Ears fly during annual cornhusking contest
OAK CENTER, Minn. — In 1936, an article in Time Magazine said cornhusking was the fastest growing sporting spectacle in the world.
Thirty-one people tried their hand at it Oct. 9 for the 30th annual Minnesota State Cornhusking Contest. Held for the last five years on Dwain and Marilyn Gerken's farm in Oak Center, the contest is part of Corn Shredding Autumn Harvest Days.
Flooding caused the contest to be postponed for a couple weeks, but that made for perfect conditions on a warm, sunny day that felt more like August than October. Husks were dry, which made it easier for contestants to remove them from ears.
Nine states, including Minnesota and Iowa, make up the National Cornhusking Association. Minnesota contest organizer Kathy Oftsie of Goodhue said the association would likely offer Minnesota's top three winners of each class an opportunity to compete at the National Cornhusking Contest, Oct. 16-17 in Oakley, Kans.
Contestants have 20 minutes or 10 minutes, depending on their age division, to remove as many ears from the stalk and husk as they can. Deductions are made for gleanings — which are ears left on stalks — and husks left on ears. The most net corn weight after deductions wins.
Oftsie had four generations in her family husking and was named the state champion in the women's division, husking 198 pounds in 20 minutes.
The men's state champion this year is dairy farmer Randy Grabau of Spring Valley, who husked 269 pounds in 20 minutes. His wife, Wendy, took second place in the women's open class with 168 pounds in 20 minutes.
Their son, Ryan Grabau, 31, an employee at a glass factory in Owatonna, placed first in the young men division, ages 21-49, husking 255.5 pounds in 20 minutes.
Ryan likes to get into a husking rhythm of grabbing the ear near the stalk with his left hand, open the husk with a hook attached to his right wrist, grabbing the ear with his right hand and tossing it over his shoulder. Ears hit a bang board attached to the wagon and fall in. Wagons in this contest were pulled by horses or a tractor.
He made sure to keep looking ahead, and if he had to pick up dropped ears, he would keep a hand on the stalk to hold his place.
State champion Randy said his father, born in the 1920s, grew up corn husking, was state champion at least six times, competed at nationals and ran the state and national contest in 1994.
Back in the heyday of corn husking, some competitions had more than 100,000 spectators. Contestants husked for 80 minutes and winners would be the popular athletes of their day, even getting endorsement deals, according to a sign posted at the contest. Randy's father would listen to the national contests broadcast on WCCO radio.
Competitions ceased in 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II. After the war, mechanical corn pickers replaced husking. It wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that competitions started to return.
"Dad got me started in '88" said Randy.
Contestant Sandy Gerken of Lake City has heard superior huskers have an ear hitting the bang board, an ear leaving their hand and another hand grabbing the next ear. She's not quite there yet, but she and her mother-in-law, farm host Marilyn Gerken, dubbed the Queen of Harvest, both won their age divisions.
This contest was the first time in 60 years that Howard McFarland, 76, of Spring Valley husked by hand.
"It felt pretty good," he said.
He grew up corn husking on his family farm in the late 1930s. He felt well-trained for this contest, remembering how his mother liked to holler if he didn't husk fast enough and his father did the same if he didn't remove enough husks from ears.
"I thought 'by golly, I'm gonna see how I do,'" he said.