Competitors keep tradition alive at Missouri State Corn Husking Championships

Sunday, September 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:37 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 30, 2013
Rain didn't stop a group of dedicated cornhuskers from showing off their cornhusking skills.

COLUMBIA — Jimmie Aulgur pointed the shotgun toward the sky and fired to start the round. The sky had already been shot at a few times throughout the morning, sending a little drizzle down in disapproval. This time, though, it had clearly had enough.

The men's 21- to 49-year-old portion of the 2013 Missouri State Corn Husking Championships at the Saline County Fairgrounds in Marshall was going to be a wet one.

Good thing most of the crowd of onlookers and competitors, many of them friends and family, didn't mind a little soak. A lot of them had been coming for years to this competition and others like it.

Andrew Linnenbringer, 29, who had been standing in front of his designated row of corn, sprang into action. He sliced open the husks, threw away as much as he could and tossed the ears into the wagon, which moved alongside him down the row as he worked.

"Dedication, rain or shine, gets the job done," he said.

Linnenbringer, who is from Williamsburg, has been husking for about 15 years, but never in rain like this. He was drenched. The corn was greener than usual because of the kind of season it's been. And he was getting ragged on by his relatives.

"Come on, Andrew, don't make me stop 'em," Jason Smith, 39, said, referring to the horse and wagon he was driving to keep pace with his brother-in-law.

"I'm trying to go faster," Linnenbringer said.

"I'm sorry, Adam, but you're kind of like that combine over there," Laine Smith, his 8-year-old nephew, teased from his spot beside his father on the wagon.

"That little baby combine?" Linnenbringer asked in disbelief.

"Yep," Laine said in a voice without pity.

This particular class — the term used for each demographic group of competitors — usually had 20 minutes to collect as many ears of corn as possible. Because of the weather, though, that time had been cut in half.

Before too long, the shotgun fired again, and Linnenbringer and his relatives made their way back to the weighing station.

It turns out Linnenbringer would have the last laugh. A judge determined that he ended up with 108 pounds of corn, which she said put him toward the top of his class.

Competitive cornhusking has been around since the early 1920s, said Mitchel Burns, 63, of Brookfield. Burns is a former national and state champion cornhusker who wrote a book about the history of competitive cornhusking called "The National."

The first national contests were held in Des Moines, Iowa, and were organized by Henry A. Wallace, future vice president and secretary of agriculture during Franklin Roosevelt's administration, Burns said. At first only three states participated, but pretty soon the events and the sport became more and more popular. By the time of America's entry into World War II, 11 Midwestern states were sending participants to the national championships.

The war and innovations in farming technology led to a precipitous decline in competitive cornhusking, and it was only in the 1970s that the sport started gaining momentum again.

Burns said he has been cornhusking since 1988, when he heard a radio ad announcing the championships in Missouri. He enjoys the athletic component of the event but also the historical one.

"I taught American history for 26 years at Missouri schools," Burns said. "I've been a farm kid all my life. This is just natural for me to do."

The object of the contest is to husk as many ears of corn as you can as cleanly as you can. Competitors are docked points if an excess of husks ends up in their wagon or if they leave any ears of corn behind on the stalks or the ground. Most competitors use an implement called a husking hook to free the ears of corns from their husks. It's basically a leather strap with a blade on it that you wrap around your hand.

Pat Becker, 75, of Carrollton is an ace with the husking hook. She has been cornhusking since the early 1970s and won the Golden Agers Women 75-and-older class Saturday. Of course, she was the only competitor, but just for extra practice ahead of the national championships, she also participated in the Senior Women 50-to-74 class and said she acquitted herself well there, too.

Becker loves cornhusking. Her gray hair was topped with a green cap featuring buttons from many of the different competitions she's been to over the years. She's happy that so many people still come to these events, noting that "it's scarcer all the time to get people out because they want to sit inside and watch television."

Becker first heard about competitive cornhusking from her husband, who was a farmer. She was immediately attracted to the challenge of it.

"The first time we went to the contest, he said, 'You can't pick this corn; it's too tall," Becker said. "I said, 'You tell me something I can't do, and I'll show you something I can do.'"

As the day wore on, the rain diminished. By the end of the last event, the Men's Open Class, it had practically stopped.

Lawrence Deal, one of the event's main organizers and a participant in the Men's Open, stood in the back of his mud-sunk wagon and shoveled his ears of corn into two big blue buckets. He cut his hand on a husking hook earlier in the day but didn't let that stop him.

"If you don't bleed in the cornfield, you ain't doin' nothing," he had said jokingly.

Deal said three generations of his family were represented at the day's contest. In the past, it wasn't unusual for some families to have four or five generations present, he said, but that's become more unusual, as some of the old timers have died in recent years.

In Deal's case, cornhusking actually skipped a generation. At least at first. Deal said he had always viewed cornhusking as his dad's hobby, but in the early 1990s, his son got involved and challenged him to take part. He's been doing it ever since.

For Deal, the Missouri Corn Husking Championships are less about the competition and more about the sense of camaraderie the event has created among participants and spectators over the years.

"We've grown to know each other, and it just becomes one big family," Deal said.

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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