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. Until this Nebraskan device was invented.

 

William Lillie, left, and photo of cornhusker

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)

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

The 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address – March 4, 2011

The 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address – March 4, 2011

Marker Monday: Mari Sandoz

Marker Monday: Mari Sandoz

How ‘Equality Before the Law’ became our state motto

How ‘Equality Before the Law’ became our state motto

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast.

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.