When the Nebraska Cornhuskers take the field, they need stamina, speed and coordination. But this isn’t football. This is the Nebraska Hand Cornhusking Competition and these huskers are attacking fields at the Merrick County Fairgrounds in Central City, Neb.
One of the competitors was 26-year-old Ryan Boyd, who is in his senior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Dentistry. Boyd competed in the team challenge, where each person on a three-member team husks for five minutes. The winners are those who can pick and husk the most corn, cleanly and quickly.
Boyd moved along his assigned row of corn with robotic precision, pulling an ear of corn and husking it in one smooth movement and then tossing it into a horse-drawn wagon behind him. His strategy involves husking one ear of corn while looking ahead to eyeball the one he wants to grab next. And he never looks at the wagon.
“You just keep moving,” said Boyd. “This year is a challenge because high winds last week broke a lot of the cornstalks and blew them down into the next row.”
For Boyd, husking corn is a family tradition. His mother and his grandparents are also cornhusking competitors.
Boyd was introduced to the competition when he was 12-years-old by his grandfather, Mark Allen, a retired farmer from Blair, Neb. Allen was a volunteer at the competition held in Arlington, Neb., in 2000 and took his grandson along to help. The next year, Allen joined the competition and came in seventh out of 25 in his category. He was hooked. And so was Allen’s wife, Martha, who he describes as “a real go-getter.”
Mark and Martha Allen have won a slew of titles, both on the state and national level.
What’s Martha’s secret?
“Cornflakes,” she said, laughing. “Actually, I just love the whole event. I love the nostalgia, the horses, the wagons, the camaraderie.”
Mark and Martha’s daughter, Angie, said she started going to the events to watch her parents compete. Finally, she decided to give it a try. Last year, at the national competition in Missouri, Angie placed third.
“We talk about it all year and we practice,” said Angie. “I just love the people who are involved in the competition. You won’t meet a nicer bunch of people.”
Angie, a third grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary School in Ft. Calhoun, Neb., said she talks about the competition to her class. It’s a little piece of Americana that brings back memories of a simpler time when entertainment didn’t come in the form of a video game or a television sitcom.
Competitive hand cornhusking is a tradition that drew huge crowds in the 1930s and 1940s. A strong farming culture and free admission provided a welcome distraction from hardships suffered during the Great Depression. Radio broadcasts and newspaper coverage helped propel the events to wild popularity.
The 1924 Mid-West Husking Contest pitted the huskers of Nebraska against competitors from Iowa and Illinois. In later years, the competition rotated from state to state and eventually included Missouri, South Dakota, Kansas, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
National contests were even more popular. Nebraska hosted a national cornhusking contest in 1926 and 1933. About 70,000 people attended the 1933 competition held at the Ben Stalp farm in West Point, including Nebraska Gov. Charles Bryan. The event was broadcast on the radio, on NBC’s National Farm and Home Hour. The national champion that year was Sherman Henriksen of Lancaster County, who picked 27.62 net bushels in an 80-minute time period.
The 1941 National Corn Husking Contest in La Salle County, Ill., drew an estimated 120,000 people to watch 22 competitors from 11 states. Exhibitors, food vendors and live music created a carnival-like atmosphere.
When the United States entered World War II, interest in cornhusking dropped off and the competitions eventually disappeared. A revival of the tradition began in 1975 with the first post-war National Corn Husking Contest. Hand cornhusking contests in Nebraska started up again in 1982.
Barry Marsh, chair of the Nebraska Hand Cornhusking competition said this year’s event drew 60 individual entries in 11 categories. The national contest, also held in Central City, drew contestants from nine states.
“Your great-grandfather probably picked corn this way,” said Marsh. “They used to a say a good picker was someone who could pick 100 bushels a day. A combine does that in a few minutes. It’s something from our past that we want to keep alive.”
The competition requires a large cadre of volunteers, like the wagon drivers who bring their own horses. Kevin Vering didn’t grow up on a farm and works at Behlen manufacturing in Columbus, Neb. He brought his wagon pulled by horses, Charles and Kitty.
“More people need to see this kind of event. Nowadays, people don’t even know where their food comes from. This takes you back to a time when people were closer to the land,” said Vering.
The Central City chapter of Future Farmers of America provided volunteers for the event. Krissa Gulbrandson, 16, served as a timer and 17-year-old Jennifer Jensen was a gleaner, picking up ears of corn the contestants drop or miss.
At the weigh station, corn is moved from the wagons to skid loaders. Volunteers weigh the corn and take a 20-pound sample that is inspected for remaining husks.
Contestants are judged on how much corn they pick, their time and the cleanliness of the ears.
While the husking competition was going on, food vendors at the fairgrounds sold pulled pork sandwiches and snow cones, children played with baby goats and bunnies at the petting zoo and visitors marveled at the antique car show or browsed through a flea market.
And while the Nebraska Cornhuskers were getting ready to take the field in Illinois for a game against Northwestern University, the original cornhuskers were plowing through rows of corn. Spectators filled bleachers and lawn chairs next to a cornfield, where a new generation of cornhusker carried on a decades old tradition. ❖