It’s harvest season and large combines make short work of picking, husking and shelling the millions of acres of this year’s corn crop.
That shelled corn is stored in large concrete elevators and steel grain bins throughout farm country.
But before combines arrived in the 1950s, most of the crop was stored as cob corn in corn cribs — a building with slats in the walls allowing the air to circulate and dry the corn so it wouldn’t mold.
Take a trip through the countryside — especially where the smaller farms once thrived — and it won’t take you long to spot a corn crib. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some are double corn cribs joined by a large roof with storage space in between. Others are free-standing.
Some are circular structures, with the sides enclosed in wire mesh. Sometimes snow fence was used.
Our farm had a wooden corn crib that was long and narrow, built upon sandstone rocks used as footings.
One of my earliest chores as a youngster was feeding the chickens, which involved filling a pail with ears and taking them into the nearby chicken coop. Sometimes I would just throw the cobs on the floor. Other times I would shell the cobs by hand until my thumb would start to blister.
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Before my time, the corn was processed by a corn sheller located next to the grain bins in the upper loft of the barn. The sheller was powered by a belt that ran off an old Ford tractor and the corn was used to feed the cows. We also had an antique hand-cranked corn sheller that was used for the smaller jobs.
The corn crib was no longer used after a silo was built in 1975. We used to grind the entire corn cob and blow it into the silo where it became high moisture feed. There was no reason to store corn cobs anymore and the corn crib was torn down.
The key to storing any corn is in kernel moisture, ranging from up to 35% for corn silage to 20% for picking the cobs. The cribs are designed to allow air to flow around the cobs, continuing the drying without mold.
The wet and cool spring that delayed corn planting this year along with recent colder weather has left many corn fields with higher moisture content. Combining corn that is too wet requires additional mechanical drying that adds cost.
An even more ancient form of corn harvesting is still used by some smaller farmers. Corn shocks — where stalks of corn are tied together and stood upright in the field — are then fed to livestock.
Corn cribs are still used by some farmers. A neighbor of mine — Edwin Borntreger — recently built a new corn crib. The crib is long and narrow, enclosed by a roof and has wire mesh sides.
The innovative part of the corn crib is the elevator that runs underneath. Corn can be pushed through several holes in the floor and carried by the elevator to one end of the crib — where it can be dropped into another elevator for loading.
I’ve also seen corn cribs used for storing firewood — a great way to keep the rain off the wood but still exposing it to air for drying. My great uncle Vilas Steine used to fill his corn crib with wood every year — which he did well into his 80s.
But for the most part, corn cribs are going the way of silos and are disappearing from the rural landscape. They are reminders of a bygone era.