The Hunger Fighters (1928)
Paul de Kruif

Chapter Six. The Maize Finders


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 corn-breeder 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 Zui 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 beinning 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 Reid 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 sharp-eyed 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.