drawn wagon
A horse-drawn wagon, with a “bang board,” is used to catch the corn being tossed by the husker.

A gleaner follows behind the husker to pick up any ears left in between rows and on the stalks — these ears will count as deductions later.

 

Once the time is up, the corn is brought back from the field to be weighed. A sample of the harvested corn is pulled from the pile and any husks left on the ears of corn are removed and weighed. This weight will be deducted from the original weight.

 

“The deductions (from husks and gleanings) are really what make or break you,” said Burnside.

After fearing deductions from a not-so-clean harvest would set her back, Burnside was surprised to see she had won her class (women’s senior division) with 107.94 pounds in 20 minutes. Before deductions her weight was 132 pounds.

 

“It’s a contest of speed and weight — and having the cleanest ears in the wagon,” said Byers.

Judges are looking for a “marketable ear,” at least three inches in length with kernels all the way around the cob — ears that don’t meet these standards are considered nubbins and do not count against the husker.

 

Divisions

Class breakouts include: a men’s open (30-minute class) and women’s open (20 minutes); men’s and women’s senior divisions, ages 50-74 (20-minute classes); men’s and women’s ages 21-49 (20-minute classes); youth boys and girls divisions, ages 15-20 (10-minute classes); and men’s and women’s Golden Agers division, ages 75 and over (10-minute classes).

Jenna Katka
Fourteen-year-old Jenna Katka, of Richwood, attempted her first corn husking competition and received a score 25.5 pounds in 10 minutes with no deductions.

The top three in each division advance to the National Cornhusking Contest, planned Oct. 17-18 in Indiana.

 

“It’s the only agricultural sport that anyone can do,” said Tim Calvin, owner of Ottawa Bota Farm. “There is no huge skill set required and no huge expense.”

A heritage thing

“Today it is a heritage thing. Most people do it because they want to support our heritage, because their parents and grandparents did it,” said Byers. “It’s a lot of camaraderie and fun.”

Burnside, 58, has corn husking in her blood. Her father, Bill Farmer, was key in getting the Ohio contest started back in the early ’70s. “He loved the old stuff; he was trying to keep the old tradition alive,” she said.

 

Keeping the family tradition alive, Burnside’s daughter, Michelle Paul also competes.

“My grandpa taught me how to husk,” she said. “I do it because I know it makes grandpa smile.”

Bernadine Wagner
At 98, Bernadine Wagner can still husk an ear of corn with the best of them.

Seasoned veterans

At 98 years old, there was no question, Bernadine Wagner, of Genoa, Ohio, was the oldest competitor of the day. Receiving a little help from friends and family, Wagner can still husk with the best of them.

 

“I think this will probably be my last year,” said Wagner, sharing that husking the corn is not as easy as it once was. In her 26 years competing, she has three state wins and took second place in a national contest one year.

 

This year, she scored 19.52 pounds in 10 minutes, placing her second in the women’s Golden Ager division. “It’s a lot of fun. I get a big kick out of it,” she said.

 

Gus Miller, 77 of Helena, Ohio, took first place in the men’s Golden Ager division, husking 80 pounds in 10 minutes. Miller has been participating in the contest for over 15 years, attributing his success to many years of helping his father husk corn on the family farm.

 

“This is my third year as a Golden Ager. I used to be able to husk over 200 pounds in 20 minutes,” said Miller.

 

All ages

Fourteen-year-old Jenna Katka, of Richwood, attempted her first corn husking competition this year. She husked 25.5 pounds of corn in 10 minutes and received no deductions.

 

Sara Calvin, 13 of Radnor, got Katka into the competition and was there to cheer her on. Calvin competed herself, winning the girls youth division with 40.56 pounds in 10 minutes. Katka took second.

 

A tough crop

“The husks were tough this year,” said Paul. The early morning fog and dew made it challenging to pull the ears from the stalk as well.

Byers also commented that the “ears are small and don’t have a lot of weight.”

 

Despite the challenges, the competitors couldn’t have asked for better weather. Next year’s state competition will be Oct. 8 at Ottawa Bota Farm. For more information visit www.ottawabotafarm.com.

 

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Catie Noyes lives in Ashland County and earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications from The Ohio State University. She enjoys photography, softball and sharing stories about agriculture. Formerly a reporter for the Farm and Dairy, Catie is now pursuing her master's degree in education.

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