As you enjoy your cup of buttered corn, the idea of how the kernels were extracted from the cob probably never occurred to you. But when you hear stories of what our ancestors had to go through to get corn from the cob, you can really appreciate even more the food that you’re eating.
Corn shellers have been around since the 18th century. But before those machines were introduced, our ancestors had to remove kernels from the cob the old-fashioned way--- by hand. It was not uncommon during those times for farmers and their family members to suffer from hand injuries as a result of manually shelling corn. While the introduction of a hand crank corn sheller made kernel separation from the cob less tiring, it was far from being easy, efficient or convenient.
How it works
No one knows exactly when the hand crank corn sheller was introduced, but it may have well been in the middle of the 18th century. These were hand-fed units capable of shelling one corn ear at a time. A hand crank corn sheller was upright, with a hand crank on one side that was mounted on an axle shaft. Opposite it was a flywheel that sustained momentum even as the corn was being fed through the sheller.
Inside the unit was a big wheel with teeth, located on the axle. The other end of it is often a flat rubbing side with grooves designed to remove the kernels from the cob. Thus when one feeds an ear of corn into the sheller, the corn would get caught up with the wheel and the flat rubbing side. It would be turned and stroked so that the kernel would be removed.
The shelled corn then drops out the bottom, while the cob goes out of an opening at the other side from where it was initially fed in. In some hand crank corn sheller units, a small cleaning fan would blow the cob dust from the shelled corn.
To gather corn, the farmer or even his wife would place a basket pail, or tub under the hand crank corn sheller to catch the shelled corn. The farmer would feed ears one at a time in the sheller.
Timing is of the essence—feeding the machine too fast would cause cobs to jam inside. This meant having to stop the cranking, stopping the picking wheel before fixing the jam.
Called one-hole shellers, these machines were big and heavy weighing more than 100 pounds. Remember that these were made of cast iron, which explains why the weight of the early corn shellers was that much.
There were smaller models, or little box shellers which employed the same principle as those of the larger shellers but were compact enough to be handled easily. These models also saved users time because they don’t have to go to the granary, where a larger corn sheller was often stored.
A hand crank corn sheller wasn’t only useful for the farmer’s wife who utilized it to remove the kernel from the cob so she can prepare a cornmeal. The farmer himself would use this machine to remove corn from the kernel which will be used as feed for livestock. Of course, this was centuries before the concept of hybrid seed corn was introduced.
Farmers, in hope of getting the best feed, would look for corns with the biggest and best ears. After gathering the best corn ears, he would stick the end of the ear on a drying rack to be cured over winter. Then when spring comes, he again looks for the best ears that he had separated months ago.
He would usually tart by removing the kernels from the base and tip of each ear. These are called rounds, which are of lesser quality than the ‘flats.’ Rounds aren’t ideal for feeds unlike flats.
The farmer then pushes each end of the ear into a tapered device attached to a post, twisting it until the grain has been extracted from the cob. Or if he had a tapered unit attached directly to the axle shaft, he simply turns the hand crank on one side and feed the sheller with ears until it yield good quality, flat kernels.
The days of removing kernel from the cob using a hand crank corn sheller are behind us. Today, the chore can be done in seconds using equipment like the Corn Twister which is reputed to be capable of getting the job done in less than 30 seconds.
But this doesn’t mean that the hand crank corn sheller has become a forgotten item. In fact, there’s a growing number of antique collectors and machine hobbyists who are intrigued by the history and design of the corn shellers of centuries past.
You’d be surprised to learn that most of these shellers are still in good working condition that you can still use most of them in removing kernel from the cob. Others, however, are just for display at best. These units are made of iron, making them sturdy that it’s no surprise these items are still functioning despite being made over a century ago.
Markings indicating the name of the manufacturer, place where it originated, and year of production all the more make an antique hand crank corn sheller more intriguing to the typical collector.
You can find these items on sale on popular online stores like EBay and in antique malls. Other more resourceful collectors attend engine shows, scan farm sale advertisements, and even contact other antique collectors who may be willing to part with some of their items.
So the next time you enjoy a cup of buttered corn or a serving of cornmeal, take a moment to realize how lucky you are that you get to eat corn without having to go through hard labor like our ancestors did.