Detasseling: A summer job

Photo from Pam Urfer


Summer jobs are a rite of passage for many high schoolers.

One I had in the late 1970’s was particularly memorable – detasseling corn. It was probably the most physically challenging work I have ever done. Although it was brutal, the hours were long, and we worked in all kinds of conditions, there were also many rewards.

Detasseling is the process of yanking the tassels off the tops of the corn plants. Why would you want to do that? So that different varieties can hybridize (cross-pollinate) to develop a better yield, be more hardy, or whatever the desired characteristic the seed company wanted.

Quite a few high school boys signed up for the job, but I was the only girl. For some reason, I wasn’t allowed to ride on the boy’s bus and instead rode a co-ed bus that ran from Brownstown to Altamont with several stops in between.

The meeting place was the high school, I believe 5:30am each morning. That meant I had to be up, get breakfast and get out of the house by 5:15. Although I didn’t live far, I had my driver’s license and even five extra minutes of sleep was heaven.

Once on the bus, the ride was probably an hour or so to whatever field we were working that day. The next time you drive by a corn field, look at how long it is and imagine what it is like walking down rows that are higher than your head, sun beating down, and not a breath of fresh air. Oh, and you are reaching up with each step to pull tassels off the plants.

Lunchtime would find us sprawled under a tree or the shade of the bus. Spam sandwiches weren’t uncommon and believe me, after five or six hours of work, one sandwich wasn’t nearly enough.  Then it was back to work for the afternoon. Days could be 10 hours or so long, and by the time I got home I would be starving again. Then, not long after dinner, exhaustion would send me off to bed. I had to put the alarm clock on the other side of the room to drag myself out of bed in the morning do it all over again the next morning. 

This went on for two weeks straight. If you worked every day, you got paid a bonus at the end. I was determined to get that bonus, but fate was working against me. One morning, I went out to get in the car and saw it had a flat tire. As luck would have it, I was running late that day, and it was already time for the bus to arrive. There was no way I could make it to the school on time.

As I sat on the back steps, seeing my dreams for the extra money dissolving, I heard something. It sounded like a bus. Sure enough, into sight comes the old yellow school bus, pulling up to my house!  Would you believe that some of my new friends – from Vandalia – knew where I lived and talked the bus driver into picking me up? So I got the bonus after all.

We worked in ALL conditions – the field could be wet from rain, wet from dew, it could be raining or it could be stifling hot. Some mornings it was positively chilly. Walking down the rows, brushing against the corn, you could end up with cuts from head to toe. We worked at least one field with MILE-long rows. A lot of people dropped out because it was so demanding.

In the end, I earned my bonus, got an awesome tan, developed some muscle, and made some new friends. We also got an important job done and proved that we had what it takes to detassel corn. After that, we were confident we could do anything!

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