240: Corn Lore

Corn was not only a staple crop for many Ozark hillfolk but was also an omen for future weather, medicine, and magic plant. Vance Randolph mentions many of these superstitions in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

Crops and Livestock

The best time to plant corn is when the oak leaves or the hickory buds, according to some hillmen are as big as squirrels’ ears. Some think that it is better to plant corn immediately after the first dove coos in the spring, or when the first martins appear, usually in late March or early April. There is an old saying that one should never plant corn the first two days of May, no matter what the circumstances or the weather. Corn never amounts to much if it is planted on one of the ‘blind days’ the day before the new moon, the day of the new moon, or the day following the new moon. If a man laughs loudly while planting corn, it is said that the grains on the cob will be irregular and too far apart. Many farmers plant corn in the dark of the moon. Roy Cole, of Taney county, Missouri, says that the light of the moon grows tall stalks and lots of top fodder, but mighty few ears of corn. Many hillfolk believe that corn is best planted in Scorpio, other things being equal.”

“A real old-timer never counts aloud the flowers or fruit on a tree, or the number of peas in a pod, or even the number of ears on a stalk of corn, because of an ancient notion that this counting may injure the crop.”

Household Superstitions

“Members of the older generation feel strongly that cornbread must be broken it is very bad luck to cut it with a knife. Some old-timers are much upset to see a stranger, even in a hotel, cut- ting cornbread. I have known several who refused to eat at the table where such a thing occurred but got up and left at once. A ‘furrin’ schoolmarm in McDonald county, Missouri, having her first meal at the boardinghouse, offended everybody by cutting a piece of cornpone. ‘Dang it, she’s sp’iled the bread!’ muttered one young man, jumping up from the table.”

“I know several families near Big Flat, Arkansas, who have a strange notion that one should never allow a piece of bread to fall upon the ground the idea is that to do so will somehow injure the next crop of corn.”

“In making vinegar from molasses and rain water, the Ozark housewife hastens fermentation by putting in nine grains of corn, which she names for the meanest, sourest persons of her acquaintance. This is usually regarded as a sort of joke, but I know many women who never fail to do it, even while they laugh at the idea that it really helps the vinegar. Mrs. C. P. Mahnkey, Mincy, Missouri, tells me that she never troubled to name the grains of corn, but was always careful to put in nine grains, no more and no less. It was mighty good vinegar too, she says.”

Mountain Medicine

“Some yarb doctors treat typhoid by administering large doses of slippery-elm ooze, forbidding the patient to eat any solid food, and finally building up a great smudge of corncobs under the bed.”

“Another application for sprains is a hot mixture of cornmeal and buttermilk, with a little bran stirred into it. A poultice made by boiling down the inner bark of black oak, stiffened with bran or sawdust, is said to reduce the swelling of sprains and bruises.”

“Corn-silk tea, made by steeping corn silks in very hot water, is said to cure bed wetting in children.”

The Power Doctors

“Some hillfolk prefer to lose their warts at a crossroad, or better still at a place where the road forks three ways. Take a grain of corn for each wart and place each grain in the road under a small thin stone. The warts will be taken over by the person or animal that moves the stones and uncovers the grains of corn.”

“An old man in Pineville, Missouri, told me as a great secret that he could cure any wart by squeezing a drop of blood out of it on a grain of corn and feeding the corn to a red rooster. According to another version of this story, it is best to rub the wart with two grains of corn, feed one to the rooster, and carry the other in your pocket. When you lose the grain from your pocket, the wart will be gone. The losing must be accidental, but that is not difficult; most cabins are full of rodents, and a grain of corn in the pocket of one’s overalls will soon ‘turn up missin’.’”

“As recently as 1942, in a modern hospital at Springfield, Missouri, a patient insisted upon treating his hiccoughs by naming three grains of corn for three friends, and then putting the corn into a vessel of water which was to be suspended above his head.”

Courtship and Marriage

“If the first corn silk you see in the summer is red, you will attend more weddings than funerals that year.”

Pregnancy and Childbirth

“In cases of difficult childbirth, many hillfolk burn corncobs on the doorstep, or even under the bed. There is an old story to the effect that red cobs are much more effective than white cobs, but this is not taken seriously. There is some connection, however, in the hillman’s mind, between corncobs and child- bearing. J once knew a fellow who was outraged because his wife gathered a great many red cobs and burned them in the fireplace at night; he thought that she did this because she was unwilling to have any more children.”

Ozark Witchcraft

“Many farmers treat witched cattle with a mixture of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt. The soot is the important ingredient, I think the bread and salt are just added to make the stuff palatable.”

Death and Burial

“Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist upon sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before the burial. This is done unobtrusively, without any noise or ceremony, and many whites have attended funerals where the rite was carried out without even noticing it. As the mourners shuffle past the body, here and there you see one drop a tiny pinch of meal into the coffin.”

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