Hello fellow huskers and friends! I hope you have had a safe and productive summer as we near the end of July. In my area of north-central Missouri, we have had enough periodic rains to keep the crops doing very well. Though we are deficient in total precipitation for the year, the rainfall that we have received has been in a timely manner to keep crop stress to a minimum. The corn crop looks to be about made, but the beans will need some timely August rain to insure a good crop. As I write this article, we are experiencing a shower moving through the area. It is bringing some needed rain and relief from the high temperatures and humidity of the past week.
With the approach of August comes much anticipation of good times for me. Not only is it the county and state fair season but, also, a time of a slower-paced farm work schedule. The maturing corn crop also brings anticipation of the approaching cornhusking contests that I very much enjoy. However, August will also bring a family rendezvous in Austin, Texas for the marriage of our youngest daughter, Courtney. My siblings are scattered around the country and a wedding is a wonderful occasion to bring them together.
With this personal news out of the way, let us get back to our favorite topic, cornhusking! And the specific topic of this Historian's article will be a little Nebraska history since our friends in the Cornhusker State are hosting the National this fall.
Nebraska was one of the first states to begin contest husking in the mid-1920s. After Henry A. Wallace introduced Iowa to a sponsored contest in December 1922, local contests in the state took off in the fall of '23. By 1924, Illinois and Nebraska joined Iowa in conducting local as well as state contests. The first publicized interstate battle between the champions of these states occurred on November 24, 1924 near Alleman, Iowa. In that contest Fred Stanek and Ben Grimmius of Iowa, Pearl Mansfield and Henry Niehaus of Illinois, and Virgil Archer and Louis Dinklage of Nebraska competed for the championship. Some 90 minutes later, Fred Stanek emerged as the winner followed by Virgil Archer in second place and Pearl Mansfield in the third spot. Initially, these interstate contests were known as the Midwest Contests and all three of these states hosted one: Iowa in 1924, Illinois in 1925, and Nebraska in 1926. By 1926 Minnesota, Indiana, and Missouri were also conducting local and state contests and sending qualifiers to the Midwest contest. So as you can see, Nebraska was one of the original states involved in competition and has a rich cornhusking heritage. In 1933, the state held its second pre-War World II national contest at West Point on the Ben Stalp farm. National contestants numbered 18 and were qualified from nine Midwestern state contests. Topping the field of competitors were the two Nebraska entrants, national champion Sherman Henriksen of Lancaster County and runner-up Harry Brown of Cuming County. They had also placed in the same position a week earlier at the state contest near Cozad. It was the largest state open contest of all-time with 47 competitors. According to Leonard Jacobs in his book Battle of the Bangboards, the number of teams and wagons needed for the contest on the George Lawless farm was a show in itself. With the advent of World War II the Nationals ended along with Nebraska's rotation as its host site.
In the years following World War II, cornhusking contests were revived in the original competition states, particularly Iowa and Kansas in the early '70s. Most of the original states followed suit with Nebraska coming on line in the early '80s. Leading the revival was Howard and Mary Carson of Lincoln. Howard had grown up husking corn, and by the fall of 1982 with the help of family and friends hosted the first state contest on his farm west of Lincoln. Twelve contestants showed up to test their husking skills, and every fall the state has conducted a contest since the '82 revival. Friends of Carson that provided much help in promoting and hosting the state's contests included Herb and Helen Mann, Papillion; Howard and Marilyn Helwig, Richfield; Louis and Hazel Brauer, Lincoln; Bill and Alice Ruffner, Bellevue; Ray and Marion Peters, Elk Creek; Paul and Florence Luebbe, Beaver Crossing; and Glenn and Vivian Sturdy, Palmyra. After several years of state contest experience, Nebraska was ready to petition the National Cornhuskers Association for its turn as site of the national contest. In 1990, 57 years after the 1933 National at West Point, the state held its first modern National near Hastings. On Saturday, October 20, 103 huskers showed up on the Elmer Uhrmacher farm to battle for the national trophies. Coincidently, as in the 1933 Nebraska National, a native son emerged as the open menís champion. Joe Pelster from Elgin and a three-time state champ earned the title besting a 26-man field with 658.75 net pounds.
The state's second National rotation came in 1999. The Gothenburg organization did a fine job conducting the contest that included the husking of 111 national contestants. The contest was held on October 17 in Keith and Debbie Junker's cornfield just east of the town. In fine Nebraska tradition, the organization ran a timely contest in good husking conditions.
Well, I hope these brief details will give you some perspective regarding Nebraska's cornhusking history. I am sure that the Columbus organization will carry on the state's fine tradition in hosting the '06 National!
Before I end this article I would like to tell a story about two Nebraskans and the contributions they made to my book, The National. In June of 2000 I was hectically finishing the publication of the book so that I could deliver it to the Walsworth Publishing Company for printing. Only a couple of weeks remained and I still did not have a suitable photo for the front cover. One afternoon, I received a phone call from Mrs. Mary Carson inquiring if I would include some information about her husband Howard in my book. I assured her that he had already been included in the book, and while visiting with her, I verified the Nebraska history that I had written. However, she wanted to send me a packet of materials, and I agreed to look at them and return the packet to her. Sure enough, in a few days a fairly substantial yellow envelope arrived, but by this time my contractual delivery date with Walsworth was really bearing down. I hastily finished writing/typing/proofing the book, and still I had no cover photo! I had even written off opening Mary's packet. However, I decided after a couple of days that if she had made the effort to send it, the least I could do was look through the contents. Sifting through the documents soon brought the discovery of a Rick Houchin photo of a contestant in the 1988 Nebraska state contest. It appeared in an old Hastings Tribune newspaper depicting Paul Luebbe in cornhusking action. As previously stated, Mr. Luebbe had early on been a supporter and promoter of Howard Carson's efforts in reviving cornhusking in the early '80s. Well, my heart rate soared when I saw the photo, and I immediately knew it was symbolic of everything the book was about. Mr. Houchin appeared to have taken the photo while standing on the front seat of the wagon shooting down at Luebbe who had just thrown an ear and was in the process of husking another. I realized that, somehow, I had to obtain this wonderful picture for the book cover and time was running out. However, that would be easier said than done because, after all, 12 years had elapsed since it had been taken. From directory assistance I obtained the number of the Hastings Tribune office and made a call in the wild attempt to maybe get a line on Mr. Houchin and his photo. Much to my surprise I discovered that Rick Houchin still worked for the newspaper! He was out of the office, but the next day I was able to visit with him. I informed him about my history project and the need for a cover photo for the book. He immediately inquired if I was a self-publisher before he offered much detail. When I assured him that I was, he stated he remembered the day of the '88 contest and that he had taken a couple of good action shots. While he stated that he remembered the picture with the ear of corn in the air, I could hear him pulling out some drawers in his desk. Much to my amazement he announced he was holding the negative of the photo in his hand. By this time I was willing to walk to Nebraska if I could only get my hands on that photo. I was even ready to mortgage the farm for the right to use it, but he only inquired, again, if I was a self-publisher. He also inquired about the format I was using, and my quick response was enough to convince him I was, indeed, doing my own work. Assuring me that I could use the photo, he then offered to e-mail it to me because of my time constraint. Well, the rest is history and I still owe much gratitude to a couple of Nebraskans, Mrs. Mary Carson and Mr. Rick Houchin. The picture of Mr. Luebbe epitomizes what so many of us love to do-husk corn!
I hope that the rest of the summer will be safe and productive for all of you. Fall is fast approaching along with our cornhusking season. It was a pleasure to review some of the Nebraska history, and I hope that you enjoyed the story about obtaining the National's cover picture. You have my best wishes for safe travel to the state contests, and I hope to see many of you at Columbus for the National. God Bless!
Mitchel BurnsóNCA Historian