Corn Husking Bees
North Dakota has gained renown as a wheat-growing state, but corn acreage has been growing this past century. Farmers who migrated to Dakota from the east knew corn cultivation and brought those skills to their new fields.
Among the traditions they brought was the husking bee. Husking was needed because corn-ears were encased in husks while growing, and the husks were painstakingly removed by hand prior to the invention of mechanical corn-pickers.
Because it was so laborious to pick corn and husk each corn-ear, farmers traditionally invited neighbors to help in a husking bee, or party. These work-play parties combined the task with fun.
It was on this date, in 1921, that Pembina’s newspaper, the Pioneer-Express , printed some husking-bee recollections of Peter Oskie. The legendary resident said he “liked husking bees the best” – even more than spelling-bees and threshing-bees – because young men and women found innocent merriment and romance among the cornhusks.
Old-time husking-bees took place in a large barn, cleared and cleaned, on moonlit nights in October or November, when frost was on the pumpkins. The farmer piled his unhusked Indian corn in the middle of a spacious floor, leaving an alley around the outside where male and female cornhuskers sat.
The Indian corn had multi-colored hues – yellows and blacks and pinks and reds and blues. Every gentleman fortunate enough to uncover a red ear of corn had the privilege of kissing one lady of his choice. Any lady who found a red ear could give it to her favorite boy, or withhold it. Conversely, if a girl found a corn ear full of corn smut fungus, she could smudge that smut on as many boys’ faces as she wished.
With fun, the corn-husking would soon be done, and all enjoyed a big meal with apple-cider and pumpkin pie. The husking-bee concluded with dancing, as jolly fiddlers led square-dancing and Virginia Reels.
The Red River Valley experienced a husking-bee revival beginning in 1900, while Jamestown had its first husking-bee at B.T. Young’s in 1909. Ed Cook, a Newburg farmer, also held one in 1909. In Williams County, those at Mr. Rutledge’s husking-bee found their toil enlivened by feasting and dancing and had a delightful time. It was said that red ears were non-existent, for the modern corn was yellow. Perhaps the only red ears came from blushing faces of young sweethearts aglow with dancing to the fiddler’s call.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department. (Total Words: 400 Words).
Sources: “Hamilton; Peter Oskie,” Pioneer-Express [Pembina, ND] , December 9, 1921, p. 8.
“Husking the Corn,” Grand Forks Herald , September 4, 1913, p. 3.
“The Husking Party,” Frederick [MD] Town Herald , April 23, 1831, p. 1.
“Frolics In America,” Huron Reflector [Norwalk, OH] , February 9, 1833, p. 4.
“A Husking Bee,” New York Times , November 6, 1870, p. 3.
“The First Husking Bee Ever Held in the Red River Valley,” Grand Forks Herald , October 11, 1900, p. 4.
“Cornhusking Bee,” Bismarck Daily Tribune , November 6, 1909, p. 2; “Corn Husking Bee,” Ward County Independent , November 25, 1909, p. 17.
“Williams County Farmers Will Have Real Husking Bee,” Grand Forks Herald , September 27, 1919.
“Ed Cook,” Ward County Independent , October 15, 1908, p. 1.
“Garden Valley,” Williston Graphic , October 14, 1909, p. 3.
“Pastimes For Farmers,” Grand Forks Herald , November 17, 1883, p. 3.