Many a country boy has let out this exclamation when embarrassed, agitated or just plain excited…and, it’s a fitting comment on this week’s look at corn and its role in our history.
We have seen in our past three articles that corn was the most important crop on the Tennessee frontier. It was the first thing the pioneer planted!
Corn was a versatile crop.
It could be used to feed almost every animal on the farm. The settler and his family ate a steady diet of corn. (A subject that we will look at in next week’s article.)
And, the plant itself had a multitude of uses.
As it grew, the settler would plant beans, squash and pumpkins in the corn row. The beans could climb the corn stalk for easy picking and the squash thrived in the corn’s shadow.
The top of the stalk could be cut in the middle of the growing season and set aside as “fodder” to be fed to the farmer’s cattle in the winter months.
There is more!
After the ears of corn are “shucked” (the source of our opening expression), the shucks themselves were put to use!
The shucks, for those who are unfamiliar with the way Mother Nature prepares each ear of corn, are the leaves that wrap around the tender ears of corn protecting them as they mature on the stalk. They can also be called “husks.”
Corn shucks could be used to stuff a homemade mattress, make a primitive broom, and even be tied and twisted into a doll for the children of the household.
Corn shucks can be braided into bridles for horses, short pieces of rope or used to make a chair bottom, woven to make a door mat, a primitive mop or into baskets.
As you can imagine, nothing went to waste on the frontier. The pioneer cabin was full of everyday objects crafted from the natural world about him.
This leads us to “corn husking” parties.
Corn can be left on the stalk to dry and then the stalk pulled up and tied into bundles called “shocks.” The shocks would be left in the field until late fall when it was time to pull the ears of corn and to shuck the husks off.
It was part of the farmer’s annual routine to shuck the corn. And, when you have a few thousand ears of corn…it is quite a job!
So, the pioneer had a system, a system that allowed the work to get done and provided a little entertainment to boot!
The pioneer would invite his neighbors over for a “corn husking.” On a late fall evening the neighbors would all show up and help the farmer shuck his corn and he would provide a little food and entertainment in exchange for their help.
Sometimes the corn would have to be brought in from the fields where it was still standing in shocks. Sometimes the farmer would have the ears piled up on the floor of his barn ready for the husking to begin.
In either case, the farmer hosting the party or “bee” as it was sometimes called, would set a table out with food and cider for his guests.
With the eating over, the work began.
There might be a competition between two teams to see who could get a certain size pile done first. Sometimes the girls competed against the men.
An ear of red corn was sometimes hidden in the pile and whoever found it was considered lucky in love, for…if it was a fellow he got to choose any girl in attendance to kiss. If it was a girl, every boy there got to kiss her on the cheek!
After the corn was all shucked, a fiddle would be tuned up and there would be dancing till midnight!
The recollections of Edwin Sanders Payne of Trousdale County, tells about such a party in the mid 1800s and he says there was more than just corn and music.
“(We would) have a big corn shucking at night…plenty of whiskey, and a big supper and then have fiddling and dancing…”
Oh yes, corn could be made into whiskey as well!