Thursday, November 5, 2009

Creepy Corn

Annie over at Maple Corners has mentioned "creepy" corn in her last couple of posts. Corn as in corn stalks. As in fields of standing corn stalks. As in acres and acres of standing corn stalks.

For those of you who have never lived in corn growing country, corn stalks often grow very tall. Taller than you can see over. If you walk down a corn row and lose sight of the end of the field where you entered, you can very quickly become disorientated and a kind of cornfield claustrophobia takes over.

I grew up in Illinois and when I was fifteen and too young to get a "real" job, I de-tasseled corn for a summer. The crew was made up of about 30-40 girls, mostly young teens but some in their late teens also. We met in a city park each morning at 6 AM where a semi-truck picked us up. We rode in the back of the truck on benches that had been bolted to the floor. Sort of like cattle, only cleaner, and at 6 AM, quieter.

Each day we were hauled out into farm country, to a different farm (or different field) where we worked until 3 or 4 in the afternoon de-tasseling corn.

When we got to the designated field, we would spread out at the ends of the rows of corn, and each girl would head into the field walking in between two rows. As you walked down the row, you de-tasseled each stalk (reaching up above your head, grasping the tassel at the top of the stalk, pulling it out and dropping it on the ground) working both the row on your right and the row on your left.

The first couple of hours in the morning were the best (sort of) because the temperature was as cool as it was going to be all day. But the corn was usually heavily covered with dew and you were soon drenched with water from rubbing up against the stalks. As the sun climbed in the sky, it got hotter and hotter, muggier and muggier, and then it didn't matter that your clothes were wet from the dew because you were sweating so much.

Even though the temperature most days reached the 90s, you had to wear a shirt with long sleeves and long pants because as you moved down the rows the blades of corn would inflict cuts on exposed skin. Usually, in a week's time, at least one girl fainted from the heat. Hot, dirty work.

So where does the "creepy" corn come in? Some of the fields were huge . . . and we never knew how big they actually were or how long it would take to reach the end of the rows. (Often it would take hours to work to the end of a field.) Some of the older, more experienced de-tasselers worked as fast as they could so they would come out on the end and have time to lie down and rest and visit before being picked up by the truck and taken either to a spot to eat our brown bag lunches or to a new field. Some were naturally slower in their work habits so although we all started out at the same time, we didn't finish our rows at the same time.

To say de-tasseling corn was a boring job is an understatement. Sometimes a friend and I would try to stay moving down the rows together at the same pace, but often I would come out of my 15-year old reverie and realize I was totally alone in an endless field of corn stalks. How long had it been since I had heard or seen anyone? How much longer was the row? Was I ahead or behind everybody else? Was I so far behind that the truck at the end of the field would leave without me? Would I be lost forever and die in the middle of this creepy corn?

Halloween mazes cut in fields of dry, standing corn couldn't be much creepier than those I worked in that summer back in Illinois. How much did I earn? Sixty-five cents an hour. But if you worked the whole summer de-tasseling season (seven days a week) without missing one single day, your pay went up to a whopping eighty-five cents an hour. Few of us made the bonus.


  1. My children don't know how good they have it.

    On the other hand, I think a corn field might be the perfect fix for them.

    (The Amish Cook---a newspaper columnist---always talks about her daughters going out to de-tassel the corn.)

  2. WooHoo, corn detasseling! I try to explain that it's a rite of passage for us midwestern teenagers and he gives me a bewildered look, lol! I remember it being pretty good money for someone my age back in the 80's. I know what you mean about the creepy stalks though - when we were teenagers, we used to watch "Children of the Corn" and afterwards, run out into the field behind the house and freak ourselves out. IT WORKED!! Must be why I am such a huge fan of slasher horror flicks. I am such a nutcase that out here in Virginia Beach I actually PAY $5 a bundle for dried cornstalks for Halloween. Makes my mom cringe to hear that we pay for dried up corn stalks and old straw bales LOL

  3. Hey, Mama JJ - I'm sure there have been many kids who had hours and hours of fun playing in cornfields . . . even if they had to stand screaming until someone found them!

    Hi, Erin - No kidding? You de-tasseled corn, too? Even though it was hard work, I do have lotsa good memories from that summer. Talk about TIRED at the end of the day! But ya know what? Being 15-16 years old, we'd go home and shower, have something to eat and be ready for a summer evening's fun. Then back at the pick-up point at 6 the next morning.

  4. sometimes I think that schedule of summer partying and early detasseling was preparation for college life LOL

  5. I grew up in NW Illinois, so I know all about this. Hot , itchy, miserable. Those farmers got a bargain!! It wasn't long into it before most kids dropped out. It was the worst job ever!

  6. wow! what a job! I think working as a teenager is one of the BEST life experiences...whatever that job might be.

  7. Hi, Sue - I can't believe others know the first-hand delights of de-tasseling corn! I didn't think anybody else would know what I was talking about. Yeah, it was a crummy job . . . but maybe good that it taught us at a young age what "laboring" meant?

    Beth - Yup, nuthin' like real life experience to drive home the point of what work really is. Another job I had was working in a freckle cream factory. Yes, I said freckle cream factory. We made a cream that was advertised to take freckles off your face!

  8. I had a friend who did this in high school....she got the worst sunburn I ever saw. I seem to remember her hating that job too!

  9. Hi, Ruthie - I can't say I hated corn de-tasseling . . . at least it was outside and with a basically fun bunch of girls. Or maybe (like so many things) looking back on it makes it seem not so bad!

  10. I went to college in Iowa and remember friends of mine detassling corn and making pretty good money for it. That was in the late 80's, early 90's. Hot and dirty work!

    Say, Mama Pea, how are your honey bees doing? Would love to hear more about that part of your lives up there. Thanks!

  11. Hi, Melissa - I'll make a note to get a Bee Report posted soon! Thanks for the reminder.