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The Corn Burner

Near the fence in our cattle yard lies a curious old relic. It’s a rusty steel apparatus roughly shaped like the letter ‘U’ – albeit a letter ‘U’ that’s been treated roughly. This is not just because of the rust; one leg of the letter sits at a 45° angle.

Midwestern farm persons of a certain age (mine) would take one glance at this mystery object and state, correctly, “Cob burner.”

There’s a lot to unpack with those two words. Let’s begin with the “cob” part.

Starting with the day that the first cave-farmer gazed upon the first stalk of maize, corn was picked by hand. Corn farmers thus developed unusually muscular picking arms. One arm looked as though it belong to Popeye, the other, Olive Oyl.

Mechanical corn pickers were eventually invented. Corn farmers still had one arm that was much larger than the other because these proto pickers required a lot of percussive maintenance. The arm that held the hammer was heavily muscled.

Corn pickers had been perfected by the time I came along. Farmers could pick vast quantities of ear corn, which meant they had to find new ways to store the stuff. Their wives quickly ruled out the sock drawer.

This led to the invention of the corn crib. I don’t mean a jail for babies or a rap star’s fancy pad. We’re talking a jail-like structure that’s a fancy pad for corn.

A farmer can’t simply take ear corn to a grain elevator and say, “Here you go!” Elevator managers deduct for the tiniest smidgeon of foreign matter in the grain they buy, using a formula that begins with finding a speck of rice in a truckload of rice. If a farmer delivered ear corn to a grain elevator, he would end up owing money to the elevator.

When I was a kid, we hired a neighbor to shell our corn with a massive contraption called – yep! – a corn sheller. This mechanical marvel sported an assortment of unshielded spinning shafts and whirring chains. The corn sheller looked extremely dangerous, so of course I was fascinated by it.

Ear corn went into one end of the sheller and clean grain gushed from an auger on its side. The far end of the sheller featured a humungous blower that blasted a hurricane of corn husks and a trough that barfed out the brick-red cobs.

Come wintertime, we would plunk our cob burner into our stock tank. True to its name, we used the incinerator to deice the water by combusting cobs. Corn cobs burn nicely but each cob has approximately the same energy content as a square of toilet paper. The cob burner’s gaping gullet seemed to constantly be saying, “Feed me!”

It often fell to my siblings and me to stoke the cob burner. We would go to the cob pile, stuff 5-gallon buckets with corn cobs, and trudge back to the water tank. Did I mention that this was always during the dead of winter and that the snow was always 3 feet deep?

We didn’t know it, but we were ahead of our time. Burning cobs meant that were heating our stock tank with renewable biomass. We simply thought of it as a pain in the mass.

Igniting the cobs generally wasn’t a problem and could usually be accomplished with a few sheets of newsprint. It seemed to help if the newspaper had published an incendiary article.

When the cobs were damp and slow to ignite, a liquid accelerant would be used to move things along. It’s true: not only did my chores involve playing with matches, but also kerosene. It was a combustible situation.

I was ahead of my time in that I wanted everything to happen RIGHT NOW. As such, I believe that I’m responsible for such time-saving ideas as the internet and fast-food drive-throughs.

Once, when it was double-digits below zero and the cobs didn’t want to light, it occurred to me that kerosene might not be up to the job. Gasoline, kerosene’s volatile brother, would no doubt speed up the ignition process. And if one splash of gas was good, four were better.  

The ensuing fireball was probably visible from space. It took some while for my eyebrows to grow back. I went around for several weeks with a perpetually surprised expression on my face.

Which was fitting. I had certainly been surprised by how that stodgy old cob burner had suddenly come to resemble a rocket engine. And the way I saw it, my lack of eyebrows was an evolutionary adaptation, similar to having one arm that was much more muscular than the other.



Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at

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