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The Last Windrow: The lowly corn cob

Back in 1998 I wrote a column that actually won a “Best Columnist” award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Although I never have written this column to win anything, it is always nice to know that at least someone found my writing to be worth reading. 

The following column was written in reverence to the lowly corn cob. A piece of the past.

“God Loved The Lowly Corn Cob”

I don’t know what got me thinking about corn cobs one night last week. It could have been the projected blizzard that didn’t come. I was busily stoking wood into our basement furnace in anticipation of a howling northwester, thinking of how warm the wood would keep my family during the storm. It was then I remembered my farm adventures with corn cobs. 

We used corn cobs for about anything and everything. Those were the years when we still shelled our corn off the cob to feed livestock. Our corn was cribbed on the ear and later the kernels were removed either by cornsheller or by hand. Our hands would be rough and red after hand shelling a half bucket full of corn to feed our chickens. We busted the ears in half and threw bushel baskets full into feed bunks for waiting feeder cattle. Hogs were fed full ears on the feedlot floor, where they munched on them with relish.

The leftover cobs were a staple for many farm families. We filled our basements full of cobs, the leftover remnants of corn shelling and we fueled both our furnace and cookstove with them. I remember always having a “cob basket” sitting next to our kitchen stove. The cobs burned with an almost gas-like blue light and provided an even, humid heat to the kitchen during the winter months.  The “cob basket” was also the temporary depository for the un-plucked pheasants and un-skinned rabbits that I brought home for eating. It was not unusual to have half a basket of cobs and half a basket of game sitting on our kitchen floor.

There are lots of stories about how we used corn cobs. Yes, there were some who used them in the outhouse in place of toilet paper. I tried them a couple of times and I think that is why I still walk around with a certain gait. I personally think corn cobs were much overrated in the outhouse. I much preferred the husks!

We used corn cobs to bed our livestock, as plugs in the ends of waterlines, for fishing bobbers, for shotgun and rifle target practice and even for baseball hitting practice. I always had trouble hitting a curve ball. 

One afternoon my dad took me out behind the corn crib, stood me beside a chunk of wood with a baseball bat in my hands and proceeded to fire corn cob after corn cob across that would-be home plate. By the end of that exercise of swinging at hundreds of swerving cobs, I could finally hit a curveball. Try to hit a pitched corn cob sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

My grandad planted potatoes in old corn cob piles and raised some of the biggest, most perfectly formed potatoes I’ve ever seen. The cobs held just the right amount of moisture and provided proper drainage for the tubers to grow to their fullest.

Today’s efficient combines don’t leave much of the corn cob behind as they make their rounds. Most cobs are now shattered and scattered to provide nutrient for next year’s crop. Our fields were scattered with some ears of corn that escaped the picker. Pheasants, squirrels, rabbits and crows made a living during the late fall and winter months picking and gnawing on the unharvested grain. If you found a corn cob with half the kernels missing, you would take the safety off your shotgun. 

The lowly corn cob played a large role in the lives of farm families everywhere in the not-to-distant past. Funny how such a common, simple item could mean so much. They were certainly gifts from God! 

See you next time. Okay?