Harvesting the Spirit of Athletic Competition: Competitive Cornhusking in Oakley

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Strength training for corn husking contests sometimes involved extreme measures, as this picture shows.  Photo Courtesy Wild West Historical Foundation.

Strength training for corn husking contests sometimes involved extreme measures, as this picture shows. Photo Courtesy Wild West Historical Foundation.

80 minutes. No time-outs. No water breaks. No substitutions.  Corn husking was the Midwestern sport of endurance and skill during the 1920s and 1930s.  Just a competitor, a wagon and as much corn as they could shuck.

By 1940, the sport drew crowds of more than 100,000, and Time Magazine called it “the fastest growing spectator sport in the world.”  National Corn Husking Contests celebrating Midwestern heritage and values were broadcast coast-to-coast on NBC’s Farm and Home Hour.

But World War II and the mechanization of the corn harvest brought an abrupt end to the contests that Collier’s Weekly once declared “the toughest competition in the world.”

Fast forward to 1970.  Some residents in the northwest town of Oakley wanted to hold an event that would bring people into their town and attract travelers off the Interstate.

Ross Nelson, the Logan County Agricultural agent, suggested an old-time hand cornhusking contest.  With the help of former husker Kenneth House of Goodland, they set out to revive the contest in Kansas. In 1971, Oakley hosted the first year of the now-annual Kansas State Corn Husking Contest.

The rules developed by Nelson and House became the model for the modern-day contest rules used by Kansas and the eight other Midwestern state members of the National Corn Husking Association.

According to the National Corn Husking Contest Rules 2000, “The objective is to husk into the wagon the largest amount of ear corn and at the same time husk all the ears on land covered. Such corn, when husked, shall be reasonably free from husks.”

Most huskers use a hand-held husking hook to help break open the husk for speedier removal from the stalk, though some still prefer bare hands. And 10, 20, or 30-minute bouts are now the norm, depending on the class of competition.

Though rural traditions and values still remain rooted in the sport, the old-time huskers are passing on. Laurie Millensifer, Oakley’s Hometown Teams Partner Site Project Director, fears the sport, along with its history and heritage, will be gone if the younger generation does not get involved.

She hopes that the demonstrations and displays planned for their 2015 “Harvesting the Spirit of Athletic Competition” exhibition will help sow the seeds of interest and participation in the sport of competitive corn husking in Kansas.

The exhibition will be on display at the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center between March 30 and May 1, as well as throughout October. For more information, contact (785) 671-1000 or info@buffalobilloakley.org.