Quincy man hurries when he husks as he prepares for state corn-picking contest
Don McKinley practices his cornhusking technique in a field near his home for the Illinois State Cornhusking Contest taking place Sunday in Roseville. A retired elementary school principal in Quincy, McKinley remembers picking corn by hand growing up on his father’s farm, before mechanical corn pickers took over the task. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
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Published: 10/1/2010 | Updated: 10/25/2010

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Don McKinley builds rhythm and speed as he works his way through the field.

He reaches for an ear of corn with his left hand, "hooks off" a fourth or a third of the shucks with his right, grasps the rest of the shucks with his left, snaps the ear off with his right and throws it in one motion. While his hands are busy, his eyes are looking for the next ear and how to grab it.

It's a practice session as McKinley prepares for the 30th annual Illinois State Cornhusking Contest slated for Sunday in Roseville. Youth ages 13 to 20, women and men compete in 10 classes. The top three from each class qualify for the national contest, slated for Oct. 16-17 in Oakley, Kan.

The Quincy man competed the past two years in the state contest, which brings back to life the time when farmers harvested the corn crop by hand, not by machine, then had to shell the grain from the ear.

"It's a lost art, " McKinley said. Machines "simply took over. The first mechanical picker came in in 1920, and by the end of that decade, there was a lot of companies with mechanical pickers. "

McKinley got plenty of practice picking corn while growing up on the farm.

"I'd drop out of school from seventh grade on every fall for four to six weeks and help Dad pick corn, all of it by hand," he said. "By senior year, if the corn was heavy, 50 to 55 bushels per acre, if I really worked at it I could pick 100 to 110 bushels a day and scoop that off the wagon. It was a full, full day."

But mechanical corn pickers worked faster, soon taking over the job from hands-on pickers.

A 1931 John Deere mechanical corn picker, restored by McKinley and his son, was advertised to pick 42 bushels an hour. One of today's John Deere 9860 combines, by comparison, picks and shells 4,200 bushels an hour.

McKinley left the farm and spent his career in education, primarily as an elementary school principal. After retiring, he told his wife he wanted a John Deere tractor. The tractor now is the centerpiece of the agriculture museum that McKinley developed to showcase what was typically found on a 1930s-era farm and in the farmhouse.

Now he's reliving another farm-based memory of picking corn.

"In my lifetime, I've picked quite a bit, " McKingley said. "It's kind of like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how and get the balance, you don't forget it. "

Corn-picking contests were big entertainment, drawing thousands of spectators in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. A 1935 South Dakota contest, held in snow and ice, drew a crowd of 125,000. All husking contests stopped during World War II; Illinois revived its contest in 1980.

Practice helps McKinley regain some speed in the field.

"A national contest winner, he could pick about 50 ears per minute. That's just a little less than one a second. That's very rapid, " he said. "I couldn't begin to do that. If I get 30 ears per minute, I'd be tickled to death."

-- dhusar@whig.com/221-3379SNbS


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