It would be difficult to over-emphasise the importance of corn on the Virginia frontier — or any American frontier, for that matter. One indication of its central role in the life of the trans-Allegheney pioneers is how often in their daily language references to corn were used to mark the passing of the seasons: Spring was corn-planting time; mid-summer was the time of laying-by; late summer was the time of fodder-pulling; fall, after the frost, was time of corn gathering. Finer distinctions of the season were marked by references to corn being in the silk, or knee-high, or in the milk, or topped. Or by the cornfield beans being not yet uncrooked.
On the frontier corn was, almost more than anything else, the basis of life. It yielded several successive harvests: green corn in early August was picked as whole ears and, still in the husks, roasted in coals and eaten off the cob, like our sweet-corn. Later, while fully formed, but still soft, it went directly into soups and stews, along with beans, squash, pumpkin and meat. Once dried and hardened, it was either grated into a coarse meal right off the cob, or shelled and ground into meal using a small stone handmill, corn pounder or hominy block. Corn-meal served as the all-purpose frontier flour: mush, pone, dodgers, fritters, slap-jacks, hominy, rokahominy, cornbread, gritted bread. And corn could be parched, for long keeping or long journeys.
Corn served also as feed for horses, cows, pigs, chickens, when there was enough of it and winter had set in. Before land was cleared, or was still too stumpy for hay, the only available fodder might be corn-stalks. (Once that was gone, there was only “long fodder”, the scarcely palatable tips of shrubbery and tree limbs).
And finally there was that clear nectar fit for the gods, corn whiskey — ambrosia with a kick.
Corn could be grown where no other grain stood a chance: in deep forest among girdled trees. It would outstrip any type of undergrowth, rising faster and standing taller than all the competition, and it carried the beans up with it. With the ears held well above the reach of turkeys and most small mammals, and each ear wrapped and down-hanging to shed the rain or snow, corn could survive conditions that would destroy any other grain. And better than grain, corn could be stored and kept easily in frontier cabins, hanging from the rafters, lasting the winter and well into the next season
For the past two years at Pricketts Fort, we have grown Seneca Red Stalker, which was collected from the Seneca Indians by a gentleman from New England in the 1820s. This year we are trying a scarcer strain, donated to us by Mr Jas. Jacobs, proprietor of Blue Heron Mercantile. It is Lenape Blue Corn, which he obtained through a society of seed savers to which he belongs. It appears to be a more archaic strain than the Red Stalker, having only 8 rows instead of the more modern 15 rows that Red Stalker has.
Outwardly, the stalks are much less striking than the deep purple stalks and ears of Red Stalker. The Lenape Blue Corn has stalks, leaves and ears as green as any contemporary corn, but the the corn itself is such a deep blue it appears jet black.
So far (knock on wood) the harvest appears promising. The stalks are covered in beans (Lenape Black Beans, also supplied by Mr. Jacobs), ears are well-formed, two to a stalk, and the ground is a sea of gourd, squash and pumpkin vines. Our only precaution against the depradations of racoon and deer is an old Shawnee curse uttered at high noon in the heart of the cornfield on alternate Thursdays, and so far it seems to have worked. We shall see.
Arnow, Harriette Simpson. Seedtime on the Cumberland. NY: The Macmillan Company, 1960.
Bowman, M.L. Corn: Growing, Judging, Breeding, Feeding, Marketing. Waterloo, Iowa: The Waterloo Publishing Company, 1908.
Fussel, Betty. The Story of Corn: The Myths and History, The Culture and Agriculture, The Art and Science of America’s Quintessential Crop. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Giles, Betty. Singing Valleys: The Story of Corn. NY: Random House, 1940.