Century-Old Corn Shellers Are Collectibles That Work

10/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

BAINBRIDGE, Pa. — Hand-cranked corn shellers have been around since the early 1800s. They became widely used because they did, and continue to do, the job of separating corn from cobs very well. And, in fact, you can still buy a new, hand-cranked Maximizer corn sheller from Pleasant Hill Grain in Hampton, Nebraska, for $79.99.

Ron and Tonya Bernhard aren’t really interested in the brand new models. They like the old ones — the ones with history — and they have amassed a collection of about 80 old corn shellers. The machines live mostly in a trailer, which the Bernhards take to six or seven shows a year. They live in Elizabethtown, Pa., about a seven-mile jaunt from Bainbridge, Pa., which was home to the 16th annual Susquehanna Old Fashioned Field Days in late September.

The Bernhards were at this year’s Field Days, where they are active volunteers as well as exhibitors, and they are happy to talk to anybody who’s curious about their collection. There are plenty of people to talk to at the Field Days, which annually draw several thousand visitors.

The Bernhard colledtion started about 16 years ago when Tonya Bernhard bought a hand-cranked box sheller just because it looked interesting. One of the things that makes shellers interesting to collectors is that a century-old specimen can work today about as well as it did when it was brand new.

Ron Bernhard said they were mostly useful for shelling seed corn in the days when farmers saved their best-looking ears to use as seed for the next growing season.

“Back then, they might have planted 20 acres of corn, not hundreds of acres that are planted today,” he said.

Anybody who’s ever twisted an ear of corn by hand to remove the kernels knows that it can be done. But removing seed kernels by hand from hundreds of cobs would be a chore no one would want. A lot of ingenuity went into the development of hand-cranked machines that could do the job.

Lester Denison, an inventor from Sayville, Conn., patented a corn sheller in 1839, and his machine is credited with starting an industry that at one time numbered several hundred manufacturers. Denison’s machine was an upright, stand-alone design. The Bernhards have a few of those, but their focus is mainly on box shellers.

A box sheller is designed to be clamped onto a box, and just about any old box will do.

“The companies didn’t even make boxes for their shellers,” Ron Bernhard said. “Farmers just used shipping crates or whatever. Back then, wooden crates were pretty common around farms.”

For the collector, corn shellers are pretty easy to find, Ron Bernhard said. There were hundreds of manufacturers who cranked out thousands of the cast iron machines, and they last forever. The Bernhards have a number of locally made samples in their collection, but they pick up some of their more noteworthy items on journeys to shows in the Midwest. And they don’t just collect shellers.

They also have a number of graders, which separate seed corn by size. This was an important function, because until air planters came along, seed plates were used to transfer seed from the planter to the dirt. Each seed plate was designed to hold seeds of a certain size. If the seeds were too small for the pocket in the plate, the planter could put two or more seeds where only one should have gone. If the seeds were too big, nothing might get planted.

Ron demonstrated a couple of the graders. There was a hand-cranked one with a number of screens that separated out the smaller kernels first and the larger ones last. And there was a downward spiral contraption that accepted kernels via a funnel at the top. Gravity led the kernels downward — to the tune of falling rain — and three buckets at different points around the spiral separated the seed in three different sizes.

Although the Bernhards collect other ag antiquities — hit and miss engines, for example — they favor corn implements for their variety, availability, mechanical genius and because of the role that corn itself has always played in the world of agriculture.

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