The conception of cornhusking as a sport rather than a chore sprang from the fertile brain of Henry Agard Wallace. As editor of Wallace's Farmer, President Roosevelt's Secretary of Agriculture decided in 1924 that U. S. farmers needed an indigenous sport. First major corn-husking contest, for the championship of Iowa, was promoted by him and watched by 800 people. By 1928 the Wallace tournament had become the U. S. championship and National Broadcasting Co. thought it worth describing. By 1930 champion cornhuskers from nine Corn Belt States were entered and the crowd had swelled to 30,000. Since then corn-husking has been the fastest growing sporting spectacle in the world. Last year, at Newtown, Ind., 110,000 spectators were on hand when Elmer Carlson of Audubon, Iowa, set the incredible record of 41½ bushels in 80 minutes, through the fat rows of Leslie Mitchell's farm. TIME magazine, Nov. 23, 1936.
The farm where this national event was held in 1935 is less than a mile, as the crow flies, from where we now handle millions of bushels of corn. There is no doubt that technology has drastically improved the process by which corn is shelled! Still, at Newtown Farm Service, and other hometown gathering spots, the nostalgia and stories of days gone by can be seen and heard from those who grew up learning the tales firsthand.
Another farm just across the field from NFS hosted the 1932 state corn husking contest, and boasted local farmer Lawrence Pitzer as the winner. He was amongst the five top national finishers in 1935 as they shucked to new world’s records. In 1939, Pitzer won the national contest held in Kansas in a town fittingly named Lawrence.
In Newtown today, there is one church, a post office, American Legion post, and a bandstand where crowds gathered regularly years ago to hear well-known performers. As is the case in many small towns, businesses like the bank, grocery store, and auto dealership that once graced the skyline have gone by the wayside. Indiana, matching the overall U.S. trend, continues to lose farms and farm acreage as well, while the average farm sizes are increasing. The same holds true for Fountain County, where the average farm size increased from 133 to 372 acres over a 67 year period, but the number of farms dropped by almost 1200 during that time.
It's really quite remarkable that today one family, and one operation, stays independently steadfast despite the ongoing trend that leads to extinction of a local presence. It’s a stark testament to the realities of this business, and the changes in agriculture during the past 40 years.
Russell Fruits grew up on a farm near Alamo, Indiana and married his high-school sweetheart Shirley Walp. He served four years in the U.S. Navy and then attended Indiana University. While raising a family and upon graduating he took a job with fertilizer dealer Agrico. Subsequently they were transferred between five states in 10 years before settling “back home again” in Indiana. The original feed mill was purchased in August 1968, when son Jeff began learning the business at age 13. Along the way Newtown Farm Service (and the Fruits family!) has grown by leaps and bounds.