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Guest Commentary

Corn stars

12/18/2013

Shown at the 1941 WHO radio barn dance are Floyd Wise, Herb Plambeck and Ivyl Carlson.

Shown at the 1941 WHO radio barn dance are Floyd Wise, Herb Plambeck and Ivyl Carlson.

There are 30,000 cars packed in the parking lot, and cars are lined up for miles to get in. The weather is dicey, but the people have still dressed up for the event. They have arrived from all over the country to watch, and there are live broadcasts for those who can’t make it. It’s estimated that 120,000 people are here to see the best of the best compete. There are food, musicians and vendors to entertain the crowd. The Goodyear blimp is flying overhead. The fun lasts for four days, but the main event lasts only 80 minutes. Competitors have been training for years and had to win multiple contests for the privilege to compete here. These guys have been dreaming about it since they were kids. The physical strength and endurance has inspired a nation. This is a really big deal.

Ivyl Carlson is 27 years old. He was 10 when the first national event was held. Like a lot of kids growing up, it started out as a way to make some money. For a kid growing up on the farm in the middle of Iowa in the 1920s, hard work was the only real option for making money. And husking corn is hard work. To the uninitiated, pulling an ear of corn off a stalk may seem to be a simple and mundane task. It is neither. The techniques and tools are as varied as crop. The tools consist of a pair of special-made gloves, one with a hook. How to use these with speed, accuracy and safety is a matter of technique. The key is to pull the ear out quickly and accurately, avoiding pulling any of the husks off with it, then launching them into a wagon being pulled by a tractor. There is a wall, known as a “Bang Board” on the far side of the trailer, so the corn falls in the wagon as it gets launched by the husker. Leaving precious corn behind in the field lowers yield, as does tossing husks in the wagon.

Like fish stories, claims made by corn huskers were sometimes hard to believe. On a visit with Henry A. Wallace, retired farmer Frank Faltonson discussed his disbelief at some of the claims made. Over the next two years, Wallace, editor of Wallaces Farmer, created contests for corn huskers. Until this point, husking corn hadn’t been considered a sport. In his efforts to educate farmers on speed and technique, Wallace’s contests created a buzz. And that interest spread throughout the Corn Belt. The contests began as county events, but they soon grew into regional and state events before becoming a national contest in 1924. In 1936, TIME magazine declared corn husking “the fastest growing sporting spectacle in the world.” In the Depression Era ’30s, the Battle of the Bang Boards made public figures out of winners. They endorsed products and had groupies. They looked like athletes and performed like athletes… because they were athletes. 

When Ivyl was a teenager, he shucked corn for 1.5 cents to 3 cents a bushel. He figured it was the best way to learn the art of husking. He competed with his older brother, Marion. In his 20s he was husking 150 bushels a day, so he started entering contests. He won the Boone County contest in ’36, ’37, ’38 and ’40. In 1940 he placed second in the state. In a regional contest in Dawson in 1941, Ivyl smashed the state record by husking more than 46 bushels of corn weighing 3,257 in 80 minutes. With that achievement behind him, he went on to become the state champion in Hartley. However, it wasn’t easy. The weather was cold and nasty, and the wind had flattened the cornfield. By now Ivyl had married Ina, and they had two sons and a farm south of Madrid.

In 1940, 160,000 people and 50,000 automobiles showed up to the National Corn Husking Championship in Davenport. That was a record. But in ’41, the weather affected turnout. Even so, the crowds were huge. At the banquet on the evening before the competition, the participants looked like the stars they were as they walked across the stage in their double-breasted suits and leather jackets to find out which strip of land they’d be husking.

Monday, Nov. 3, 1941. This is the day Ivyl Carlson had been waiting for. He had already broken state records at the regional meet and won the Iowa contest, though it was very close. Thanks to 20 inches of rain the past 30 days, mud and standing water were in this Illinois cornfield. It wasn’t raining, but it was chilly. Even so, Ivyl stripped off his shirt. When the aerial bomb went off, the grueling 80-minute event started. Twenty-two men gave it their all. The sound from the bang boards was deafening. When it was over, all over, Ivyl husked 44.367 bushels. That’s about 60 ears a minute…for 80 minutes. A pro baseball pitcher might throw 120 balls in a three-hour game. Ivyl husked 15 bushels more than the last-place finisher. But the winner, Floyd Wise of Illinois, beat Ivyl by a bushel. Ivyl placed third in the competition.

It just wasn’t Ivyl’s day to win. But there’s always next year, right?

Not always. Thirty-four days later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, corn husking contests were suspended. And by the time the war ended, technology had rendered the event a bit archaic. However, in life, Ivyl won. He and Ina had two more children, nine grandchildren and 70 years together after their marriage at the Little Brown Church in 1938. Ina passed away in 2008 at age 92. Ivyl passed away just a few months short of his 100th birthday on Nov. 26. Ivyl once said, “We didn’t husk corn for the money. We did it for the fun, fame and prestige because I won just $100 as the Iowa champion.” His state record established in 1941 still stands. And after 72 years on a shelf at the Carlson’s home, the rotating Iowa State Corn Husking Champion trophy is headed to the National Corn Huskers Hall Of Fame in Kewanee, Ill. CV

Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too, including this one about his Uncle Ivyl.

Barmuda