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Corn and cornfields
in a bygone times

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What was corn?

When I was growing up in the 1940s, the main cereal crop was wheat which was used for the staple food of bread. Therefore when anyone talked about corn, it was always assumed that they meant wheat. I seem to remember that the Americans or Canadians regarded corn as a different cereal, so that when the UK ordered a consignment of corn from them, shortly after the Second World War, what we got was not what we expected.

Other cereals were grown in the UK but to a lesser extent than wheat.

Of the three types of cereal - wheat, oats and barley - barley was by far the worst to handle due to its coarse, prickly ears. It would play havoc with men's arms, making them very sore.

V. John Batten

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The cornfields

The cornfields were very different from those of today.

This was before advances in the development of hybrid seed to produce shorter corn and earlier ripening corn. So the corn of my childhood was much taller than that of today. I remember, as a young child, getting lost in a cornfield in late summer because it was taller than me and I couldn't see my way out. I'm sure that the farmer wouldn't have approved of my being there, trampling into his corn, but that is a different story.

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Cornfield pests

Rabbits were a curse to practically all farmers, eating off young corn plants around the headlands of fields, often for 20 yards or more in some fields, but in turn they helped the nation with an important off-ration meat supply.

V. John Batten

Incidentally I was always told that farmers never minded our trampling into the corn early in the year when it was just sprouting because it split the shoots and so produced a higher yield. I am not at all sure how true this was.

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Harvesting worries with the corn of bygone years

In times gone by, bringing in the harvest was a major worry for farmers as the long stems meant that the corn ripened later than modern hybrid varieties. So ripening and bringing in the corn was completely dependent on the weather. A wet summer and early autumn could ruin the crop, and a ruined crop not only meant a significant financial loss for a farmer, it also had dire consequences for the country. During the Second World War, bread was a staple food and all imports were severely limited.

So during harvest time, everyone in any way associated with the farm worked from dawn to dusk. There was some mechanisation but each stage of bringing in the harvest - see the side menu - required different tools or machines and a great deal of manpower.

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Relief and celebration once the harvest was in

Because the corn took so long to ripen and because the 'gathering in' was so dependent on manpower and the weather, there was great rejoicing and relief when it was complete. There was the celebration known as the 'harvest supper' for the farmhands and their families - and a good many other people as well - and there were special thanksgiving church services - usually in early October - known as harvest festivals. Here is the first verse of hymn traditionally sung at a harvest festival.

THE HARVEST HYMN

Come, ye thankful people, come
Raise the song of harvest home
All is safely gathered in
Ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
For our wants to be supplied
Come to God's own temple, come,
Raise the song of harvest home.
 

Page contributed by Neil Cryer