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Local Column

Schrader: All you ever wanted to know about corn cribs

Bob and Phyllis Johnson display their new book “Corn Cribs: Every Corn Belt Farm Had one,” in front of one type of crib they have written about.
Bob and Phyllis Johnson display their new book “Corn Cribs: Every Corn Belt Farm Had one,” in front of one type of crib they have written about.

Bob and Phyllis Johnson have been farming most of their lives, so they know a lot about corn. In fact, Bob’s nickname is “Cornpicker Bob,” and he has hosted some pickers field events at their farm near Burlington.

Phyllis, being the journalist in the family, worked with him to produce their first book “Corn Pickers: And the Inventors Who Dreamed Them Up,” published in 2017. Now they have collaborated on a second book “Corn Cribs: Every Corn Belt Farm Had One.”

I would call it the ultimate history of this outbuilding, which has been around since the 1700s in America. Now they are mostly obsolete, left standing on farms in various stages of decay.

As an aside, my only memory of our corncrib on the Babson farm on McGirr Road near Hinckley back in the 1940s was being cautioned by my father about it. I liked climbing up the wooden ladder inside the crib and playing around there. He warned me that there are rats in the crib and I had better stay out or could get bitten. He was right about the rodents — some looked as big as kittens and so I heeded his warning, for a while anyway. I was too young to own a .22 rifle and my BB gun wasn’t powerful enough to dispatch the pestilent critters.

Their new 330-page book includes some 1,200 photos of cribs and related farm equipment from several states. It is a history of one part of rural America that the Johnsons didn’t want to see lost. So they compiled this extensive survey of cribs, elevators and other ag-related equipment.

Most of us don’t pay much attention to the difference in those structures, but there are numerous types, mostly constructed with wood but some built with cement blocks, snow fencing, or even wire mesh. They are square, round, oblong, and even with eight sides. They had cupolas on the roof of many different sizes and designs. Those had a practical use: elevators were raised to their openings and corn carried up into the cribs.

I asked about any unusual-looking cribs in DeKalb County and they mentioned two octagonal cribs — one on Route 23 north of Waterman and the other on Rich Road west of Sycamore. The farmer who owns the latter one does not want people on his property photographing the crib, the Johnsons told me, so you had better bring a telephoto lens or use a drone.

Why were most cribs painted red? Phyllis said, “Because it was a cheap preservative, made from ochre that was available in the ground, then mixed with linseed oil.” That was the reason most farm buildings were painted that color for many years.

Once more modern harvesting equipment was introduced, the corn was shelled in the field and loaded into giant bins, not the slatted cribs. So for about the past half-century the cribs have been left empty, many succumbing to the weather. Some have been repurposed, used for equipment and supplies storage or even an artist’s studio.

I found the subject and its history fascinating. Popular farm broadcaster Max Armstrong must think so too: He wrote the foreword in the book. The Johnsons have performed a valuable service twice now in preserving agricultural history in book form.

For more information contact them on their website at CornPickerBook.com or by email at mrcornpicker@aol.com.

The columnist can be reached via email at barry815@sbcglobal.net or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns can be found archived online at www.dekalbcountylife.com.

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