Detasseling Corn: Summer of the First Hundred Dollars

The consequences of the summer of the first hundred dollars began to show up the summer of the dermatologist thirty-some years later.

I earned my first hundred detasseling corn for Garst and Thomas, an Iowa seedcorn company, with a team of women and girls from the Dexter area.

We were paid 60 cents an hour.

If we stuck it out for the whole season, we were offered the incentive of 15 cents more per hour. I was determined to earn that extra 15 cents.

It was the summer before high school. Fumble at the alarm. 4:30. Surely it isn’t time yet. Eyes won’t quite open, even after a spash of cold water. Not really hungry, but would be about 9:00. Dress three layers deep. Mom drives me into town with a sandwich and a blanket. Yawn.

Like cattle, we march into a stock truck. Yes, a hosed-out truck of a local cattle hauler. Hard benches. Packed  in. Chilly draft. Sharp bones. As we jerk along, dirt sifts through my hair, into my eyes. Corn, corn, miles and miles of corn. About 50 miles later, we girls are jostled as the truck bumps along a rutty path. “Everyone out!”

Stretch. Slowly down the plank. “Block in!”

The rows are so long, and we’re on foot. No machines back in 1958. Every tassel, every stalk. Hold a stalk in left hand, right thumb down. Remember: only one leaf. Reach again. Pull. Reach Pull. Back begins to ache. Leaves dewy and itchy.

Sore arm. Switch hands. Reach, pull. Reach, pull, like a machine. Back aches more, but no end in sight.

Can’t get a tan in long sleeves, so the shirt gets tied around my waist. Keep going, no stop to rest. End must be coming up. Legs hot. Jeans also tied around my waist. Take off another shirt. Swimsuit is old anyway.

Left: reach, pull, reach, pull. Right: reach pull reach pull. Two hours later, rest, water served from a cooler. Must be from a rusty stream, but west and cooler anyway.

Someone sick about halfway back. Have to finish her row. Finally, after another hour, everyone is out.

10:30. I’m starved. If we got through again, it’ll be 1:30! Double up and take every other stalk.

Must be getting a burn. Corn leaves lacerate my neck. Bottoms of feet sting. Temples west and pounding. Mouth dry and panting. Back aches. I’m starved. I wish I could quit, but I want that bonus.

Got through that row by 12:30. Spread blanket along farm driveway, near chickens. Off with shoes. Every day the same: bologna sandwich with white bread and Miracle Whip, fruit, milk. Lie back. Watch cottony clouds float in tranquil blue.

Seed corn fields are planted with two types of corn. Some rows will become “female” rows, having the tassels removed, to bear the new hybrid seed. The others will retain their tassels, remaining the “male” rows, in order to pollinate the female rows. There are three or four rows of female to every one row of male, so we had to make sure we were not detasseling a wrong row.

Have to start again already? I think again about quitting. Zinc oxide, white and sticky, coating my nose. Shirt back on. Don’t want more sunburn. Should be done by 4:00.

Bones weary. Sun baking clear through my shirt. Arms burn. Hope no more corn poisoning. Head and stomach dizzy. I wish I could quit. Maybe only 50 more stalks. I don’t care if the water’s got bugs in it. I just want to feel it sizzle as it trickles through my hair.

Oh, finally, finally. Where’s the water? I don’t blame the girls who quit this afternoon. Feel lousy. I’m never coming back. The pay isn’t worth it.

Someone just detasseled the end of a row and left the middle. I’m not volunteering to go back, but if we ever want to get out of this place, we’ll have to. Finally done at 5:30.

Home at 7:30. I want to go to the ballgame in town but, thank goodness, Mom says no. Cool bath stings. Back aches, bones moan, sunburn peels. Mom says I don’t have to stick it ut.

Bed at 9:30. Nightmares of corn, tassels, weeds, sunburn, zinc oxide, suffocating smell of suntan lotion, dirt, more tassels, dirty water.

Day after day after day.

The most miserable job I ever had. But I didn’t quit. I got that bonus and had $100 in the bank to show for my summer before high school.

Undoubtedly begun in those cornfields, the spots the dermatologist worked on thirty-sme years later, during six short minutes, cost almost exactly twice what I earned that long sunburnt summer of my first $100.


By the way, this wasn’t sweetcorn. These fields are seedcorn for livestock, mostly cattle and hogs, which is what my dad raised.

34 comments

    • They certainly were. From the perspective of becoming older than dirt, it’s one in a long line of stories pointing out that determination is wired into my DNA. Otherwise, I sure wouldn’t be getting up before 4 a.m. to tackle another book, with at least one more lined up in my brain!

  1. I detassled corn for 5 years in a row! Every summer! All my friends did too so it wasn’t so bad. Seemed like back then every teen in my small Iowa town spent the summer days doing this. Great way to earn some cash as a kid! Being 5’1 though I had to stretch a bit!!

  2. I can’t even identify. Never worked in the fields. My grandparents on my mom’s side were raised by sharecropping parents, mainly cotton. But, I lived visiting a great-aunt where she had a dozen rows or so of corn. It was an adventure for this city kid to run through the tall stalks. Good memories.

  3. Beautifully and dramatically written: I can feel the pain, the tiredness and the stiffness! Being fair-skinned with light hair, I too am now suffering the consequences of the sun in my teenage years. Have just been to the dermatologists and returned a whole lot poorer and a face that looks as if I have been attacked. I never miss the opportunity to encourage young girls I have taught to take care of their skins.

  4. A super great post that I can relate to as I picked oranges one year before college. I felt like a minor character from the “Grapes of Wrath” when I finished each 10 hour day. We got paid by the crate which must have worked out to about $1 per hour. Kids these days would not believe us and would think we fictionalized the past.

    • With the bonus, we got 75 cents an hour. Yes, hard to believe. I’m still in contact with two of the gals on that crew. One was in my graduating class at Earlham, the other was the young married farmwife. They lived a couple miles south of us (on Old Creamery Road) and picked me up for work every day. Ran into them at a Scoop the Loop at Stuart (classic cars), and this Memorial Day at the Dexter Cemetery.

  5. What a great story, your effort and discomfort are palpable. My wife also detassled corn. She still has the collapsible aluminum water cup they gave her. She used her money to buy a Singer sewing machine and cabinet which remains in use today in her sewing room.

  6. Such a great post! I love corn on the cob…one of my favorite things in summer.( I also love bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches…with home-grown tomatoes.) My mother was raised on a farm and she tells us all the stories; my children have always listened with great interest. When I was a child, my parents had a very large garden and grew some corn for a couple of years. It nurtured my love of gardening…I so appreciate the things they taught me.
    But, I must confess our ‘picking’ was fun, whether it was for strawberries or beans, or whatever. We ate what we picked for our own supper. I admire you for sticking with it that summer…so much hard work, but you never quit!

  7. This reminds me so much of the summer I worked in the tobacco fields in Springfield, Mass. For the first part, we had to work in the fields looping string around the plant and tying it to an overhead wire, so that the plant wouldn’t fall over. Blazing hot sun, dirt, sticky leaves, row after row after row. Then when the plants were harvested, we moved into the sheds to work a machine that threaded string through the stalks that were tied off on a lath so that the leaves could be hung to dry.

    • Tobacco fields in Massachusetts? And kids working in them for summer jobs? Thanks for including details. Sounds like there was quite a bit of reaching and bending involved. plus that blazing hot sun.

      • Believe it or not, yes. The tobacco grown was for cigars. Kids worked them for summer jobs, along with some migrant workers. If I remember correctly, we were paid agricultural wage, which was below minimum wage. There was a lot of reaching and bending involved and lots of urging to work faster, faster, faster.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.