Meet Vilas Jacks, local corn husking champion
By Karen Zach
Certainly, I’m not an expert in the farming world, but I know one of the most fun stories I’ve written relates to this topic. Several years ago, I was blessed to meet the son and granddaughter of Lawrence Pitzer who grew-up on a farm in Fountain County, won multiple state competitions and then became the National Corn Husking Champion in 1939. His family was so generous sharing information, letting me view his scrapbooks and making it possible for me to almost live the whole affair!
But that was next door. Little did I know until Bill Boone sent me articles and pictures that we had a state husking champion right in our midst and since corn season is wrapping-up, this makes for a perfect article today. This man was not born and raised here nor was he living here when he tallied his 24.41 bushels of husked corn in 80 minutes of allotted time to become Indiana’s 1938 Corn Husking Champion. However, he moved here in later life, retired here and became quite active in our community. So, we’re claimin’ him!!
Vilas Bussell Jacks was born in Jasper County, Indiana March 9, 1898, passing away shortly after his 82nd birthday at his home in Ladoga. His parents, William Edward and Matilda (Bussell) Jacks were farmers and had Hartwell, Elmer and Vilas, as well as Mary, Hazel, Florence and Lulu. Both parents and all his brothers and sisters were pure Hoosiers, born and raised here.
So, 83 years ago, on an exceptionally beautiful October 27th, 16 county husking champs joined the parade at the Newton County Farm and headed-up by the Kentland HS band, Novelist George Ade, Governor M. Clifford Townsend and Henry Schricker, State Agricultural Commissioner, some exhibit presenters and each of the contestants in his wagon, who then stopped at the lane for which they had previously drawn numbers, ending the big procession.
Don Thompson one of my favorite historians wrote an article on Vilas in 1978 in the Journal’s Historical Series and noted that throughout the day, airplanes took passengers up at the 1938 state competition in order to give them a birds-eye view of the scenes of the 16 corn huskers at work. Cornhusking championships had been going on for quite a number of years especially in the midwestern states, but in 1924, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska went together to form the first National Championship. By 1938 eight more had joined in and of course this including good ‘ol Indiana. Besides the airplanes, WLS Radio station had erected a high tower to broadcast as well as performances given during the day.
We have to keep in mind that the winner wasn’t just tallied from the number of bushels he husked but by the total net bushels after deductions for corn left in the field and husks left on the ears that had been tossed in their wagon. Vilas won but it was a super close race. 24.41 bushels was his final total and he was pushed to the limit by second place Edmund Puetz of Benton County (24.2 with more in total but Puetz’s deductions were second highest of the group).
Speaking of airplane rides, that was one of the winner’s winnings and Vilas had never been on a plane ride before. Pretty exciting to have won a first plane ride via winning your first state corn husking contest! Besides the ride, he won a gold medal and although Jacks wasn’t the oldest contestant (Gerd Ehler of Parke County was 44), he wasn’t a spring chicken at age 40. Edmund Puetz was close to half his age (21) and the youngest contestant. At 5’7 ½” and weighing in at 152 pounds, Vilas was small and really didn’t fit the bill of a great corn husker, but he proved ‘em wrong, defeating heavier and stronger contestants. His face and his comment (Lafayette Journal-Courier 28 Oct. 1938 p 1) to his children, “I’m so happy and we’ll try to win the National Contest,” kind of tells his joy!
The contest began promptly at noon and was over at 1:20 p.m. By 2:49 p.m. all results were tabulated and the awaiting trucks were filled to take the shucked corn away to the elevators. At the time of his great feat, Vilas lived with his wife, three daughters and a son on his mother’s farm plus had additional acreage. It wasn’t his first corn husking contest, as he had been in six county contests but it was his first try at the state level where he was tallied winner with about 60,000 fans viewing that exciting competition!
After the contest, Vilas returned home, working, raising a family, involved in Church and other local activities, particularly being involved in Farm Bureau Coops, serving on the board of directors for both Jasper and Montgomery Counties, as well as on boards for Red Cross and Council of the Aging. His first wife, Lillian Waling passed away in 1959; his second marriage in 1965 was to Marguerite “Kay” Oliver, who survived him, along with his son, Don and two daughters, Vivian and Kathryn, as well as step children, several grands and great grandchildren. His daughter, Phyllis preceded him in death. Vilas passed on March 28, 1980 in Ladoga of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer my father suffered from for several years. His family asked for cash memorials wanting to be donated to go to the Cancer Fund.
I can imagine the rest he must have needed after that strenuous 80 minutes of corn husking and now, he is enjoying his final well-deserved rest in Oak Hill Cemetery with Lillian and other fellow farmers!
Karen Zach is the editor of Montgomery Memories, our monthly magazine all about Montgomery County. Her column, Around the County, appears each Thursday in The Paper of Montgomery County. You can reach her at Karen@ thepaper24-7.com.