Not everything was done by hand at this point. A machine had been devised that could cut the stalks near the base and bind them into clusters. These clusters of stalks could then be picked up and piled into corn shocks—those golden hills of corn that are so evocative of the harvest season.
However, though shock binders, as the machines were called, would help with the work, it wouldn’t be until the 20th century was more than half spent that real changes to harvesting corn would come into use. So the teepee-shaped corn shocks would be around for a while.
Picking the corn was one major task that occupied farmers in the past, but that wasn’t all that was involved in preparing the corn for use. Farmers and their families had to husk it. (Or shuck it —husking and shucking were both terms that referred to pulling that tenacious wrapper off the ear of corn.) Husking may not sound terrible, but it’s important to remember that we’re talking about thousands of ears of corn. When farming communities began to grow, husking could be turned into a party, with all the neighbors gathering to husk each others’ corn, but it was still a lot of work.
One bit of technology designed to aid in this task, which early settlers picked up from Native Americans, was the husking (or shucking) peg. This was a piece of leather and a wooden peg that could be used to protect the hand, especially the thumb, from the sharp edges of the dried cornhusks. As time went by and harvests got larger, people devised more and better pegs and then hooks and then gloves for husking corn. These advances made it possible to husk greater amounts of corn. In one of the barns at Pioneer Village, where a splendid in intriguing variety of farming equipment was on display, I came across this collection of husking devices, from pegs (upper right) through a wide range of hooks and gloves. (Clicking on the image will give you a better view of the devices.)
For those who have seen only nice, soft, grassy sod being unrolled onto lawns, it may be hard to imagine what sod was like on the prairies and plains of the Midwest when the first settlers began trying to farm the region. It was not soft and definitely couldn’t be rolled up. It was almost a solid mass of tough roots and rhizomes extending four or more inches into the earth. The plants growing on the prairie were ideally suited to an environment where flood and drought alternated and brush fires were common. Deep, strong roots meant survival.
Sod was so tough that, before blacksmith John Deere created a plow that could cut through the sod, people often resorted to using axes to chop through the sod, to get to dirt where they could plant seeds. Farmers in the region became known as “sodbusters,” because they really did have to “bust” the sod if they wanted to plant anything.
However, sod could be useful. It was thick and heavy and nearly indestructible. In a region virtually defined by a lack of trees, this rough, thick, woody mat was often cut up and used as building material. In Nebraska, it became known as Nebraska marble. Soddies—houses built of sod—became a common sight on the early prairie. Walls inside and out would be “plastered” with clay, to keep dirt from crumbling into the house, and to protect the exterior from the weather.
I had read of sod houses, of course, when studying U.S. history, but at Pioneer Village, I had the chance to tour one. I thought that, for all its roughness, it was surprisingly handsome. Definitely “prairie style.”
It took eleven acres of prairie sod to make up the three-foot-thick walls of this soddie. I was surprised by how much cooler it was inside the soddie than it was outside. A sod house, with its thick, insulating walls, would have been ideal in this region of temperature extremes.
I consider the origins of words to be an important part of history—but also fascinating and fun in their own right. So before we head off to the farms, I thought I’d offer this little bit of nomenclature and how it arose.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to print something, you had to set type. (There are still places this is done, but there were no other options back then.) Each letter had to be set by hand. Printing was done on a press that looked like this.
The typesetter would place type in a frame that would keep all the letters in place. Type was made of lead, which is why even with computers, people speak of “leading”—that extra bit of lead one would add to create more space between lines on the page. The typesetter would keep all the letters close at hand, in cases like these.
The type for capitals, or upper case letters was needed less often than the type for lower case letters—and that contributed to how we got these terms for the different types of letters. The letters one needed more often were kept in the lower of the two cases, and the capital letters were in the farther, slightly harder to reach upper case.