October 9, 2010

USA: 'Pickers' get therapy in old-time way

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GRAND ISLAND, Nebraska / The Independent / News / October 9, 2010

CENTRAL CITY — A steady rhythm of corn thumping against wooden bang boards punctuated the pleasant October air Saturday morning during the 2010 Nebraska State Hand Cornhusking Contest at the Merrick County Fairgrounds.

The bang boards were fitted on horse- and mule-drawn wagons that made their way down rows of corn as pickers, ranging from age 10 to 93, tried their hand at husking.

The day began around 9:30 a.m. with a team pick. Each team consisted of three people drawn at random from the registered contestants. Each member picked for five minutes and then the corn was weighed to determine the winner. Deductions were made for tosses that missed the wagon and for the weight of the husks left on a 20-30 pound sample of the pick, said Chuck Griffith, chamber member and executive director of the Merrick Foundation.

After finishing a round of picking, Larry Fox of Aurora drives his wagon back to the starting area to unload the corn Saturday during the Nebraska State Hand Cornhusking Contest at the Merrick County Fairgrounds in Central City.
(Independent/Barrett Stinson)

Griffith helped to bring the competition to Merrick County and assisted with the preparations needed for Saturday’s contest. The county received a tourism grant and roughly $25,000 in donations to make the event possible, he said.

The contest was held in York for the last three years and will be in Central City for three years, he said.

“We’ve been working on this for months,” he said.

Many members of the audience were new to the event while others had either watched such a contest before or had participated in one previously.

One of those experienced hand cornhuskers was Karissa Kraenow. The 16-year-old from Gibbon has been the youth girls state champion for the last five years. However, she worried that a volleyball injury that requires her to wear a protective boot on her foot might slow her down this year.

Kraenow started hand cornhusking competitively after attending one of the contests with her dad.

“I enjoy it,” she said. “I think it’s fun.”

Her dad and sister pick as well, while her mom, brother and grandparents come to watch.

Like the other competitors, Kraenow wore gloves and a metal hook on one hand. The hooks are used to open the husks and can be worn either on the palm or the thumb.

Kraenow was on a team with Bonnie Burhoop of Goehner, who was registered to compete in the women’s open division.

Burhoop started competing in 2002 after attending a competition with draft horses and a wagon that belong to her and her husband, Richard. That first pick didn’t go well.

“I finished second from the bottom. Now I’m always a bridesmaid but never a bride,” she said of her tendency to finish in second place.

After her first contest, Burhoop received pointers from Paul Luebbe, a men’s national hand cornhusking champion who lived in Goehner.

“We have a picture of him where there’s one corn cob hitting the bang board and another one is just leaving his hand, that’s how fast he was,” Richard Burhoop said.

The Burhoops said the contest is divided into categories based on gender and age, and the times given to pick vary by age. For example, Burhoop’s division was given 20 minutes to pick while Kraenow had 10 minutes.

Sherman Hirsch of North Platte was in the men’s open division and had 30 minutes to pick. He’s been competing for six or seven years and learned about the event when it was held in Gothenburg.

Hirsch picked corn by hand when he was younger and could do 90 bushels a day.

“I almost caught up to my dad but then he bought a (mechanical) corn picker after World War II so I couldn’t catch him,” he said.

Hirsch continues competing for the “nostalgia” and enjoys seeing many of the same faces from year to year.

Extension office employee Courtney Jefferson of Central City was on hand Saturday to assist with registration and computer work. She said approximately 90 contestants were registered. The majority of the contestants fall into the golden agers category, which is for those age 75 and older, or the senior men’s division for men age 50 and up, she said.

The contestants were from a variety of states including Nebraska, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa, she said.

“The golden agers have one more then the senior men,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Frederick Paulus of Hastings was the senior member of the golden agers division.

Paulus, 93, said he has been competing since he was 75 years old. His first year he finished in first place for the golden agers and he’s been chasing it ever since. “I just can’t get past second or third,” he said. He retired from farming about 15 years ago but continues to run a machine shop in Hastings.

“It’s my therapy,” he said.

He remembers picking corn by hand and using a mechanical corn picker in the late 1930s when he traveled from state to state looking for work.

“When I was a kid, I hated to pick corn,” he said with a laugh.

On Saturday, he sat in the shade while waiting for his division’s turn. He skipped the team competition to conserve energy.

“I hope it’s fun,” he said.

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