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Family treasure brought back home

Corn sheller returns to family farm after 44 years

By Faith Anderson

We’ve all heard stories of pets that travel hundreds of miles to find their way back home... but a corn sheller? This summer, with a little help and a lot of luck, a Minneapolis Moline corn sheller, once belonging to the Lesmeister family came back home to their farmstead near Morris after being gone for 44 years.

Chuck Lesmeister stands beside the 58 year old corn sheller customized by his father, Leonard Lesmeister. Recently, Chuck located the equipment in southern Minnesota and brought it back to the Lesmeister farmstead. He plans to restore it to working condition in the next few years.

Chuck Lesmeister was just a youngster back in 1963 when his father, Leonard, drove nearly 150 miles to Hopkins to pick up the brand new Minneapolis Moline 1200 corn sheller. It was to replace one that was used in the family’s shelling business which served hundreds of area corn farmers over the years. Leonard, his wife and seven children farmed 800 acres and raised livestock, but he considered the corn shelling business his family’s bread and butter. This side business, charging four or five cents a bushel, served to stabilize the income of the family of nine. It also meant hard work for those who helped on the crew.

Back at home on his farm north of Morris, Leonard mounted the brand new sheller on the back of a 1949 International farm truck. Not only was it attached to the truck but he rigged it so that it got its power from the truck’s gas engine that could be controlled from the rear of the truck.

“He was a real innovator,” said Chuck. “He could figure out how to fix or build anything.”

Today, most people harvest their corn with a combine and have no need for a sheller. But before that, farmers would go through a cornfield, pulling an implement that would harvest the ears of corn.

Originally Leonard Lesmeister was in partnership with his brother, Eugene, who is pictured here beside the rig the two of them owned. Contributed photo

It was common for a farmer who didn’t have their own sheller to hire a crew to provide the service once a year at his site. The corn sheller would separate and pile the empty cobs and dry husks and auger the kernels into a grain truck on the other side of the machine. The shelled corn was then taken to a grain elevator and sold. The Lesmeisters also owned three 300-bushel grain trucks, enabling them to complete the process for the farmer.

It was definitely a family business for the Lesmeisters. Sometimes with only a day’s notice they’d take off for a farmstead in the Morris area but also as far away as Starbuck and Benson. No matter the time of year, corn shelling was a dusty, dirty job, and as a youngster, Chuck spent many hours in corn cribs making sure the ears continued to flow.

“Dad always ran the sheller and sometimes my mom and I, with other part-time help, were the grain truck drivers on the crew,” said Chuck. “Mom would drive from the farm and stop when she’d meet me coming back from the elevator. We’d switch trucks and she’d go back to the farm for another load and I’d continue to the elevator again. I don’t think she liked driving a full load into those narrow elevator entrances.” Many of the small town elevators were built for wagons pulled by horses, so the openings weren’t very wide.

Corn cribs have all but disappeared from the rural landscape but were important structures for storing ear corn on farms in the Midwest. Although some were made of wood, wire mesh structures like that pictured here were quite commonly used. Corn cribs were well ventilated to allow air flow, and had sloping roofs to keep rain out. History tells us that early European settlers learned about storing corn from native Americans who built simple corn cribs. Contributed photo

In February of 1969, Chuck and their crew were shelling corn for a farmer near Alberta, Minnesota. The day wore on and snow began to fall while the crew ate lunch. They had hoped to finish up and get home before the impending storm hit, but that wasn’t to be. The crew spent the next three days snowed in at the farm site. “On the third day, we just couldn’t take it anymore,” said Chuck. “So my brother-in-law, Sonny, and I took off walking the six or seven miles to Morris.” It was a calm day but the temperature was 30 degrees below zero. They knew that Sonny’s wife was home milking their cows by hand because the storm had knocked out their electricity. “We had to do something,” Chuck explained. “That’s one shelling job I’ll never forget.”

In 1977, Chuck’s dad sold the corn sheller to a couple of young farmers from Long Prairie. “I can’t say I was sad to see it go,” said Chuck. “For me, it represented years of hard, dusty work. But my dad had tears in his eyes that day when it left the farm.”

Chuck thought he’d seen the last of the old rig until one day five or six years later when he spotted it on an implement lot in Long Prairie. “We were on our way up north to snowmobile, and as we passed that lot I saw the old truck with our sign still painted on the door,” said Chuck. Every year for five more years, he’d look for it on the lot as they passed through town. Sometimes he’d tell himself that he really should stop and just see what they wanted for the old piece, but he never did. Then, one year it was gone. He stopped by the empty lot to find out where the sheller had gone and who might have bought it, but the owner of the property had no information for him.

Just before he sold it in 1977, Leonard Lesmeister posed by his customized 1963 Minneapolis Moline corn sheller, mounted on a 1949 International truck. The sign painted on the door reads: Leonard Lesmeister and Son, Corn Shelling and Hauling, Morris. Contributed photo

Chuck didn’t really think about the sheller again until one day in September of last year when he got a call from Joe Brueske from Plainview, Minnesota. “He told me he had something that I might be interested in,” said Chuck. The Brueske family owned a seed corn business known as Mallard Seed and had used the equipment to shell their harvested corn for their hybrid seed company. They were cleaning out a farm site, selling items and hauling others away to sell as scrap iron. The old truck still had the Lesmeister name on the door, and an internet search produced a list of people with that last name. At the top of the list was ‘Charles Lesmeister,’ so he was the first person called. What a surprise! Without much hesitation Chuck offered to pay $400, which was the estimated scrap iron price. A gentleman’s agreement was reached, and Chuck began planning just how he would get the 11,400-pound implement home.

This past July, Chuck hitched up his implement trailer and made the 311-mile trip to southern Minnesota by himself. It turned out the sheller had been stored in an old shed that had been blown down in a wind storm that took the building and left the truck and sheller mostly unharmed. But it certainly was showing its age. The tires were shot and so was the engine. Some metal parts had rusted away. But Chuck still wanted it because he knew it would be good to return his dad’s creation back to the home place where Chuck grew up and where he and his wife, Laurie, now live.

The sign painted on the door of the 1949 International Truck has withstood the test of time. Contributed photo

After loading the equipment on his trailer, Chuck left Plainview at 8 p.m., traveling at 50 mph, white knuckled all the way. He encountered unusually heavy traffic and a detour that brought him to the freeway. At 10:30 p.m., traveled through the Lowry Tunnel in downtown Minneapolis, and continued north toward home. “It was slow going,” said Chuck, “but I finally made it home at 2:45 a.m. the next morning. I was never so glad to pull into our yard.”

Chuck’s next goal is to have the truck and sheller up and running at the Donnelly Threshing Bee in a few years. “I’ll start with the tires, replace the motor and work my way through the whole thing,” Chuck said optimistically as he looked at the sign painted on the door of the truck. “I’ll get it working again…I know I can!”

It seems as though Chuck may have inherited his dad’s inclination toward innovation and hard work. “It’s in his genes,” said Marilyn Mathias, Chuck’s sister from Dumont. “I’m sure he’ll get it running again.”

If you had driven by Chuck and Laurie’s place this summer, you would have seen the old corn sheller rig sitting on the hill overlooking the Lesmeister farm site. Parked next to it was a blue 1949 Chevy truck, one of the grain trucks that for years worked alongside the Minneapolis Moline corn sheller. There they sat on the top of the hill, side by side, like a reunion of two old buddies coming home after decades apart.

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