Have you ever made a corn shock?
It sounds like electricity would be involved, but no batteries or jumper cables are needed. A corn shock is a way to stack and store corn stalks, but I didn’t know that until this past weekend. Making them is hard work!
Let me explain. In case you didn’t know, Saturday was National Public Lands Day Volunteer Day. (My husband is on an email list that let us know these things. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue.)
In honor of the day, the state parks in Tennessee were hosting special events. Some were offering hikes; some wanted volunteers to help maintain trails, and others were having celebrations with music and refreshments. One of our favorite parks, the David Crockett Birthplace State Park, was hosting a Homesteading Day.
The description sounded interesting:
Have you ever wondered what life was like in the 18th century? Come experience homestead work first hand. Daily life consisted of toil and trouble, but also pleasure and reward. This is your opportunity to learn how to make puncheon benches, weed the garden, or do other chores necessary to sustain life on a frontier farmstead. We have a lending clothes closet of 18th century attire so you will feel and look the part. It is going to be fun! Lunch is provided.
Work that promised to be fun, and lunch provided too? We signed up.
National Public Lands Volunteer Day: Homestead Work
Saturday morning dawned clear and cool. The temperature hovered in the mid-70s, the humidity was pleasant, and the sky was bright blue with some puffy white clouds. We arrived at the state park promptly at 11 am. I admired the fall decorations around Davy Crockett’s cabin before we made our way to the homestead area.
We were pleasantly greeted by Ranger Fred, who introduced us to his gun, Getmeat, and told us some history tidbits while we waited for the activity to begin. He also explained some of the recent improvements at the park.
A spring house for the homestead was nearly half constructed, and the corn crib that was started about a month ago was finally finished.
Little did we know how important that was!
Jackie Fischer, the park manager, arrived shortly thereafter and offered period clothing to borrow and “get into the spirit”. Of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to wear garb while working on an 18th century homestead! The outfit included a short chemise, white stockings, an overskirt that tied in both the front and the back, a shortgown that would remain open (because I had no pins), a cap, and a pinner apron (also left unpinned).
The first thing that I noticed after donning the outfit was that there were no pockets. Yikes! I suppose a frontier woman didn’t carry around much in the way of personal items and had no need for pockets. But I’m a lady of the 21st century accustomed to carrying my personal items. If I had a belt I could’ve carried a pouch (I do this at renaissance faires). Being beltless (and pouchless), I had to come up with some other solution. I remembered times when I went for a jog but had no pockets in my running clothes. I would tie my house key onto my shoe with my shoe string and tuck an I.D. between my sock and the bottom of my shoe.
Thus, I ended up tucking my cell phone into one of my stockings. I thought for sure Davy Crockett would’ve given me an A for ingenuity but an F for failing to cut the cord!
Working In A Corn Field
Dressed for work, I met the others at the corn patch. We were given hatchets, baling twine and instructions. My job was to cut down the corn stalks and put them into a pile so that my husband and others could tie them into bundles. Then the bundles were assembled into large shocks. Sounds simple, right?
It may have been simple, but it gave me a renewed appreciation for the work our ancestors did. After a couple of hours of hacking away, my right arm ached a little bit and my back started nagging. My husband and I switched off between the chopping-down-chore and the piling-into-bundles chore so we wouldn’t wear ourselves out. It was only a little patch of corn, maybe a quarter to half an acre, but it was laborious. Others were pulling corn off the stalks or picking it up from the ground, gathering it in pails, and taking it to the new corn crib for storage.
I can’t imagine doing this for many days to harvest a large field of corn in the 1790s. But no mechanical alternatives were available then.
It also became clear that all of the work put into such a small yield made the corn immensely valuable to the family. This corn will be used on the homestead. Some of it will be ground into cornmeal; some of it will be fed to animals. I think some of it is used to make food for the volunteers and rangers who work on the homestead. The corn shocks are food stored for animals.
Lunch Cooked Over an Open Fire
We were almost finished chopping down the entire patch when it was time to go to lunch. Ranger Nate said he would come back out and finish the job later; I kind of felt guilty about leaving so many stalks standing. But Jackie had put a large ham onto the fire, mixed up a pot of hominy and beans, and was getting ready to cook corn pone. We couldn’t let the food wait.
I had only been working for three hours but it felt like I’d been at it much longer. My garb was covered in corn dust and stalk pieces, and my right hand had dried blood on it in two places (I didn’t realize I’d cut myself sometime while dragging around corn stalks). I worked up a big appetite and was glad to enjoy some water and the home-cooked lunch, served in a gourd bowl with a wooden spoon. I didn’t try the ham, but the beans and corn pone were delicious!
I’ve become accustomed to eating as much as I want and throwing away leftovers, but this reminded me of meals at my grandparents. My Nana cooked simple fare, but I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I cleared my plate. Food was too valuable.
We finished our meal and I changed back into jeans and a t shirt. It was time to go. But I’ll be back! I’d like to learn more about 18th century life, and this is a fun way to do it.
You can find out more about the David Crockett Birthplace State Park here.
Did you participate in National Public Lands Volunteer Day? Have you ever put up corn shocks? I’d love to hear your comments!