Aw, Shucks

Published on September 11, 2015
Written by Ray Access

Corn shucking makes fun out of work

Take a little trip back in time, to a century ago. You’re somewhere in Southern Appalachia, late in the evening, surrounded by deep green mountain forests noisy with the songs of crickets, owls, foxes, and off in the far distance, a family of coyotes greeting the rising moon.

A ways up the dirt road, snug in a hollow between two hills, a small house with a deep front porch draws your attention. As you approach, you hear the melody of conversation punctuated with a Southern accent as it rises and falls in its unique cadence and pitch. A dozen or more people are gathered on benches, porch steps, rocking chairs, and the packed-dirt lawn, enjoying what appears to be a celebration.

You can’t help but smile, thinking about what the occasion might be. Moving closer still, you see that it’s not a party after all. Or is it? You’ve stumbled across a community corn shucking, which is some of the hardest work of the season. So why does everyone seem so happy?

Corn Shucking: Work or Play?child shucking corn

If you lived back then, you’d likely be familiar with the practice of corn shucking. Appalachian farmers waited patiently, watching their crops with an educated eye for the sign to start harvesting. Once the ears of corn grew fat, the kernels nearly bursting through the skin, and the silky tassels on top started to turn brown, it was time to get the corn off the stalks and quick.

But that was the easy part. Once the corn was picked and stacked in high piles, it was time to get it shucked and ready to put up. With farm chores and busy households taking up nearly all their waking hours, families needed to find the time and strength to shuck the corn before it spoiled.

Appalachian families always looked for ways to combine work and fun. Corn shucking was a big job, so families would gather with their neighbors and spend an entire day pulling the husks off the ears and removing the white silk. It could have been a tedious chore spanning several days if each family had done it alone, but making it a community effort seemed to make the hours fly by.

Good Old-Fashioned Socializing

Family corn shucking

Corn shucking is a repetitive task, letting you fall into a routine quickly, almost as if you’re on autopilot. That made it the perfect task to combine with plenty of laughing, catching up on neighborhood news and maybe even a little bit of drinking, if a jug of corn liquor just happened to be sitting around by accident.

At midday, the women took a break to make the noon meal, chatting in the kitchen while the men kept shucking out on the porch. As evening drew near, you might see Mamaw crafting a corn husk doll for a lucky child, while babies fell asleep to the rhythmic motion of their mothers’ arms, which cradled them as the women worked.

Store-Bought Can’t Replace the Community

Today, we can run to the store for a can of corn or a few ears, already shucked and frozen and ready to boil. While we all appreciate the convenience, modern Appalachian farmers remember the good times from old-time corn shucking, and you can still find them sitting on their porches, laughing and chatting and shucking those ears of sweet corn, getting them ready to can.

There’s a reason some old traditions never die. Sometimes people continue them because of the memories they stir up. Sometimes people value certain traditions enough to find a place for them in their lives. Corn shucking, while lost in the big city, seems likely to live on for a good long while out on the mountain farm.

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