Column: A cornhusking contest was the place to be in '36
By Ray Crippen
WORTHINGTON — How many believe there was a 1936?
That was one of the truly great things about 1936 — 1938 — 1940. We all, everyone of us, listened to WNAX or WCCO. We focused on radios. When there was a new song, a new record, we all heard it and we talked about it and some of us sang it. All ages together. Gramma might look at you when someone sang, “It’s A Sin to Tell a Lie.” When Bing Crosby sang, “Pennies from Heaven” people smiled at the thought. Later there were some who nearly cried when (1938) Kate Smith first sang, “God Bless America.”
Good reader, I am about 1,000 miles from where I want to be.
I want to talk about 1936, about October and November and cornpicking. There were a few mechanical pickers by that date but cornhusking — cornpicking — still was done largely by hand, ear by ear bouncing off the bangboards and falling into the wagons behind the teams of horses from break of day to sunset. Some were picking in October when winds swept over the cornfields and husks and dust were flying in the air. Some were picking in November when the temperature fell to freezing and there was snow on the ground. Kids got out of school to help with cornpicking.
The thing that got me started on this: I read Time magazine reported the event in America that drew the biggest crowd in 1936 was the Indianapolis 500. In 1936, nearly everyone could still remember riding behind a team of horses in a wagon or a buggy. Speeding automobiles awed people. Spectators imagined themselves rolling along the old gravel at home at 120 mph.
Now — get this — the second-biggest crowd in America in 1936 was at the National Cornhusking Contest. There were 160,000 people gathered at Alva Oyler’s farm 25 miles east of Columbus, Ohio, in Licking County. There already had been nine inches of snow in Ohio. The snow had melted but there was mud everywhere. And 45,000 cars.
Why was the cornhusking contest nearly the biggest attraction in all of America, bigger even than a teen standing on a stage singing with a guitar? Well — admission at the husking contest was free. You could buy a hamburger at one of the stands for five cents. You could get a chicken dinner for 30 cents, or 35 cents. Bands played. There were exhibits of new farm machinery, and just about everyone picked corn at one time or another. They knew what this was all about.
The next year, 1937, the contest took place in a rainstorm in Saline County, Missouri. The national champion was Ray Hanson of Cottonwood County, Minnesota.
And where was the national contest in 1961? (I knew you would ask.) It was on Bob Burns’ farm on the north edge of Worthington. October 13, 1961. The sun beamed — oh, it was even warm outside. There were 40 acres of exhibits. Tents and vendors and machinery displays. A stage and a giant scoreboard. I think no one made a count. How can you know; people were coming and going all day long. There were thousands of them. It was a big show.
John F. Kennedy was the new president and he appointed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, as the organizer and director of the all-new Peace Corps. The Peace Corps wanted farmers, young or aging, and women, too, to volunteer for a year in Africa or South America to teach people south of the equator things about farming and harvesting. So it was that R. Sargent Shriver came to Worthington as featured speaker for the corn contest.
It’s surprising. There still is a national cornhusking competition. This year it is back in Ohio, at Greenville. They still pick by hand, ear by ear.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.