EARLING, Iowa — Hand tools that look like medieval instruments of corporal punishment. Old tractors with wooden saddle seats and steel suspensions, which probably were just as punishing.
That is what is on offer at the Hybrid Corn Pioneers Museum in Earling, Iowa, this weekend at the historical expo held by owner and farmer Steve Kenkel. His lovingly curated collection of vintage seed bags, tools and farm gear is expected to attract thousands of people starting Saturday morning.
Most of the curios in Kenkel's collection, housed in a big and handsome equipment shed on his 500 acres off Ironwood Road and Iowa Highway 37, will not be familiar to anyone but ag aficionados and the oldest of citizens.
Yet draw the festival does. A shorter and less formal version of events in 2006 attracted 300 people. The first festival like this weekend's started out with 600 visitors over two days in 2008. The event drew 1,200 people at the most recent incarnation held in 2011.
It is the sort of pilgrimage made by millions of Americans a year, to state fairs and vintage tractor shows and expos like Kenkel's, homage to a way of life that has not occupied a large part of the American workforce for 60 years.
In an age when 1 percent to 3 percent of the U.S. population works on a farm, down from 15 percent in 1950 and 80 percent 50 years earlier, people still flock to rural America, pulled perhaps like migrating salmon, by an unseen force deep within our DNA.
At Kenkel's place, they come to see the horse-drawn corn pickers, the husk-by-hand contest and the restored 1952 Oliver 66 tractor, a green and yellow beauty made at a once-thriving factory 200 miles northeast in Charles City, Iowa.
“Steve has dedicated his life to the preservation of corn history on his farm, and it draws people from all over the country,” said Bob Chamberlain, secretary-treasurer of the Illinois-based Corn Item Collectors Association, which counts Kenkel's gala as one of its major events. “People come to this sort of thing for reasons that even they probably don't understand.”
Kenkel, a 54-year-old whose kin have lived on or near the same land for five generations, said he started collecting farm curios years ago, as a hobby.
His main interest was Shelby County's place in agricultural history. Farmers in the area, he said, were instrumental in cross-breeding to arrive at hybrid seeds that produced shorter corn plants that yielded smaller, more uniform ears, but many, many more of them.
The end result was plants that didn't fall down in the fields, allowing for mechanized harvesting, and many other improvements, such as plants that don't produce “suckers,” or vestigial stems that yield no corn but leech nutrients.
Hybrid corn was rated as one of mankind's greatest 1,000 inventions by Time magazine in 1992, Kenkel said.
It all comes down to productivity. Before World War II, 40 bushels per acre was a great yield. Now, Iowa farmers get 172 per acre, according to USDA statistics.
With Iowa the nation's No. 1 corn producer, followed by Illinois and Nebraska, the great crops and recent high prices have contributed to Midwestern economic strength in recent years. In Nebraska, farm income was $159,000 per operation in 2011, according to the USDA, second in the nation behind only California. Iowa ranked fourth at $117,000, behind South Dakota.
Kenkel said Shelby County's colony of German farmers, who began arriving in large numbers in the 1880s, played a pioneering role in corn hybridization. By the 1940s, there were 17 seed producers in Shelby County offering their own hybrids. In 1942, Kenkel said, Iowa farmers were the first in the nation to plant their state's entire crop with hybrid seed.
“And in Shelby County, we were the leaders in the state, maybe the country,” he said.
Shelby County, it seems, has always been a place where farmers take their craft seriously. “The History of Shelby County,” a 1915 book by author Edward White, recounts the following about Shelby Township, one of the county's administrative districts just south of Earling:
“A most distinguished honor came to Shelby County and particularly to the intelligent and ambitious corn growers of Shelby Township. The Shelby Township corn growers secured top prizes for Shelby County corn at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, with eight of the 23 ears they entered winning top prizes.”
Visitors to the museum this weekend will be able to view seed bags from now-defunct Shelby County producers, along with biographies of their principals penned by Kenkel, who wrote a book on the topic. Kenkel also has plenty of action on tap.
There are corn plots with old-style, open-pollinated varieties planted side-by-side with modern hybrid seed, so people can compare. Kenkel has charts posted out on the plots that note the cost for the seed, the yield and other details. He takes visitors through the plots on a walking lecture a few times a day.
As for other activities, there is a husking demonstration by the current national champions; Kenkel said the sport still survives and was once a major spectator pastime.
Expo admission is free, but contributions are encouraged, with all money collected being donated to ovarian cancer research. It runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Kenkel said the area 4-H Club will be on hand to sell hot dogs and hamburgers; it is their biggest yearly money-raiser.
Kenkel, one of eight children and father of a grown daughter, said seeing young folks take an interest always heartens him. They are a rarer and rarer commodity in places like Earling. The kids there all go to school 13 miles away at a consolidated district in Harlan. The Catholic school in Earling, right behind the enormous St. Joseph Church, closed years ago for lack of students.
The church is a monument to the community's place in history, when hundreds or thousands of farm families called the area home, with a spire dozens of stories high, visible for miles. The 121-year-old church seats 800 people, or about twice the town's population, making it the second-largest church in the Des Moines Archdiocese.
The Rev. Chris Fontanini, the parish priest at St. Joseph, said there are fewer and fewer people to carry on the old ways, such as those celebrated at Kenkel's museum.
“We have high death rates from an elderly population and low birthrates,” Fontanini said of rural Iowa. “Towns like ours are losing their young people. But we do still have a few young parishioners who want to farm, and probably always will.”