Corn King

August 16, 2015 — Leave a comment

My great grandfather, Lewis Isley, was a farmer as were most of his sons. For many years he and 7 sons and son-in-laws farmed a 1000 acres in southern Shelby County. One of the products of their farming efforts was that they raised and sold seed corn, Reid’s Yellow Dent and Johnson County White.  These were open pollinated varieties of corn. They would replicate themselves when planted year after year unlike the current hybrid corn grown today.

Corn was the staple crop of the farms providing food for the table, corn meal and hominy if you knew how to make it. (Soak the corn in lye water) Corn was food for the cows and horses and chickens and hogs and during the depression I’m told fuel for the stove. A bushel of corn would not buy a bushel of coal.

It required an extreme amount of labor to produce seed corn because only the best ears of corn were kept for seed and as the farmers trudged around their fields shucking corn one stock at a time the “keepers” were put in the seed box on the side of the wagon not thrown into the wagon with the feed corn.  Occasionally there would be a stalk of corn lying on the ground and if it was an exceptional specimen of corn it too went in the seed box. My grandpa, Webb Isley, told me that this practice of saving down corn was the down fall of Reid’s Yellow Dent. The ears of corn became too large and heavy for the stocks to hold up and there was too much down corn compared to the newly created Hybrid corn of the late 1930’s.

Every winter Purdue held an annual corn contest. Seed farmers from all areas of the state brought their samples of 10 ears of corn or a gallon of kernels to compete against their neighbors. The Isleys had competed for several years and 1937 was no exception. All the boys had their sample boxes of ears of corn all shined up and ready to go the night before the big event. Great Grandpa asked my dad if he was going and dad answered yes and Great grandpa said. “Since you’re going you might as well enter a sample. You know there is an extra ear corn box why don’t you go out to the crib and see if you can find 10 ears that look alike.”

In the dark dad and his cousin Dallas with their lanterns head for the barn and into the crib they go. They were there for several hours in the cold night and finally went to the house with the sample box full. The boys didn’t get much sleep because they left early the next morning for West Lafayette. Today it doesn’t’ take too long to go from Norristown to West Lafayette but in 1936 it was probably not much faster than a Conestoga wagon crossing the prairie.  State road 9 to Shelbyville, US 421 to US 52, US 52 thru Indianapolis and on to Lafayette, and thru Lafayette and cross the Wabash River and arrive at Purdue University. Oh, there were no McDonalds or Cracker Barrels along the way whatever you got to eat you brought with you including your lunch.

At the university there were displays of the latest and greatest innovations of farming equipment and seminars explaining the most modern methods of raising , not only corn but all the crops needed for a successful farming operation. While all the exhibits were being perused by the attendees the judges were busy making their decision as to the best of the best corn samples that had been submitted. Finally about midafternoon the results were announced.

The winner of the shelled corn entries is unknown but when the winner of the 10 ear samples was announce, surprise surprise. Carl Isley, my father, was the winner and he was awarded a bronze medal. He was for that year anyway the Corn King. My mother still has the medal and it seems to me a really wonderful reminder of days gone by. My dad was very proud of that award and I remember he and Dallas talking many times of the fun they had in the corn crib that night and the great pride he felt not only beating his Grandfather and father and uncles but every seed grower in Indiana.

Thanks for listening.

Richard Isley

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