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Corn Picker Bob - from collecting to compiling a book

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

Bob Johnson's taste in tractors and equipment always leaned toward John Deere. The first time he drove home a different colored piece of equipment, a Massey-Harris self-propelled corn picker, his daughter said, "Who are you and what have you done with my dad?"

Now he has 25 corn pickers of all different makes, mostly one row pickers because they are easier to haul and easier to hook up to a tractor and pick corn.

Phyllis and Bob Johnson, of rural Sycamore, Ill. stand by one of Bob's 25 corn pickers in his collection.

His fascination with corn pickers started with an old John Deere picker he bought at an auction. After he brought it home, his dad told Bob he once owned a picker just like that. 

"It's a possibility it might have been my dad's picker," said Bob. 

His interest and collection just increased from there. 

"They are just simple machines that were so important to farmers," Bob said. "Just hearing stories from my dad and my grandpa, having to pick corn by hand and how grateful they were that they came out with a successful corn picker."

For 20 years, Bob, of rural Sycamore, Ill., collected corn picker sales literature and corn pickers. His wife, Phyllis, kidded about putting the information together into a book, mostly so the information wouldn’t get lost or “permanently borrowed.”  

"I don't think I took her seriously at first, but she saw what I was doing and said, you ought to write a book," Bob explains. "I thought it was going to be a book with some pictures and sales literature, but Phyllis really took over and if it wasn't for her, the book probably wouldn't have gotten done."

Dale Deno of Appleton, Wis., who collects Appleton Mfg. Co. equipment, even though the company founders moved to Illinois, was lucky enough to find an extremely rare picker in Illinois and has restored it.

After two years of intense research, writing and layout, the book was done and they found a local printer. The book - a massive 804 page, 6.5 pound, all-color book containing more than 1,500 color pictures, graphs and images, "Corn Pickers and the Inventors Who Dreamed Them Up," sold out 125 copies in two days at the Half Century of Progress last August. Another 372 copies sold out before Christmas. Phyllis and Bob are still in shock.

Both Bob and Phyllis have a passion for history. Phyllis took that passion and skills as a previous newspaper reporter and dug up history on companies, the struggles of the inventors of the early patents, "just a lot of side stories," said Bob. 

They thought maybe the interest in corn pickers wouldn't be there, at least not enough for someone to want to buy the book. With the size of the book, they knew it wouldn't be cheap — $135 — but so far they have sold more than 600 books. 

The book, “Corn Pickers and the Inventors Who Dreamed Them Up,” tells the story of corn pickers from the earliest patents in 1850, to the the major manufacturers of the 1970s.

Along the journey of compiling the book, they met many people, made new friends, travelled across the midwest, heard stories and gathered photos. People know Bob as Corn Picker Bob. 

"For about 10 years before we put the book together, we'd go ask people if they had any stories," Phyllis explained. 

Unfortunately, many of the stories were about injuries from corn pickers.

"We didn't want to center around that. We do have a safety chapter, so it touches on some of those injuries, but we didn't want to overload the whole book with all kinds of sad stories," Phyllis added. "We wanted it to be happy stories."

They collected funny stories, great memories of picking corn, stories from farmers, but also pictures of their old corn pickers. 

They found a picture of a McCormick-Deering picker at a World's Fair.

A young man brought his grandfather to see the Great American corn picker in Bob's collection, only a few are know to exist, Phyllis said. 

The elderly gentleman walked around the corn picker, cane in one hand, the other patting the picker, confirming that his memories as a young boy were correct. He pointed to a gearbox on the picker that he had helped his dad develop in his shop. 

New Idea's first corn picker from 1926 was the first to use power take off, using John Powell's invention.

Most farmers have not heard of the Great American corn picker, Bob explained. Instead of gathering chains, it had spinning paddles. He didn’t know why there were only a few made.

Behind every corn picker was an inventor, men, even a woman in the late 1800s, who had an idea. While there were many success stories, there were a lot who couldn't get funding, or couldn't make the picker work or couldn't get factories that would build the corn picker.

"We have lots and lots of early patent pictures," Phyllis said.  

It wasn't until the mid 1870s that the equipment started to look "a little bit like a corn picker," Bob said. 

People have asked Bob and Phyllis who the first major manufacturer of corn pickers was in their opinion.

"We had to give it to Deering, not McCormick-Deering, just plain Deering," said Bob. 

One of Bob and Phyllis Johnson's favorite chapters of the book contains the Neighbors Helping Neighbors section, along with many stories of favorite family stories from all over the country.

The book is packed full of history, providing younger generations with a glimpse back at the evolution of picking corn.

Traveling the Midwest, they've made many friends and were surprised at the different variations of corn cribs they've seen, prompting another book, basically a picture book, that should be done before Christmas. 

Bob still raises corn and beans and delivers mail as a rural mail carrier to many of the farmers he knows. Most of the corn pickers in his collection are lined up in their front yard, since they don't have room to store them all inside. 

"We get a lot of people that stop and look at them," said Bob. "It’s kind of nice they’re not inside, because I have people call me up later. … We see tracks where people come up and look at them. Maybe in a way it’s better that they aren’t stored."

Bob enjoys going to shows, like the Half Century of Progress show, and harvesting shows. Lately he's been too busy talking to people about corn pickers at the shows to "go out and pick with friends," "try the pickers and have some fun."

While Bob has accumulated corn pickers over the years, Phyllis has collected about 30 walking plows. 

"A lot of people call her the plow lady," said Bob. "We’re kind of a different couple, but we’re still having fun after 42 years of marriage."

For more information on the book, visit CornPickerBook.com or call or text Bob at 815-761-3709.