Watch the Corn Grow

Community comes together to husk and eat corn for the annual Adel Corn Festival.

By Craig Summers Black

Photography by Dan Brouillette


Adel Corn FestivalThe goateed undertaker wheeled his shiny black Harley past the town square of tiny Adel, Iowa, remembering what he had told city officials:

“As long as I don’t have a funeral, I’ll be there.”

So here he was, ready to lead a group of volunteers—whoever would happen to show up on this 91-degree Friday evening—to shuck a load of corn—7 1/2 tons of it. That’s approximately 16,200 cobs.
The corn itself is to be served up the next day to the 10,000 people who show up every year for the Adel Sweet Corn Festival, an annual event with the sole purpose of giving hot buttered fresh corn to whoever wants it.

This is funeral director Steve McCalley’s 17th year peeling, twisting, and snapping the green from the gold.

“This is probably my favorite part of the whole weekend,” he says. “Doctors, lawyers, funeral directors, residents of the county home—all standing side by side. A picture of this husking should be in the dictionary under ‘Community.’”

McCalley too is a volunteer, so dedicated that the Corn Fest has tended to take precedence over his anniversary for almost 2 decades.

“One year I got the band to make an announcement to my wife. It got me out of the doghouse.”

Despite the heat and the labor, the shuckers’ mood is light, jovial even. This is their idea of fun.

“Faster! Faster!” McCalley shouts, laughing.

“Hey, how many dead bodies you have in there,” a chamber official yells at him.

“Hey,” McCalley responds, “I’m empty!”

Three hours later, the corn on the cob is put in the refrigerated trailer, waiting for the line to form in front of the huge boiler Saturday morning.

But first: the parade!

The rules for being a part of the parade are as stringent as the requirements for volunteers. There are none. You want to be in the parade, you’re in the parade. Just line up with the others and wait for the group in front of you to start walking.

Like all small-town parades in Iowa, this one begins with someone carrying the American flag. Then a group of people carrying flags. Then more flags.

The ponytailed mayor sails by in a Mercedes convertible. Kids riding with the volunteer firefighters spray the crowd with water. The crowd claps to the high-school fight song. Go, Marching Tigers!
And then young Corbin Zahrt and his friends arrive sitting on a tatty couch seated on a flatbed filled with … what?

“It’s just random things we had lying around our barn,” he says. “And this old TV. And the Xbox. We’re going to play Halo.”