Cornstalks Rooted In Area's Agricultural History
by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.
Gordon Beavers, a farmer on Snickersville Turnpike in western Loudoun County, buttonholed me recently at our occasional breakfast haunt in Purcellville.
"Did you see that photograph in the local paper?" he asked. His facial expression indicated that he was disturbed. "It showed shocks of corn, and the caption said they were sheaves of wheat. People can't tell corn from wheat any more."
Definitely a sign of the times, I agreed, even though more corn is grown in Loudoun than all other crops combined.
Corn was native to America and was found and described by Christopher Columbus when he landed on Cuba in October 1492. Anthropologists believe that corn was first planted and harvested in the woodland period, which began about 3,000 years ago, when man began extensive use of the flora that grew about him.
Capt. John Smith described the first planting of corn in this area after he voyaged up the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers in summer 1608. In his "Generall Historie of Virginia," he noted that the Indians first cleared the area "by bruise[ing] the barke of the trees neare the root, then do they scratch the roots with fire that they grow no more."
The Indians let a year pass until the tree die, and by the dead tree, "they planted 4 grains [kernels] of wheat [meaning corn] and 2 of beanes," Smith wrote. The beans encircled the cornstalks and held them together. "These holes they make 4 foote one from another. Their women and children do continually keepe it with weeding, and when it is grown midle high, they hill it about."
Smith noted that the Indians planted the corn from April through mid-June, with "their chiefe plantation in May," and that the plants took four months to mature. "Every stalke of their corne commonly beareth two eares, some 3 seldome any 4, many but one, and some none."
The Indians Smith mentioned were of the Algonquin (sometimes spelled Algonkian) confederation. In Loudoun and Fauquier counties and lived east of the Catoctin and Bull Run mountains and in southern Fauquier.
Because of the extensive cultivation of corn by Indians in the Virginia Piedmont for 2,700 years, the crop was called Indian Corn in agricultural censuses through 1870 and in many other writings. Some years ago, when I asked an agronomist why the word "Indian" was dropped with the 1880 census, he ventured that it might have been because of the killing of so many Sioux Indians by Gen. George Custer and his men at Custer's Last Stand in 1876.
Two 18th-century travelers through Loudoun provided the first description of how area settlers planted corn.
In a booklet titled "The Expedition of Major General Edward Braddock to Virginia," English publisher H. Carpenter quoted an unidentified British officer journeying through Loudoun in April 1755 as saying in a letter to a friend: "All their Culture runs upon hilling with the hoe, and the Indian Corn grows like Reeds to eight or nine Feet high. Indeed in some parts of the Country Wheat grows, but Tobacco and Indian corn is the chief."
Another Briton, Nicholas Cresswell, wrote in his 1777 diary: "Their [the colonists'] method is to clear a piece of land from the woods, generally put it in wheat the first year, Indian corn the next, and so alternately for six or seven years together. By that time the strength of the land is gone and they say it is worn out, throw out to the woods again, and set about clearing another piece."
John Jay Janney, in his "Autobiography," written in 1901-07 to tell his grandchildren what life was like in Loudoun County in the 1820s, described how farmers "pulled" corn, took it by wagon to a convenient spot and made a pile of it "about six feet high, and ten or twelve feet wide."
He then told how neighbors "would take their places along the pile, every man taking about two feet, the aim being to see who could husk his way through the pile soonest. White and black, slaves included, worked side by side. There was always a rather free supply of whiskey: the bottle being passed from man to man: care being had to not pass it too frequently.
" If there were negroes enough, as was almost always the case they would sing a 'corn song'. . . . One who had a gift in that line would act as a leader. He would mount the pile and improvise; the rest, many of the whites joining in the refrain. . . . I have heard their united shouts of the refrain two miles on a still frosty night."
Janney said that when he returned from Ohio to Loudoun for a visit after the Civil War, the Negroes then sang " 'No mo' peck [picking] o' co'n fo' me / No mo' no mo' /No mo' peck o' co'n fo' me / No mo' no mo'."
Lewis Gray's classic "History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860" noted that corn was a more popular crop than wheat because it was easier to harvest and less vulnerable to spoilage after harvest. A good yield of corn in Loudoun or Fauquier during the mid-1800s was 30 to 40 bushels an acre.
During the 19th century, local farmers generally received 60 cents to 80 cents for a bushel of corn and $1.20 to $1.50 for a bushel of wheat. Agriculturists figure that on the average, it took a person one day to plant, weed, harvest, ship and sell a bushel of corn or wheat.
Because the combined prices of corn and wheat, by far the two preeminent Piedmont Virginia grains, averaged $1, the typical daily wage, from sunup to sundown, for a farm laborer was $1 a day. It remained at that level through the 1910s.
Except for mechanized corn planters, cultivation of corn during the first half of the 20th century would not have been unfamiliar to the American Indian and the farmer of Janney's era.
Edith Fox Brown, a tenant farmer's daughter from the Upperville area, told me some months ago that 80 years ago, she and other children thinned corn by hand, cut it down with a corn knife and then tied seven bunches of cut stalks with an eighth bunch that stood uncut.
The uncut stalks supported the cut and bunched stalks, which were tied together near the top. Thus the familiar shock of corn recently misidentified as wheat.
Mechanical corn pickers, common in our area after the late 1940s, ended the age of the corn shock.
Wade Palmer Jr., who grew up at his father's mill east of Upperville and with whom I have spoken many times in the past several decades, would always speak of corn as "the poor man's way of life" during the early 20th century.
" The poor people had corn for all three meals," he said. "They either had flour cakes -- 50 percent corn and 50 percent wheat -- or flannel cakes, two-thirds corn and a third wheat. Corn cakes and corn muffins were to them like steak [is] to me."
Murrel Partlow of Aldie, who recently spoke to my history class of Loudoun public school teachers at the Aldie Mill, remembered that as a youngster 70 years ago, he would gather up the corn cobs at the mill after they had been shucked, put them in a burlap bag and sell each bag for 15 cents.
" They were great for starting fires in the stove," he said. "Then I'd go to the store, buy a soda for 5 cents, a Moon Pie for 5 cents and have 5 cents left over."
Corn yields and prices did not improve dramatically until John Scott Ward introduced hybrid corn into Loudoun and Fauquier in 1934 at Loudoun Center Farm in the center of the county on Hughesville Road.
Ward was no stranger to corn. Every year since 1926, he had won the "sweepstakes prize" for the best strain of corn at the Maryland Corn Show, and every year since 1927, he had won the same prize at the Virginia State Corn and Grain Show.
In a March 1931 article in the farm journal "Southern Planter," Ward attributed his successes to the "Reid's Yellow variety of corn . . . good soil" and a planting program of one year of corn, then one year of wheat, then one year of a timothy grass-clover mix and use of "barnyard manure and commercial fertilizers."
A caption for an exhibit at the newly opened Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum at Claude Moore Park near Sterling honors Ward for introducing hybrid corn to Loudoun. The caption notes that hybrid corn varieties were inbred and crossed to create strains that resisted bacterial infections, mainly corn rot, which caused stalks to wither at the soil line and fall over before the corn ripened.
As infections spread from one hill of corn stalks to another, hills before the introduction of hybrids were usually three to four feet apart With hybrids, farmers could place corn hills 20 to 30 inches apart. Corn yields jumped from an average of 40 bushels an acre to more than 60 bushels.
Ward grew at least five varieties of hybrids, all prefaced by the word "Ward." During the late 1930s and '40s, he sold them to other farmers for $9.50 to $10.50 a bushel. Today, a bushel of hybrid corn sells for $80 to $110.
Three years ago, when I conducted an archeological and historical survey of Tecumseh Farm on Gum Spring Road in the far southeast of Loudoun, Fitzhugh Thomas, who had farmed Tecumseh and was a disciple of Ward, told me that in 1949, he fertilized a one-acre acre field with nitrate of soda, planted hybrid corn and came up with a yield of 159 bushels -- the finest per-acre recorded corn yield in the United States that year.
Jennings Potts, who farmed Dogwood Farm near Lincoln, was another disciple of Ward's. Potts's son, Robert, with whom I spoke recently, told me how his father introduced various brands of hybrids to Potts's agricultural classes at Lincoln High School in the 1940s and '50s.
Robert Potts explained that before introduction of hybrids, farmers called seed corn "open pollinated corn. . . . My father captured pollen from the tassel of a variety of corn by putting it in a brown paper bag and tying it up. Then he shook the bag to get the pollen off and put the pollen in a piece of cellophane.
" Then he placed the cellophane bag over the emerging ear of another variety and shook the pollen into the silk of the ear. When that seed matured, he'd have hybrid seed to plant the following year. That's the basic way a hybrid is born."
Like Ward, Potts sold his hybrids to other farmers and to Future Farmers of America classes at various Virginia high schools. "Ward's reputation had proceeded us," Robert Potts said, "so we had little trouble in marketing our hybrids for the same prices as Ward sold his hybrids. We'd get together before we sold to agree on a set price."
Robert Potts recalled that, as a teenager, the toughest farm job he ever had was during the 15- to 18-day time span when hybrid corn was tasseling:
" Walking up and down those rows in 90-degree weather and reaching three feet above your head to de-tassel the female corn. You don't want inbreeding. Corn needs two different parents, a male and a female. If you didn't de-tassel the female, it would inbreed itself, and you'd get an inferior
" State inspectors would come to a hybrid seed corn field unannounced, and if they found tassels in a female, they'd make you put the corn in a silo. You couldn't sell it as seed corn."
This wet year has been a bad one for corn of any variety. The Pottses expect a yield of 55 to 60 bushels an acre, down from the usual 90 to 100. When I told Robert Potts that the latest available Virginia agricultural census, for 1997, stated the average yield in Loudoun was 144 bushels an acre and the average in Fauquier was 120, he said,
" I've never got that much. Those folks could give the Texas liar's club a run for their money."