While corn husking itself is ancient, corn husking contests have been around since the early 20th century, said Fred Whitford, Purdue professor of clinical engagement and author of six (soon to be seven) books on the history of the Cooperative Extension Service and agriculture.
According to Whitford, agricultural contests were extension’s way of encouraging farmers to adopt best practices.
“Farmers are very competitive people, and extension promoted that,” he said. “We had contests for everything – hogs, tomatoes, everything. The intent was to show farmers what could be done.”
But the corn husking contests became a big deal – a very big deal.
“Fifty thousand or 60,000 people might attend,” he said. “In photos, they’re just standing there, watching these men work.” According to Farm Collector magazine, the 1940 national contest held in Iowa drew 126,000 people.
According to the website “Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century” ( www.greatachievements.org), the first mechanical corn picker was introduced in 1909, and by the 1920s, one- and two-row pickers powered by tractor engines were becoming popular.
Whitford noted, though, that it took a while for the machines to become common in the countryside, first because of the economic difficulties caused by the Great Depression and then because the demands of World War II made it difficult to get any machinery that wasn’t directly related to the war effort.