116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Farmers’ Almanac says “knee high by the Fourth of July” is an adage farmers once used to gauge how their corn crop was doing.
If the corn plants had reached knee high by the Fourth, it signaled a good yield at the end of the growing season.
Some sources trace the saying to colonial times. But it’s been out of date for most of the past century, except for those years marked by drought or too much rain.
Through the years
One of the earliest times the “knee-high” saying appeared in an Eastern Iowa newspaper was in the July 3, 1884, Sumner Gazette.
“It has been considered that if corn was knee high by the Fourth of July that the crop was sure and safe,” the paper said. “According to that rule, most of the corn will get there.”
Ten years later, The Gazette reported corn was mostly weed-free and would be well past knee-high on the Fourth, adding, “There will be very few fields indeed that will not be well up the sides of the horses by that date.”
Mount Vernon-area farmers were reporting corn at least knee-high by July 3, 1927. That edition of The Gazette also published tips on how to patch farmers’ coveralls if they were snagged on barbed wire fences.
1930s drought years
Most of the Midwest was in a drought in early July 1931. Ten people died in Cedar Rapids during a nine-day heat wave. The dry, hot conditions continued through August. Spotty and intermittent rain came too little, too late to save the crops.
It was a pattern that would continue through the most of the “Dust Bowl” decade.
In January 1936, near constant blizzards left 15 feet of snow on the ground. But after the spring thaw, no substantial rain fell for the rest of the year in most of Iowa. While the north-central and northeast sections of the state had a harvest, 35 southern and western Iowa counties qualified for drought aid.
Black Hawk County native and author James Hearst wrote about the swirling dust of 1934-1936,
“The dust settled so thickly on the pastures that the cattle would not eat, and cows and calves, and steers wandered about bawling their hunger.
“We found it hard to believe. We all knew about dust storms in the dry plains of the Southwest, but for drought and wind and dust to sweep, like a plague, over the fertile fields of Black Hawk County, Iowa, seemed a bad dream.”
Rainy, cold 1945
By 1945, rainy, cold weather had stunted field corn growth, and it took a Gazette photographer a while to find some knee-high corn.
He finally did on the D.D. Liebe farm, 1½ miles east of Marion — where he took a memorable picture — and another stand near Van Horne in Benton County.
Whose corn is best?
Corn producers had some fun in 1975, when the Cedar Rapids-Marion Area Chamber of Commerce asked mayors of Iowa’s 99 county seat cities to donate seed packets to see which county’s corn would grow the tallest.
Mayors from 36 county seat towns responded.
“We’re just doing this for fun, and we’re pleased with the response,” contest Chairman Allen Peterson said. “Some mayors wrote notes, saying it had been ages since they’d heard of a tall corn contest.”
One mayor wrote on his packet entry, “Better get out the cultivator when you plant this seed.”
Kirkwood Community College teamed with the chamber, setting aside a half-acre of ground to plant a sample of each county’s seeds.
Representatives from Kirkwood’s ag department planted the seeds the week of May 10.
“Most of the tall corn in the Mayor’s Tall Corn Contest plots at Kirkwood Community College will be knee-high by the Fourth of July,” Gazette farm editor Al Swegle reported. “We all know Iowa is the tall corn state.”
After some research, contest officials discovered that a Washington County farmer had grown corn 31 feet tall in the 1930s.
“Contest officials are watching to see if Washington Mayor Harold L. Johnson holds up the Washington County tradition,” Swegle reported.
Wright County’s corn was already knee high by June 10, according to Peterson. By July 4, the leading county was Franklin, with 48-inch-tall corn. Close behind was Hardin County at 46 inches.
The contest ended Aug. 26. Independence Mayor Robert Blakesley won with Buchanan County’s corn that measured 10 feet, 9 inches.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Robert Lounsberry presented plaques to Blakesley and the runners-up. Dakota City Mayor John R. Greene won second place for Humboldt County’s 9 feet, 10 inches, and Waukon Mayor Ralph D. Grotegut came in third with Allamakee County’s 9 feet, 7 inches.