William F. Lillie’s Help for Picking Corn by Hand
Picking corn was once an unpleasant task, done by hand, for Nebraska farmers after a fall frost when the corn was ripe and dry enough. Even in territorial days, devices were on the market to lighten the labor and reduce the discomfort of cracked and bleeding hands.
Probably the first device in general use in Nebraska was the husking peg. This originally was a small, round piece of hardwood, about six inches in length, and sharpened at one end. It was held in the hollow of the right hand and a loop of buckskin or some soft leather was attached to the peg and passed over the middle finger to hold it in place. The sharpened end of the peg was thrust through the husks at the tip end of the ear, enabling the operator to husk the ear quickly and easily.
The next great development, at least in Nebraska, was the invention in the early 1890s of the corn husker by William F. Lillie (1852-1921) of Rockford in Gage County. Lillie originally developed the device to help his father-in-law, who had lost his right thumb, to husk corn. It worked so well that the inventor decided to apply for a patent and put it on the market
Worn on the right hand, the point was used to penetrate the husk top, making it easier to remove the complete husk. A leather pad protected the palm of the user’s hand. The Prairie Farmer said on October 24, 1896: “The Lillie Corn husker has been in successful use for the past three years and wherever it has been introduced, it has effectually supplanted every other kind of corn husker where husking is done by hand.”
Buffalo County historian Samuel Clay Bassett noted that Lillie perfected his device “after much thought, labor and expense. A poor man, he attempted to manufacture them and create a market under great difficulties. He succeeded in every way except financially. A grateful posterity will see that he is given the credit he deserves.”
James C. Olson, superintendent of the Nebraska State Historical Society, noted in 1947 that the Lillie corn husker was still being used in Nebraska as late as the 1920s. Also in the 1920s the mechanical corn harvester began to come into general use. It was this machine which transformed the whole process of picking corn, making Lillie’s device obsolete.
– Patricia C. Gaster, Former Assistant Editor / Publications
(Photos: History Nebraska RG2411-3234, 1581-1)