The Historian: Pennsylvania corn choppers

Photo courtesy of Goschenhoppen Historians: These nineteenth century corn cutters were used to slice the stalks at ground level so they could be set into corn-shocks.

The word corn means different things in different lands. In the Bible, corn probably means barley. In England, corn means wheat. In Scotland and Ireland, the word refers to oats. In America, the Indians’ maize became our corn.

Corn is indigenous to the western hemisphere, but its point of origin is lost in time. Archeological evidence finds corn cultivation stretching back thousands of years in Mexico and Central America. The original wild form has long been extinct, but by 1492 there were many varieties including sweet corn and popcorn under cultivation throughout the New World.

Indian maize, called “welschkann,” literally “foreign corn,” by the  Germans, was quickly adopted into the fields of the early settlers. A comment in a letter written from Germantown back to Krefeld, Germany, in October of 1684 notes,  “I have so much grain such as Indian corn and buckwheat that this winter I shall be better off than I was last year.

In the early years in Pennsylvania, corn stalks were seen as a good variety of winter fodder and were harvested midsummer as a form of hay. Called “corn tops,” this early type of winter fodder can be found listed on estate inventories. In July after the ears were pollinated, the tops of the stalks were cut off just above the immature ears, let out to dry, and then stored in the barn for winter feed.  However, the food value preserved in the dried corn-tops was far less than what was lost by stunting the ears and the practice was eventually abandoned in the early 19th century.

During the nineteenth century the practice of shocking corn stalks in the field was adopted. Farmers cut the corn while it was still partly green in order to preserve the food value of the stalk and leaves. Pennsylvania farmers cut their corn at ground level in early September  and bound the stalks into the familiar corn-shocks to dry. After becoming thoroughly dry, usually by November, the shocks were pulled over, the ears husked and taken to the corn crib, and the stalks piled into large fodder shocks, later to be taken to the barn and chopped for winter cow feed.

Most hand tools used by the Pennsylvania farmer were variants of those brought with them from Europe. However, since our corn was unknown in Europe, unique hand tools evolved here for harvesting corn . One of these is the corn chopper used in cutting corn stalks for shocks. 

Corn choppers, “Welschkann hacker,” in Dutch, resemble  small machetes. They were often fashioned from old scythe blades or other scrap iron by the local blacksmith. However, widespread use at the folk level led to their commercial manufacture by the mid-nineteenth century, and most farms had several corn choppers, homemade or store-bought.

Another style of corn knife commonly used in Pennsylvania was L-shaped. A blade of thin sheet metal six to eight inches long was firmly attached to an   eighteen-inch long wooden handle long. This tool is too light and the blade too flimsy to hack machete style. Here the person used a pulling motion to slice the stalk. Print sources say that this was the most popular style of corn knife. They were used locally as Sanatoga resident Paul Norton has donated several to the Goschenhoppen Folklife Museum (see photo).

When the corn was starting to brown in September,  “ Welschkann-ob-hocka-zeit” (corn chopping time) was here. As described by Russell Baver in Pennsylvania Folklife: “In doing this job the people usually worked in teams of three cutting six rows at a time. The person cutting the middle two rows had the extra job of starting the shock. To do this he walked ahead about half the length of the row needed to make the new shock and twisted the tops of three or four corn stalks together to form the nucleus of the shock, and the other [cut off] stalks were set against these. The shock was then bound with another corn stalk. The distance from one shock to the next was about the same distance as the width of six rows. Thus the shocks were in alignment, both lengthwise and crosswise, over the entire field.” This orderliness would have pleased the Dutchman.

About corn shocking, one informant says, “My grandfather said they used to thresh rye straw with a flail to tie up corn fodder shocks. He hated threshing with a flail, and when he went to farming in 1907 he decided he would not own a flail. He used twine to tie his shocks. It was black from the tar coating used to keep rats and mice from chewing it. It was the job of little children to carry the twine cut to length when they were making shocks. My great uncle said he was a “bendel drehger” (twine carrier) and had to run to whoever needed twine when they called “bendel drehger.”

Next week: Husking Pegs