BY JIM MERCIER
I’m sure most of you are probably wondering what a “corn sheller” actually is. Well, unless you worked on a farm, or love history, reading about corn shellers may be your history lesson for the month. So, please read on, and as usual, gain some valuable historic information about Racine!
It might be a good idea to explain how a corn sheller actually works, however. They became very popular in the late 1880s, and made working on the farm a little bit easier for the farmer. “It removed the kernels of corn by placing the cob through a series of metal-toothed cylinders which stripped the kernels off the cob,” so says the dictionary. Most were operated by a hand-crank, although others used a belt attached to a tractor to supply the power. Later, electric motors were even used.
The mechanics of these corn shellers were quite simple…the ears of corn were pulled between two toothed wheels, which were made of metal. Each wheel, in turn, spun in opposite directions. The teeth would then remove the kernels off the cob, which would fall through a screen into a container, underneath the unit. The cob was then forced out of the sheller.
Usually, two people were needed to operate the machine…one for cranking the handle, and the other to feed the ears of corn into the unit. A large flywheel on the outside made cranking a lot easier on the person stuck with doing that job! Two fast farm-hands working together could easily shell up to 80 bushels a day! However, even one man could operate the unit if necessary…one hand would crank, while the other would feed more corn into the sheller. Imagine doing this for several hours at a time?
So, what was the Racine connection? Well, actually, a few local concerns once manufactured corn shellers, including the Freeman Manufacturing Co. and A P Dickey. Corn shellers were just one of many products that were once manufactured by them, however. Freeman, for example, once made boilers for J I Case threshing machines, followed by the Centennial Fanning Mill in 1875. Other farm-related products would soon follow. They were originally located on Bridge and Huron Sts.(south of State St., and west of D P Wiggly, across the river), but in 1894, a plant was constructed on Richert Court, between Walker Mfg. and the Pugh Oil Co.
By 1900, 250 people were employed at this factory. A partial listing of products made by them include: heating boilers, fanning mills, smokestacks, ensilage cutters, steel windmills, ornamental iron goods, cider mills and fruit presses, and of course, corn shellers. They closed in 1938, after almost 70 years of supplying quality farm-related equipment to our nation’s farms.
The A P Dickey Manufacturing Co. also produced a line of farm implements, including fanning mills, grain separators, and other agricultural products. They even manufactured a line of bobsleds, which proved to be very successful. The company was founded by A P Dickey back in the 1840s, and was located just west of the old Fourth Street bridge. They employed 55 people at one time, and produced about 2,000 fanning mills annually. The firm was still listed in the 1918 Racine city directory, but disappeared shortly after.
So, my fellow Racine historians, that is your history lesson for this month. However, the next time you are enjoying an ear of corn at a church festival or the county fair, stop for a moment and be grateful that you were not the one turning the crank for hours at a time, while shelling corn!
Local historian Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia. Some of his collection is in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Racine Entrepreneurs exhibit. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.