Omer Koopman AND the era of CORN HUSKING CONTESTS
It was called the most grueling sport in the world, and in the mid 1930’s it was also the fastest growing. It drew crowds bigger than any football game, up to 160,000 rabid fans flocked to the contests from all over the country. The event was held in a cornfield, and fans braved rain, snow, mud, and gigantic traffic jams to be there. It was the national corn husking contest, and farmers from states all across the Corn Belt came to compete for a silver cup and as little as $100.00 in prize money.
It is hard to believe that a competition carried on in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere could receive much coverage, but newspaper reporters from all over the country came, and the huskers received front page coverage. Congressmen and Governors came to shake hands and witness the spectacle. Movie newsreel crews filmed the contests for those who could not come, and radio stations broadcast live from the field - literally. America of the 1920's and 30's was a different place than it is now. One quarter of all Americans lived on farms. Many more had grown up on farms, or had family members farming. The romance and heritage of the land was still in the nation’s heart.
The concept of organized national corn husking (also called shucking or picking) contests came from Henry A. Wallace in 1922. Wallace, who was to become Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President of the United States under President Roosevelt, believed that these sorts of events would boost rural morale, The 20’s and 30’s were tough years for the farmer. Prices were depressed and dust storms and drought gnawed at the spirit. The Husking Competitions harked back to a simpler era, where men more than machines did the work, and your strength and determination had more to do with success than Markets and bankers.
The first national contest was held in 1924. Attendance rose steadily. In 1930 30,000 witnessed the event. By 1936 140,000 attended the National Corn Husking Championship competition in Licking, Ohio. Wisconsin farmers came to the contest late. There had been county husking competitions in Wisconsin, but no state championship event until 1936. It wasn't until 1937 that Wisconsin counties held runoff competitions for the right to send huskers to the state competition, from which the top two place winners would qualify for the national championship.
The task in these competitions was to walk alongside a wagon with a “backboard” to stop the flying ears, and for 80 minutes pick ears off the stalks or the ground, husk them, and throw the ears against the backboard and into the wagon. The bang, bang, bang of the hard ears hitting the backboard gave fans an idea of the speed of the competitors. The average farmer could husk about 300 ears in 80 minutes, but the best of the competitors at the national contest could shuck as many as 2400 ears in 80 minutes (57 cubic feet). Some attained a pace of 50 ears a minute for periods. The four step process was to “pull, break, twist, and throw.” A husking peg or hooked glove was used to assist in ripping the husks open. The husker grabbed the ear, hooked it open with astounding speed, rolled off the husk and silk, broke off the ear from the stalk, and in the same motion tossed the ear against the backboard without looking. To maximize his efficiency, the husker had to see the ears paces ahead and make the shortest and most rapid moves possible to the un-husked ears, without missing any. Deductions were made for husks found in the corn wagon and ears missed in the field. This required a level of speed, strength, and stamina that would have tested the best athletes in any sport. The process often left the huskers hands bruised and bleeding, even though huskers hands often had calluses as large as a quarter.
Omer Koopman of rural Patch Grove, and Lawrence Hauk of Cassville were the best in Grant County, and among the best in the state. Koopman, referred to in the press as “one hundred and sixty pounds of greased lightning” won the Wisconsin Corn husking championship in 1937, and went to the national championship competition at Marshall Missouri with Dick Post the second place finisher. Koopman was only 19 years old. They finished near the bottom of the pack, competing with men who had had the advantage of competing against the nations best for many years. In 1938, Koopman did not even qualify for the State contest, finishing fifth in the Grant County contest. Hauk placed second in 1938 and went to the national championship, also known as the “Battle of the Bangboards” or the “Nubbin Derby”. Newsreel films of the 1937 and 1938 national championship contests are available for viewing on YouTube and Omer Koopman may be seen in the 1937 film competing for the national crown. Koopman was not finished after his poor showing in 1938.
Others who competed in Grant County contests were: Dale Andrew, Clifton; Ernest Butson, Platteville; Burnell Egan, Cuba City; Earl Fuller, Bagley; Eugene Hampton, Cassville; Paul Hampton, Bloomington; Alfred Johl, Bloomington; Elmer Kaiser, Cuba City; John Kohout, Castle Rosk; Ligs Louthain, Potosi; Eugene VanNatta, Lancaster; Norbert Reiser, Glen Haven; Stanley Walker, Fennimore; Dallas Wepking, Lancaster; and Orval Wilkinson, Mt. Hope.
The contest winners were looked up to like any other sports star. The November 3, 1940 Wisconsin State Journal carried the news that Omer C. Koopman of Patch Grove, the 1940 state corn husking champion, had applied for a marriage license in Crawford county. He was to marry Margaret M. O’Shaughnessy of Seneca. County Clerk Lester Daugherty had leaked the news. They were married on November 6, 1940 and remained married for the next 69 years, until Omer’s death on March 22, 2010, at the age of 91. In 1939, the Bartel Rasque farm near Cuba City hosted the state corn husking contest, and between twenty and twenty-five thousand spectators came to watch. The County Agent, W. C. Voskuil organized the committee’s and volunteers needed to run this massive event. An admission charge of ten cents a car was charged for the county husking contest. I have not been able to determine the admission cost for the state contest, but total receipts for the Cuba City event were listed as $785.00, so many must have snuck in.
In 1940 the State Corn Husking Contest was held on the O. W. Gutknecht and son farm 11 miles east of Richland Center, Wisconsin. Omer Koopman was the winner. In 1941 it was a third championship for Koopman, and that was the end of it. When the war started in December 1941 the national competitions were suspended for the duration of the war. When the war was over the competitions didn’t start again. It wasn’t until 1975 that another national championship was held, but it was in all ways a weak imitation of the massive events of the pre-war years.
The last corn husking competition I could find occurring in Grant County was in 1944. This was privately sponsored by the Pride Hybrid Seed Company of Glen Haven and was held on the Carl Forck farm near North Andover. Among a field of entrants from several states, Lawrence Hauk finished second, and Omer Koopman, who was fighting an illness, finished fourth.