How Early Farmers Grew Corn – Even as Wheat Dominated 19th Century Agriculture



Photo by Reuben Sallows, Goderich Ontario, early 1900s.

This column was published originally in the Ontario Farmer in 2004. Reproduced here with permission.

Early corn in Ontario

Even though it had been the principal crop of aboriginal agriculture for a thousand years, corn played only a minor role in pioneer Ontario. The settlers wanted wheat to make European foods and for export sales.  Spring wheat and, later, winter wheat were planted on the first cleared fields. Water-powered flour mills followed quickly and surplus produce was shipped to Montreal and England.

Only in Essex and Kent Counties in extreme southwestern Ontario was corn grown to a significant extent by immigrant farmers.  While settlers ate some corn-based foods, corn was mainly for pigs and chickens.

Father Louis Hennepin, the first European to describe Niagara Falls, recorded the earliest reference to European agriculture in present-day Ontario – on about 100 acres of land near Fort Frontenac (Kingston) around 1680. “Both the Indian and European corn throve very well,” he wrote, though “the corn was very much spoiled by grasshoppers,” a common result in all the parts of Canada because of “the extreme humidity of that country.”

The first permanent (French) settlers arrived near present-day Windsor in 1749, across the river from Fort Pontchartrain built in 1701 at the present site of Detroit Michigan.  They likely grew corn as did their aboriginal farmer neighbours. More extensive settlement occurred all across Southern Ontario after American independence in 1783.

Corn was grown by “Loyalist” settlers who came to Essex and Kent from the newly formed United States of America after 1783. In 1802, Angus Mackintosh, an Essex agent for the North West Company, informed farmers that he needed more white flint corn, not wheat or yellow “gourd” corn, for northern trading posts. But that was unusual. Wheat was dominant. For many farmers, the crop rotation after clearing forest trees was wheat-wheat-wheat.

Wheat ruled Ontario agriculture until 1865 when the American civil war ended and new US import duties depressed Ontario wheat prices.  Provincial livestock production then flourished. Cheese factories arose everywhere and dairying expanded.  Better-quality cattle were imported and bred.  Wheat was still the main or only grain crop on farms until the early 1900s when production shifted to the Prairies and oats and barley grew in popularity in Ontario. In Kent-Essex, tobacco became the money crop.

The 1881 Report of the Ontario Agricultural Commission devotes 27 pages to wheat, versus four for each of “Indian corn” and oats and barley.  Though grown mainly in southwestern Ontario, small quantities of corn were present elsewhere, including Muskoka and Manitoulin where “Corn does well and is seldom affected by spring frosts,” states the report.

Though the report discusses corn fodder, corn silage is not mentioned.  Nor is it in the extensive “History and Incidents of Indian Corn, and Its Culture” published by William Emerson in the United States in 1878.  But “The Book of Corn” published in 1903 has a full chapter on silage.  Corn silage was apparently produced on a limited scale after 1850, though the first tower silos were only built (in Michigan and Maryland) in 1875. Hand-chopped corn silage was popular in Ontario after 1900 to supplement turnips, carrots and mangolds/mangels grown for winter feed.

Dual-purpose Shorthorn and Ayrshire cattle dominated Ontario livestock in 1881. There were no Ontario Holsteins yet, though present in New York State. There were many sheep – and sheep exports – 100,000 to Britain in 1880 alone.  Pork production was minor except in Kent and Essex where corn was fed. Local corn was sold to distilleries in Walkerville and Amherstburg after 1850.

Early corn in the Thirteen Colonies

Unlike Ontario, corn dominated agriculture in the Thirteen Colonies – for reasons of both circumstance and soil-climate.

The first settlers in Virginia in 1607 lacked skills or interest in farming.  England was to provide the food while they sought natural riches. But the boats didn’t arrive, and kind aboriginals provided corn to prevent them from starving.  Only after two years did settlers learn to grow their own.

The Pilgrims reaching Cape Cod in 1620 expected to buy corn from natives.  Natives soon taught them how to farm. Early settlers elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies learned native corn farming techniques from the beginning.  Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, wrote in 1751 that corn did much better than wheat on the prevalent sandy, drought-susceptible soils of the Atlantic seaboard.  In Pennsylvania and New York where soils are less sandy, wheat was more dominant.

American colonists adapted native farming techniques: they girdled and burned trees; planted corn in hills (versus broadcasting seeding of grain crops in Europe) and stored ears in cribs.  Birds, rodents and weeds plagued colonial crops just as they had for the natives.  However, horses and oxen were now used for tilling soils. Aboriginal farmers had used “no till” planting and hand weeding.

Farmer George Washington reported 12.5 bushels per acre on 75 acres of corn grown in 1800, worth about thirty cents per bushel.  President Thomas Jefferson, also a prominent farmer, wrote about corn growing.

As settlement proceeded westward, corn farmers led the way.  Frontier farmers often grew corn continuously without fertilizer on newly cleared lands.  When infertility depressed yields, they simply moved westward.  Other farmers fertilized corn with manure, fish or crop rotations.

Corn adapted slowly to mechanization

Farming changed little for two centuries after the first arrival of settlers from Europe, but as the nineteenth century unfolded, so did the inventions. There were thousands of new plows and tillage machines. One hundred patents for hand planters before 1869. The first mechanical corn seeders appeared after 1800, but acceptance came slowly. Early mechanical seeders could not plant corn in hills perfectly aligned both ways for cultivation (“horse-hoeing”) for weed control.

Farmers marked fields two ways with light sleds (runners 40-44 inches apart), and then planted three to eight seeds per hill, up to four acres/day, with a “hand jabber” planter. Final stand depended on pest damage. “One seed for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm and one to grow.” Tillers (suckers) were often removed manually.

Though testimonial information (formal research began only about 1870) showed that drilled corn yielded more, check planting remained popular – for both ease of cultivation for weed control and aesthetics. I remember seeing check-planted corn in southwestern Ontario and the US into the 1950s.  Fields with corn hills lining up every direction were sure attractive.

Mechanical planting in properly spaced hills did evolve, thanks to the use of trip wires with regularly spaced knots that were laid across fields to be seeded, but these were awkward to use.

Mechanical harvesting came even more slowly. Early settlers, like natives, harvested ears with husks attached in autumn, and “shucked” them later in community husking bees – major social events. Hand-held bone or wooden “shucking pegs” were the same as those used centuries earlier.

By 1800, corn shocks (stooks) had become popular. The farmer first bound together the tops of plants in four adjacent hills, using stalks, grape vines or elm-bark strips, and then stacked plants from other hills around the outside.  Plants then dried, sometimes until well into winter, when ears were removed. Winter wheat was often inter-seeded between the shocks.  Horse-drawn sleds with stalk-cutting edges, and, later, corn binders, speeded the shocking process in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Stover remaining after ear removal was often used for winter feed.  Though leaves were once collected from immature plants, this largely ended before 1825 because it reduced yield.

Direct harvesting and husking became common.  Horses pulled wagons slowly up the field while farmers removed and shucked the ears, and threw them into wagon boxes.  “Bang boards” above the opposite side of the wagon helped prevent ears from being thrown clear across.

Efforts to design a mechanical corn “dehusker” began before 1850. “Indian Corn and its Culture,” published in 1878, describes a “machine husker” resembling a modern corn picker. But the 1903 “Book of Corn” states, “no practical machine adapted to [field harvesting] has appeared.” The first horse-drawn field pickers arrived around 1900.

Nap King of Pain Court, Ontario, formerly president of King Grain, recalled how his father first bought a tractor-powered corn picker in 1927. “Much better than hand picking,” said Nap.  But both picker and tractor were causes for controversy.  Pickers missed too many ears, critics said.  And tractors compacted the fields!

Mechanical corn picking was hampered by the natural breakage of stalks before harvest – far worse when European corn borer insects appeared about 1920.  Indeed, the acceptance of hybrid corn in the 1930s and 1940s in southwestern Ontario was driven as much by superior standability and machine harvestability as by better yields.

Shelling was equally time consuming.  Hand shelling gave way to hand-powered single-ear  shellers by about 1850.  Larger machine shellers came much later.

As late as World War I, except for “horse power,” North American corn farming largely resembled what native farmers had practiced centuries earlier.  Most of what now constitutes “modern corn technology” had yet to be developed.

Some references:

Fussell, Betty. 1992. The Story of Corn. University of New Mexico Press.

Hamil, Fred C. 1951. The Valley of the Lower Thames, 1640-1850. University of Toronto Press.

Kalm, Peter. 1751. Description of Maize. Translated by M. Oxholm and S. Chase from original in Swedish. Economic Botany 28:105-117, 1974.

Orange Judd Company. 1903. The Book of Corn.

Pegg, Leonard. 1988. Pulling Tassels, A history of seed corn in Ontario. Blenheim (ON) Publishers Ltd.

Reaman, G. Elmore. 1970. A History of Agriculture in Ontario. Volume I. Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd., Aylesbury UK.


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