The Hunger Fighters (1928)
Paul de Kruif
ANCIENT AND ANONYMOUS
WHAT FIGHTERS OF HUNGER can compare to the unknown finders of the American maize!
Of all green living things maize is the chief trapper of the energy of the sun's rays. Eaten as corn and bread, and turned into four-legged beasts and their milk, made into two-legged fowl and their eggs, maize is the principal food of the people of the western continents.
What sort of man or woman first found this maize! Wondrous lusty: it shoots from a seed to the size of a tree in less than three months. Tough is this Indian corn: it sends out new leaves after spring frosts and laughs at the cold nights of October. Resourceful: it yields three hundredfold on the soggy lands along the lower Mississippi—and it sends down long tap roots to hunt and find moisture in the southwest lands where there is no rain.
What brown-faced genius with straight black hair first learned to guard the maize? For of all green things this strong helper of man is the weakest: the Indian corn plant is more dependent on man than the most absurd poodle. A thousand times more domestic is the maize than the most helpless goldfish: without endless storing, hoeing, reaping, saving, and sowing by men, this plant would die out—utterly. Unlike wheat, unlike any food giving life to men, there is no wild maize: none has ever been known to escape the hands of men to grow free. It can't grow free. With heavy kernels tight on a cob and enclosed by enormous husks, no wind that blows can scatter the seed of it broadcast; untended by man, the young plants—though so vigorous—are killed off by grass in a jiffy.
But who first knew all that? What kind of prophet with what strange insight was this first aboriginal American with high cheek-bones who first felt the absolute need to save the maize, to store it, always to hoe it, knowing he must sow it again—knowing it would never rise by itself again through some kind quirk of God or trick of nature?
From what wild plant could this Indian corn have come? Today there are fifty colleges where savants with their heads full of big-named facts about maize study the chemistry of its life-stuff, the mathematics of its breeding. But never a one of them can breed corn from any wild plant—not even from the tasseled Mexican grass, teosinte. "To be wild," smiles Guy Collins, corn historian, slouched in his chair and sucking at his pipe, "any parent of the maize would have to be very unlike the maize itself!" So it's silly to search for the wild parent now. And it's foolish to guess the time of the birth and the finding of the maize—in Peru there exist fossilized ears of corn untold thousands of years old; from Iowa there are stories of ears of maize that have left their record in slate deposits deep underground. Yet, in some misty month when the world was young, a wild green plant changed suddenly into this delicate food plant that would surely have died out—left to itself. Or, for some months, or years, or hundreds of years, two unknown wild green tasseled grasses married and begat and conceived fantastic children that themselves were enormously fertile—but as helpless to survive as so many abandoned human babies. ... In those mysterious days a man—or was it a woman?—happened by, a clod of a man, with a dirty face. It was an epic accident.
Who will ever know the language of that man's scientific report of the finding of the maize? Was it written? Or did he tell it in a mumble of low-pitched growls and a jumble of high-pitched grunts to a college of his mates held in the warmth of that new invention—fire? Or is maize older than tame fire?
HEAVEN knows how many thousands of years afterwards—after straight-haired Americans had nursed the flame of the seed of it all those thousands of years—new immigrant Americans, civilized white men, scrambled out of their boats on to the coast of eastern America—and took the maize. There was nothing scientific about their discovery but it was only a matter of their empty stomachs turning somersaults. It was the first bleak Massachusetts autumn for those Puritan white men: the going was hard. Then Miles Standish and his scouts, in despair how to fill their bellies, came upon fields of an outlandish new kind of grass tall as a tree. They stumbled over mounds, dug into them; looking over their shoulders in fear of possible owners, they pulled out of the ground a little old basket filled with Indian corn. "We dug further," wrote their scribe, "and found a fine great new basket of very fair corn of that year—six and thirty goodly ears of corn, some yellow, some red, others mixed with blue, a very goodly sight."
Guarded by their flintlocks, they filled an old kettle with it, stuffed their wide pockets full of it, put it in their great hats, and Miles Standish and his God-fearing men scampered off with it believing it better to ask the Indians whether or no they might have it—afterwards. They were hungry. "And surely it was God's providence that we found this corn," wrote the recorder of the deeds of those pious Pilgrims, "for else we know not how we should have done. ..."
The civilized white men took the maize, and their ignorant friend, Squanto the Indian, taught them the science they needed to know, to fight their hunger with it. To make the thin Massachusetts soil rich to feed the greedy corn, Squanto gave them the trick of catching shad that swam up the streams into the ponds to spawn. "An acre set with these shads ... raises as much corn as three acres without," wrote the Pilgrim setting down the first written report of Indian science. And the Pilgrims? As today, they were lawmakers. To be sure of their great yields they passed a severe law requiring that all dogs be tied by the leg while fish were in the cornhills. Then the power of the maize pushed wave after wave of white men west. Driving the givers of the maize before them, the sons of those first white men pushed west from the stony lands of the East across the red clay of the Piedmont up over the Alleghenies to the black loam of Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois—their man-power stoked by the energy sleeping in the seed of the maize.
Energy, guts to push onward, shoulders to fall trees, hands toughened to the sang hoe, sharp eyes to shoot the maize-givers: all these they needed—not science. For ten thousand years and more their enemies, the Indians, had bred an amazing variety of strengths and virtues into their maize—by a sing-song science made up of chants, legends, ceremonies. They'd bred corn for cruel weathers and impossible soils. And now these white grabbers came, and what prospecting for metals could compare to this happy finding of bonanzas by the white men going west—for in every valley, on each plain, in every oak opening, was a new variety of Indian corn adjusted to rain and the richness of black lands, adapted to drought and the lightness of sandy soil. Here's the white man's maize science: A dash in the dawn toward sleeping tepees, brave Daniel Boone at the head of it. Then shouts, the thud of body against body, the popping of muskets, the last wail of a child. Now the enemies, the maize givers, are gone, killed, drunk, or chased west. And here for the redoubtable Boone and the hardboiled Clarke is just the right sort of maize on the right kind of land—maize that even in those days yielded fifty, seventy-five, a hundred bushels to the acre. With no modern agricultural machinery either, mind you; but only with an ax, a crooked stick, a bent piece of iron. ...
G. N. Collins sits slumped behind his gurgling pipe, his face tanned and lean with a hint in it of the look of those anonymous breeders of the maize now gone west forever. Tireless experimenter is Guy Collins, tracer of the mysterious blood lines of this yellow grain, and he smiles at the claims of modern searchers to have done anything much at all for the good of this Indian corn. "Flint, pop, soft, sweet—why, it was all here when we got here!" laughs Collins. "During the four hundred and twenty-five years we've been fooling with it we've put nothing into it, almost, that you can't duplicate in the maize of the red men."
So corn came to be the overwhelming American fact not by the brains of the pioneers but by their tired legs, their aching arms. Collins tells the song of the spread of the maize written by the savage old Thomas Carlyle: "How beautiful to think of tough lean Yankee settlers, tough as gutta-percha, with a most unsubduable fire in their belly, steering over the Western Mountains, to annihilate the jungle, and to bring bacon and corn out of it for the posterity of Adam."
OBSCURELY, amid the din and the sweat of the white man's spreading of maize to make modern America, began the white man's maize science. What searcher in the harsh days of the middle eighteen hundreds, what unknown college professor, what gentle botanizing teacher of young ladies, first traced the grotesque sexual monstrosity of the Indian corn'? Let his bones rest, let his name be forgotten—it is enough that he found this fact: that every maize plant is husband to many wives and is itself wife to an unknown number of husbands. This white searcher dug out what the Indians couldn't know: that in nature a maize plant rarely marries itself to beget seed of its corn children of the following year. The plants of the maize—fundamentally—are as strikingly individual, as various, as so many human beings are different from each other. This obscure impractical botanizer probed out this fundamental fact: that like wheat, every corn riant is both male and female, but its male and female parts are not shut up in the same flower. Unlike wheat, unlike any other grain, the man and the woman parts of the Indian corn are on widely different parts of the plant. ...
At a time when you'd swear that the toil of raising more hundreds of thousands of bushels of corn to turn out more thousands of fatter pigs and better cattle for sale was the one thought in the whole Midwest land—in these hectic days a few silly dreamers didn't work.
They gaze at the tassel proud like a plume at the top of the maize plant, pull bits of this tassel off, put it under their little hand lenses, take a little step ahead of the science of the red men.
Here's a row of spikelets that make up that tassel—and each little spike has two tiny flowers—the observers carefully, idiotically count them: roughly there are twenty-five hundred flowers to every maize plume. Male flowers they are. ...
Through corn fields these dreamers go. In the corn fields you'll find them at the appointed mysterious time in high summer when those flowers open, thrust forth their anthers mad for mating, and from these anthers scattered by the wind go millions of grains of gold-colored pollen the plant sperm. The warm winds blow: the air of corn fields is alive with eager pollen.
"Well—what of that?" sneer the practical corn and hog men.
But the professors keep peering at the maize plant, and far below the male plume, down the cornstalk they spy the strands of sticky green silk pushing their way out of husks that enfold the young cob on the ear shoot. Waiting for the pollen as maids wait for their men are these green strands of silk. The searchers open the husks of the ear shoot, trace the strands of silk to their source: to the female flowers set in in exact rows on the cob. Around them the air is alive with pollen: through the air from tens and hundreds of neighboring corn plants come myriads of grains of pollen to to the silk of one single plant. From the tassels of that same plant goes pollen to mate with the silks of dozens of its neighbors.
Such is the fantastic sexuality of maize: every ear of corn may have a hundred fathers; each tassel may be part father to a hundred ears.
BUT what of it? What was the use of such science? Without the help of any dreaming botanists at all, as if there were no science of maize except to plant it, reap it, hoe it—the black land of middle America poured its strength into millions of bushels of corn. If we only bend our backs enough, if our hands are tough enough: such was the science of the American men, and the forests of Ohio shrank into woodlots and the oak openings expanded into new forests—of maize. Having given the maize, the last Indian was gone and the muskets hung on the walls of the farm-houses—mementoes of grandpa.
Now arose a new kind of corn-dreamer, a farmer cornbreeder who would hardly know a pistil from a stamen and who would blink at you if you asked him what an anther was. But he had a shrewd love of corn and a wordless awe of it that had in it something of the Indian—though straightaway this white man, being a true American, began to try to standardize corn in a way completely un-Indian. First and among the most famous of these corn-dreamers was Jake Leaming of Ohio. Jake had got the start of his corn from his father, Settler Chris Leaming, who began with the old reddish-black kind of corn the Indians knew was good for that particular part of southern Ohio. For sixty years Jake Leaming walked through his maize fields, with two or three simple notions in his head of just what an ear of corn ought to look like. For just those points, each year of those sixty years, he kept selecting seed ears—never thinking of the pollen fathers of those ears.
The result? It was amazing, grotesque! Old Leaming made a miracle with those no-account black kerneled corn-ears swiped from the Indians. But it was perfectly natural, for in this the seed of maize is no whit different from the seed of men and women: that asleep in the seed there are traits, characters, that come from millions of ancestors. From the looks of a father and mother you'd better not try to predict the looks of their children: from a no-account drunken father and a servant-girl mother comes Beethoven, the colossus. And now, from his runty red-brown ears of Indian corn that carried in them an endless variety of traits of the first maize from Peru, the tough maize of the Zuñi of the dry Southwest, the strange corn of Quezaltenango—Jake Leaming began selecting, selecting, selecting.
Never having seen the inside of an agricultural college, this man had his own notions of what good corn ought to be like. To realize these ideas he raised a family of seven husky sons, who with hoes in their hands by the time they were half as tall as a hoe handle took the place of the cultivator not yet invented.
"All the weeds you can find in Jake's cornfield you can carry 'round in your hat," said the farmers roundabout.
"We had to start stirring the ground as soon as the corn-plants appeared, and pa kept us at it 'til long after we boys could see no use for it," said George Leaming, Jake's son.
"Weeds? They're deadly poison to corn," said old Jake himself.
Then he would walk into his fields as marvelously free of any weed as his good-wife's kitchen floor was free of a speck of dust; the magnificent rows of straight green trees would swallow him up; between these rows he walked—looking, and forming his wordless notions.
"Ah! There's one of them red-headed woodpeckers ... flyin' from one plant to another. Wait—there! He's took a toe-holt on that stalk there, peckin' into the husk—eatin' at it. He knows better'n I do what ears ripen earliest. ... That's what I want," mulls Leaming. And out of his overall pocket he fishes colored bits of string—ties a bit of string to this early-ripening maize plant. When the mystic time comes, just as the shucks begin to turn a brownish yellow, Jake will come back and pick that ear to save it for seed. "It's early-ripening corn we need," mutters the breeder.
He compared what his own eyes could see with what he saw was the instinct of the woodpeckers. "It's long tapering ears that are the ones they go for," said Leaming. "Long tapering ears on plants that've got thick tapering stalks—they're the early ones." Leaming's brain held nothing but lore of corn, became an animated library of facts about corn; from nobody knows how many disastrous years of no rain, of rains that lasted forty days threatening a return of biblical flood, of frosts that came when the corn grains were still in the milk—from these years Jake remembered the sterling behavior of certain strange corn plants that bore two ears to a stalk. "It's the two-eared sorts that're tough," said Jake. And he selected, picked out, kept selecting from the two-eared plants. And he used to say: "What I want is ears sticking out from the stalk—reaching out to shake hands." No bit different from the exactest laboratory searcher, there was no end to his care or the trouble he took. In the spring from corn stored all winter he selects all over again!
There he sits, on the end of a log, encircled by tubs and neatly corded piles of extra-selected seed ears. There's a big butcher knife driven into the end of the log. Jake pulls it out, twists a fine gold ear away from him against the edge of the knife—so he shells every grain of the seed for the sowing of that spring, and every spring. And Leaming corn? Year after year Jake gets yields running better than a hundred bushels to the acre. First man on record in all of Ohio is Jacob Leaming to get this enormous yield of six hundredfold. Leaming corn—those words run from stove to stove of one country store to another, where the wiseacres sit by the cracker-barrels and convenient to the sawdust-box spittoons. And in 'seventy-eight this formerly obscure Jake Leaming's corn wins the Grand Prix—in Ohio it's "Pricks"—at the Paris World's Fair Exposition. One hundred ears of Jake's corn are solemnly adjudged superior to all other varieties of corn in the world, on a basis of highest feeding value as determined by chemical analysis—however anybody would determine that; and on a basis of the beautiful tapering ears of it, on a basis of heavy weight of corn per ear, on a basis of the slender cob. "Gosh!" say the judges, "Jake's corn is nearly all grain!"
And in Leaming's front parlor, where the shades are drawn on all days excepting Christmas, days of weddings, funerals, and certain particular Sundays, there is a diploma of the Grand Prix, and here lies in state a silver medal.
There is no record that Jacob Leaming himself wanted to go against the old wisdom of the Indians, who had the hunch, the superstition, that certain kinds of maize should grow in certain places, who had the belief there ought to be a thousand different sorts of maize. There is no evidence that Jake wanted to spread his particular sort of tapering, deep yellow colored ears over the whole state of Ohio, over the whole corn belt. But in fifty thousand farmers 'round him there already stirred this strange American spirit: This guy's got something good—I'll get the same thing. So, all over Ohio, across the magnificent black belt of western Ohio and over into Indiana among those strange poetic Hoosiers, spread the golden seed of the Leaming yielding four, five hundredfold—according to the land it was sown in, depending upon the kind of man who put the seed of it under the soil of that land. Would the famous Leaming keep on yielding that way? What matter in those good days? The folks of the new corn belt were comfortably off—in pork, beef, chickens, butter and eggs, and with a good roof over their heads. The early days of the famous Leaming corn were days when folks didn't have to watch, with worry for their mortgages, their exact yields per acre. There were no installments coming due on that new Atwater Kent; it was not necessary to find cash for the boy who must go to college. ... Those were the horse and buggy days when the most important sounds in the sleepy farm villages were the rattle of harness as the horses stamped their feet before the general store, and the drone of the flies buzzing in and out of infrequently opened screen doors. Who needed a record yield? Farming wasn't a business.
But the corn of Jake Leaming—how could it stay Leaming? Faithfully Jake had picked out, selected for the early-ripening, tapering, high-yielding, two-eared sort—but after all he was selecting against a dormant heredity that was as complicated, as various as the manifold characters that go to make up the human race. And after all, he'd only been selecting mothers, the seed ears, the seed that ripened from the rows of the female flowers on the ear-shoots. The pollen, from the fathers of that seed? The pollen had come from the plants all over the field, from fathers good and bad—every plant bearing tassels shedding pollen had an equal chance to be part father to Jake's finest ears. What genius could fix for keeps the blood lines of this enormously complicated maize—that would stay uniform only so long as old Leaming himself, with his particular notions, selected the ears of it? In the Leaming seed slept the characters of a thousand varieties of maize from prehistoric days in the high valleys of Peru and the jungles of Tehuantepec on down. Was there really such a thing at all as a fixed variety of maize? Could there be such a thing any more than there can be a fixed type of human being'?
The corn-belt farmers didn't worry about that; here was a guy had something good—they'd get the same thing. And here was a new kind of corn to beat even the Leaming, bred by the long-bearded esthete, James Reid of the Delavan prairie in central Illinois. Accidental was the beginning of Reid's beautiful corn, as chancy as the start of the Marquis wheat in Canada. Old Robert Reid, sire of the poetic James, had trekked west from the Red Oak settlement in southern Ohio by prairie schooner in 'forty-six; and after the custom of pioneers he took with him his own special Ohio corn, the Gordon Hopkins. The very first spring, Settler Robert put the seed of his pet Gordon Hopkins under the new Illinois ground. And that spring the robins shivered and looked forlorn and the puddles of water stood too long on the black land, and the green shoots of the maize struggled up, slow and irregular, in this new country where it didn't belong. "Got to get some kind of a crop—" muttered Robert. He fished around, got a few pecks of the native corn of the country, the Indian corn called "Little Yellow." With a hoe he went through the fields putting the seed of the Little Yellow in the hills where his Gordon Hopkins hadn't come up.
That year the pollen and the eggs of the Gordon Hopkins and the Little Yellow were married by the prairie wind: such was the birth of the Reid Yellow Dent.
James Reid, son of Robert, was born for an artist, but his father was poorly, and Jim had to start out throwing the harness over the team's backs while he was still in knee pants and before he was tall enough or strong enough he was guiding the plow. "I had a fool idea I might be a picture painter," Jim confessed through his beard in his old age. But corn was the one way to put food in the mouths of his father, now doddering, of his good wife, of his daughter Olive. So Jim took out his hankering for loveliness on gazing at marvelously cylindrical yellow ears of maize, pretty bastard children of the Little Yellow and the Gordon Hopkins.
In the autumn he sat, caressing those ears, reveling silently in the feel of them, picking them out for seed with an uncanny eye for the form and look of them. And here around Delavan ran rumors of another hundred-bushel-to-the-acre corn. Was it in the nature of these ears to yield so heavy? Or was it just James Reid's good black land? Or was it because he was a good farmer keeping strength in his soil by the manure from his herd of cattle, by his shrewd rotation of crops? Who knew? Who then had the science to compare the yield of this Reid Yellow Dent? Surely not James Reid, who shuffled without ever a word down the arched avenues made by the rows of his maize, a sack slung over his shoulder, picking out ears that pleased him!
"How did you pick out your seed, Mr. Reid?"
"The Lord knoweth; I am his pupil," answered that sage after the manner of a pious Middle Western oracle.
While his corn became the rage of the prairie, Reid was a failure in business, having only certain private and sniffish dreams of beauty. But business can use dreamers, and the able seedsman, Gene Funk, when he started selling seed corn from his flat black thousands of acres around Bloomington in the early nineteen hundreds, sent the enthusiastic corn professor P. G. Holden down to get the "very finest Yellow Dent from James Reid for breeding."
Reid had no patent. There were no royalties.
Holden was a lean bespectacled and bearded corn crank, and he found the venerable James sitting in his corncrib, looking solemnly down his long white beard at one of those perfect ears, better than nine inches long, each kernel slightly and smoothly dented, every kernel a unit in a row straight as if God had drawn a ruler along it.
Said Reid to Holden: "Here's a very nice ear," which was a great deal for that close-mouthed sage to say.
"Why do you select that one?" asked Holden.
An insufferable silence.
A drawl, a murmur: "Oh ... I don't know, exactly ... I guess—because I like it!"
But botheration! Here was Holden, the corn authority, sent down by his boss, Gene Funk, to learn why James Held liked his pet ears—that also happened to yield so heavy. Holden kept at it:
"Is it because the ear is rounded, well filled at the butt?
Or do you consider the kernels to be just the proper depth? Or is the color of it just right?"
The sphinx took his time . ... "Yes, you're right ... I guess it's because of all of those things ... and more too. ... "
It was exactly as if some enterprising boy just out of college should go to Carl Sandburg to ask him how he wrote his poems. How the deuce could the most eminent professor—and Holden was an acknowledged corn shark—learn how to pick out the best yielding ears of corn from such a mum and enigmatical man as this patriarch, James Reid? There was absolutely nothing of the conscious comparer, the Angus Mackay about him; and if he had a subtle way of knowing a heavy-yielding ear of corn, his system was as secret and mysterious as the instinct by which Leaming's red-headed woodpeckers pounced on early-ripening ones. Such too is science.
Reid was a terrible business man; he had no tongue for ballyhoo nor any impresario; but he was a showman all the same. His corn was lovely; to all the fairs roundabout he sent it, and he himself didn't go with it, but he didn't have to: those tremendous golden cylinders made up of close-packed, keystone-shaped kernels spoke for themselves. They had to be champions, those ears of Reid's! Mysterious is the spread of grain over the surface of the American land, for reasons, sometimes, as finicky as a fashion, as a rage for short dresses and no hips among women. Not because they were sure the Reid Yellow Dent corn was the best yielder did the common men of the corn belt begin to bellow for it, not because it was tough against a plague, as Mark Carleton's durum wheat was resistant to the black stem rust, did they howl for it. They clamored for this Reid corn because it won the Grand Sweepstakes ribbon, fifty dollars in cash, and a Parlin and Orendorff breaking plow at the State Fair at Peoria; because it stood the judges on their heads at Chicago and was dubbed "World's Fair Corn."
Here you had dirt-farmers, clods of men not knowing one note of music from another, unable to tell a real painting from a chromo: but they'd turn their pockets inside out for a bushel of Reid's original seed, they paid such silly prices as one hundred and fifty dollars for a bushel of it. They turned six states green in the summer and gold in the autumn with it until seven hundred and fifty thousand out of every million acres of corn land in the corn states were growing corn whose ancestors stemmed from a certain little corncrib in central Illinois. The Reid corn was beautiful.
It cannot be proved that this Yellow Dent maize, grown by James Reid himself, selected by him, would not grow a record crop on just the right rich black land . ... But there was the rub: every Tom, Dick, and Harry didn't have Reid's knack. And with the thousand characters sleeping in the blood of those fair ears how long would that corn stay strictly Reid?
NOW started one of the most silly sciences in the comedy that is the history of science, certainly the most outlandish nonsense in the long history of maize: it is amazing that farmers who are supposed to he hard-boiled, from Missouri, skeptical, would fall for it. Now started a way of breeding corn that was far as possible away from Nature, away from the Lord's way ... "I never argue with the Lord," was old James Reid's formula for breeding corn. In the last of the buggy days, the easy days for the corn-belt men—just before the coming of the grim days of the present when they need real money and haven't got it, arose the quaint custom to breed maize according to rules drawn up by a committee!
That fantastical old gentleman, Mr. E. S. Fursman of El Paso, Illinois, became chief cook and bottle-washer of the Illinois Corn-Breeders' Association, and he was helped by the famous Orange Judd. Fursman wasn't a corn breeder himself, was hardly a farmer, but he was a tremendous corn-belt patriot, knew corn to he the very root of Illinois life, and in a confused way he was mad about the drama of this ubiquitous life-giving maize. He was tickled to death when anybody called him a "corn crank," and he was known to orate on the subject of maize in a murky smoking car all the way from Bloomington to Chicago. There stood the fanatic Fursman, at the end of one of those old rickety wooden coaches that reeked horribly and invincibly of dead cigar butts, shouting at the top of his voice above the clank and rattle of the train about the marvels of maize. How he held his strange audience! Farmers, drummers, small businessmen, and all that flotsam and jetsam of life you'll find in a middle American smoking car, listened with their mouths open, like a jury impressed with a witness, whispered their understanding to each other. "We Must Breed Better Corn!" Fursman would roar at the end.
Fursman got eighteen farmer-breeders together, among them President Coolidge's good old Illinois uncle, in solemn assembly to accomplish his one purpose. Alas—every man jack of them had his own idea of what the ideal and ultimately proper ear of heavy-yielding corn should look like, and every idea was different. As in all science done by committees the final aim became peace and concord through compromise, instead of a search for truth. And at last these eighteen gentlemen got together and with the utmost solemnity invented a scorecard for a perfect ear of Yellow Dent corn. Never an experiment nor a yield test did they make. By arithmetic out of their eighteen heads and with entire disregard of experience they set up a mark of perfect corn for breeders to shoot at. They didn't try out how much this corn would yield—just figured it out. Such was the beginning of the lovely, ten-inch long, rough-dented ear that for a score of years won millions of dollars in prizes, and set the maize yield of the corn belt back by millions of bushels during the next twenty years.
James Reid himself was one of the founders of this association and didn't believe for a moment in this nonsense of trying to outdo the Lord by mathematics. The new corn stemmed, most of it, from his own beloved ears, but he knew these fancy, rough-dented ears—so far as yield went—weren't a patch on his original smooth ones. But Reid, who was an exceedingly queer fish, let old Fursman rave, let those absurd corn mathematicians cook up their philosophical ideal ear of corn for the corn judges . ... He shut his mouth. He even won a few medals with this chaffy new rough corn himself—nothing easier than for that sharpeyed man to find such trash in his own corn fields: a corn field's like humanity—you can find bums and saints and geniuses anywhere, in any family. James Reid died in 1910, and if his own marvelous Yellow Dent Corn didn't die with him, at least it's safe to say that particular kind of maize went to sleep, was lost . ... The corn judges judged an ear of maize by their score-cards; thousands of farmers picking their own seed of the Reid corn had their own private wishes and notions of what it should be like: hundreds of little quirks and traits that had slept behind James Reid's smooth yellow ears now came to the surface to make hundreds of new maize varieties—good, bad, and hopeless. Oh—who would ever really govern the tangled inheritance dormant in the kernels of the maize—tangled as the mysterious blood lines in the loins of men and women?
So Reid passed, and with him his maize—which really had been a wonderful yielder, had been marvelously tough in new counties and prairies where it didn't belong, had put dollars into the pockets of corn-belt men. "He left but little of this world's goods for the support of his wife and daughter who are now residents of Delavan, Illinois," wrote the good Oscar Sommer who tried to raise a pitiful ten thousand dollars to care for the folks of that mum old white-beard. Oscar failed to raise it. Seventy-five percent of those piles of gold that lie every year in the autumn between the tawny corn shocks all over the corn belt had come from ancestors picked by the Delavan corn-sage. But Sommer wrote: "Mrs. Reid is practically destitute and in feeble health without any other means of support than that contributed by the County Board of Supervisors, the Red Cross, and friends of the family . ..." Mrs. Reid died a public charge. And who knows the fate of daughter Olive—in her last years James Reid's right-hand man at his job of picking strong seed for the middle American land? But let that pass. Who knows the reward of the first maize finders in the early days of fire?
Who among hunger fighters is so foolish as to hope that he, or his deeds, or his own seed, will last? Like one strong individual tree of the maize is each hunger fighter. It is silly to try to make either one of them permanent. It is right that the seed of both of them—the man and the maize plant—should merge with the great river of the life of its own species, should disappear in the living matrix of its own kind.
IN the early nineteen hundreds this same Prof. P. G. Holden, who had worked to make money for shrewd men with the corn of Reid who couldn't make money, went from Illinois to Iowa—to the real corn state, to the one corn land laid down by God and the glacier for the particular purpose of growing maize to turn into meat on four legs. Holden pumped up the men of that dark-earthed state into a fury of corn improvement. Slim, bespectacled, not too practical, a believer in the goodness of God, an adorer of the intangible science of the sad-faced James L. Reid, this corn-evangelist P. G. Holden set fire to the Iowa corn men's shirts. It was Holden started the corn shows of Iowa. Even young boys were worked up by this preacher Holden into a passion for better maize. He did an immense amount of good, did this lyrical Holden. Because of him farmers all over sweat to keep up the fertility of their land; that would make their corn ears bigger, more beautiful. Through Holden careless men began to have a care to select their seed corn earlier in the autumn, to dry it better, to coddle it, pamper it: that would give them a chance to win the sweepstakes at the corn show. By their kitchen stoves they sorted and mumbled over their corn ears while their lush land lay under its white blanket: this work would give them a finer stand of more uniform Reid Yellow Dent with which to take a shot at the Gold Medal next year. So the little scrubby eight-rowed Indian corn of the country was buried under a wave of millions of bushels of the bright yellow seed from Delavan—a wave started by Holden.
In these early nineteen hundreds things were jake for the Iowa men: the vigor of the maize sent the value of their soil up and up and if selling maize and pigs and cattle wasn't enormously profitable, selling the land that grew them certainly was excellent business . ... It brought cash for the trip to the Coast, for the boys and girls to take that two years' course at Aines, for one of those new-fangled autos, for all of the dozens of new things dirt-farmers now began to believe were necessities of life. In those days a thin boy whose face was too earnest for his age met the enthusiastic Holden. The boy was Henry A. Wallace, grandson of the famous Uncle Henry beloved of the prairie men. Henry was a town-boy, just out of knee-pants. He had grown up in Des Moines, the city that sits in a bowl surrounded in the summer by limitless gold-plumed armies of maize plants dressed in green. Since he'd first come to understand spoken words, this excessively serious boy—though no farmer—had watched the forests of maize give up their heavy ears out of land whose price went up and up, that brought more gold, brought prosperity. Corn could hardly help being the life of Henry Wallace, as it was of his land and his people.
In the office of the Wallace farm paper a boy's corn show was held that year: the distinguished Holden came across thirty flat miles from Ames College by the Skunk River to judge and pick out the very finest, heavy-yielding ears, to award the prizes. The boys crowded 'round the corn professor as he stalked judicially up and down between the beautifully arranged piles of ears of the Yellow Dent. Henry Wallace hung on every word of this learned Holden, believed him, adored him, only, there was this about young Wallace: out of his thin face too old for his age there glowered a pair of doubting gray eyes . ... Those eyes were out of place in a boy of seventeen. But Wallace listened to Holden.
Gravely, for the instruction of youth, that good man held up a great cylindrical ear that was not so good to his learned eye. "This ear, boys, shows a marked lack of constitution!" cried Holden. "And look at this one, for contrast," said he. "Observe its remarkably strong middle!" And such is the folly of teaching—that every boy, hypnotized, could do none other than see what Holden wanted him to see. Solemnly the professor judged and awarded the medal to the very finest ear of all those hundreds of ears of maize, pronounced it champion.
A mob of disappointed and happy farm boys straggled out of the room. Henry stayed. The professor unbent. "Now, young man, if you really want proof that I'm right, why don't you take thirty or so of the finest of these prize ears? Then next spring plant them! Plant them, one ear to a row of corn. Then harvest them next fall—and measure the yield of them." In words like these Holden stoked up young Wallace
Now there's no question that nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand boys would have said: "Thank you, sir, I'll try to do that,"—and would have then gone off and forgotten all about it when the sounds of bats against baseballs were heard that next spring. What the devil was the use, anyway, of proving that Professor Holden was right? Of course the finest looking ears must be the heaviest yielders! And there's no doubt whatever about the sincerity of Holden himself in his science of corn-judging. But the next spring Henry Wallace took those thirty-three fine ears, shelled them into separate piles, stuck them under the soil, four kernels to a hill, in thirty-three rows, one ear to a row, on a little piece of land his father gave him.
That summer he didn't forget to hoe this little insignificant corn patch. That autumn this too-solemn boy husked those thirty-three rows separately, never forgetting the labels on them. His tongue sticking intently out of the corner of his mouth, he shelled the ears, determined their dry weight as if he were some precocious analytical chemist. And here he sits, at night, covering sheet after sheet of ruled paper with figures that look like eighth-grade arithmetic: he is calculating the bushel-per-acre yield of the rows from those thirty-three ears.
The very finest ear of all, judged champion by Holden, gives a row that is one of the ten lowest yielders of all of those thirty-three. Wrinkles bunch up over Henry's glowering eyes.
And the rest? There he sits, puzzled among his sums. There's absolutely no rime or reason to the result of them. Professor Holden, bless him, might as well have gone around blindfolded at his judging exhibition, picking ears at random and calling them highest yielders by the feel of them! Alas—these ears with a sublime foolish topsy-turviness yielded all over the chart without any relation at all to the sage judgments of Holden.
It was insanity. It was wrong by all the rules. It was blasphemy and heresy for this believing boy. But it was the beginning of his strange life which, as you will see, was a mixture of farm-paper editing, figuring of statistics to prove that Iowa farmers get the dirty end of the rope, savage fighting for the rights of Iowa corn-belt men, theosophy and astrology, and backyard science. But here was the beginning of his backyard science. Seventeen-year-old Henry Wallace sits in his room, gray eyes glowering at his cold figures, chewing his pencil to wet, distracted slivers. ...
Here were these thirty-three ears of corn, graded by Holden, the highest authority, in an exact order of finer and finer ears, heavier and heavier yielders. But here they were: reducing that judgment to complete absurdity and buffoonery. They yielded all over Henry's chart, from thirty-three bushels to the acre for the worst to seventy-nine bushels to the acre for the finest. And some of the worst lookers were the best yielders!
Here was no school or college lesson in science for this high school boy. Here was real experience in science burning itself into the brain of Wallace; and from that day forward he stuck up his nose at mere beauty in an ear of corn, understood the truth of the salty saying: "You can't tell by the looks of a frog how far he can jump."
This yield test of the thirty-three ears seared a fundamental hunch into him: that this old saying holds for the yielding power of maize no less than for the acrobatics of frogs.
At the moment of this obscure experiment by a boy so young he had no business to be dabbling in science, the Iowa folks didn't yet have to feel bothered about just how much their corn would yield. Wallace, an experimenter ahead of the proper age, was also an experimenter ahead of his time. The value of the corn land went up and up: the boys could sell for two hundred dollars an acre what their fathers had bought for a song. Any old maize would do. Times were fat: the land was lush—with money: curve-dashed Oldsmobiles steered by a stick began to appear, and get themselves stuck in the Iowa gumbo.
But these days were nearing an end. Pretty soon tough times would be here, when the bushel-per-acre yield of the maize would be fundamental, when the up and up value of the black land would come to a peak and then fall down with a bang, when the vigor of the maize would be the one hope against debt, against the foreclosure of mortgages, against the loss of the land won by the fathers. In the old days the saying went: "The strength of a people is measured by their ability to overcome geographic barriers," That was past, accomplished by Daniel Boone and by Jake Leaming's father, by James Reid's grandfather and the great-grandfather of Henry Wallace—all of them had crossed the Alleghenies. The new saying would go:
"The new strength of a people must be measured by their ability to overcome economic barriers."
Here is Henry Wallace—never realizing it—going towards this new frontier, the barrier of hard times.
Here stand the delicate, vigorous, finicky trees of the maize, ready to help the corn-belt men. The value of this maize in a single year is far ahead of the value of wheat in several years. But even so how will the maize help the cornbelt men to trick hard times? By growing bigger and bigger yields of it on smaller fields? By lowering the cost of growing the maize that now has to be sold at such a pitifully small price because of its very abundance? Bigger yields on smaller fields—is that an out for the corn-belt men who are proud, and want to help themselves? Room they must have on their black land for other things besides corn: but as much corn they must grow as ever. Corn is basic, fundamental.
But who will fix the power of maize to yield high, this maize whose yield Henry Wallace found to be so shifting, so subtle, so out of all relation to the fine looks of it?
Who will pick one, or two, or three blood lines out of the thousands of traits of maize, and breed them to give always, surely, a record crop?
George Harrison Shull will try to do it, and Henry Wallace—in his backyard—will help him. To look at Shull you'd say there could be no more impractical man: he's only one of those dreaming botanizers. But here he comes, enormously practical in spite of his absent-minded mulling over theories. He arises—thousands of years after certain anonymous red men—as the first white breeder of maize.