Corn Was An Important Staple of Life

Corn was an important staple of life

By Elton Camp


(This is another in the series of true stories of life in the 20th Century rural South.  If interested, look for them on this site.)

            Corn was a vital Alabama crop that fed both people and animals. It was easier to cultivate and harvest than cotton, but less valuable. 

As the “roastin’ ears” reached maturity, Milas’ family gathered some for immediate use. His wife roasted them in the hot coals of the fireplace while still in the green shuck. Ears of corn are now boiled in water or even cooked in the microwave, but people in the South still refer to corn on the cob by its original name. 

            When the ear was done and opened, the eater pulled away the hot shuck to find a mass of steaming silks. An occasional worm lay dead between the rows. Butter rubbed over the kernels, plus a liberal sprinkle of salt, improved the taste. Yellow corn was generally sweeter compared to the more starchy white corn. In either case, it was far better tasting if only a short time intervened between gathering and eating. Sugar quickly turned into starch.

            Toothless old people were forced to cut off the kernels with a knife. Younger people bit them directly from the cob. Some chomped from end-to-end about four rows at a time. Other went all around one end like a beaver cuts a tree and then progressed to the opposite end in circles. Whatever the technique, the result was a bare cob to be tossed into the slop bucket. 


            One of the biggest perils of gathering roasting ears was a chance encounter with the fearsome packsaddle. That menace was the green larval form of an insect. A marking on its back that suggests a packsaddle was the origin of its name. Its color made it blend so well with the green blades of corn that it was easy to overlook. The larva’s projecting spines produce a violent sting. An encounter with one made the careless gatherer become far more cautious. 

            In the fall, when the stalks and shucks turned brown and dry, and the main corn harvest came, packsaddles were gone. The workers need then fear only snakes, wasps and yellow jackets. 

            “Hits time t’ start gittin’ ’n th’ corn, boys,” Milas instructed in late October. 

            The boys hitched the mule to the wagon. It lurched through the cornfield as they pulled the dried ears and tossed them inside where they clunked against the bare boards until the bottom was covered. Most of the crop would feed farm animals. A portion of it they took to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal.

            Leamon, accompanied by Howard, pulled the wagon to a stop in front of Baker’s Grist Mill. It was located alongside a stream that supplied the power for its grindstones. A dam backed up a small pond alongside the building. The flume, a leaky, wooden trough, carried water to the top of a massive waterwheel. It creaked as it turned to generate the force needed to drive the belts and gears of the mill. The whole building had a pleasant, but dusty aroma of powdered corn.

            “Paw wants this corn ground,” Leamon stated. The boys had already shelled the grains from the cobs. 

            The miller poured the hard seed into a hopper that led to a chute. The corn fell into a hole in the center of the top millstone. Belts, pulleys, and gears rotated it above the stationary stone. A spout carried the ground corn into a container. No exchange of money took place. The owner of the gristmill collected his tithe to sell and sacked the remainder for the boys. The meal was used throughout the year, mainly to make cornbread. 

            “Y’all come back, boys, ’n’ tell Mile that I said howdy,” the miller called jovially as they loaded the sacks onto the wagon. 

            Far more important, and central to life in the Old South, was the cultivation, gathering and sale of cotton.  That is a subject for a future posting. 

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Life in the early 20th Century rural south.