Corn, sometimes called maize, covers Texas chronology from prehistoric to present times. Tripsacoid (Tripsacum and teosinte) cobs, close relatives of corn, have been found in caves in the Hueco Mountains; the chapalote corn race existed in pre-Spanish Texas. Spanish explorers of the early 1500s found Indians growing corn in East Texas, and the Spanish carried on corn culture at the Rio Grande valley settlements and the Texas missions. They ate the grain as a basic ingredient in tortillas, tamales, posole, and atole.
Texas aborigines were major transmitters of prehistoric corn culture from Mexico to the lands that make up the eastern half of the United States. Centuries later the corn-hog-cotton (and wheat) agriculture from the South was fully reborn in Texas. Small farmers, planters, and slaves seeded their corn in rows, cultivated it with hoes, plows, horses, mules, and oxen, and cut and shocked the maturing crop. They held countless shucking frolics, or bees, and ground the kernels by water and horse-powered mills or hand-operated grinders. Much as they had done in the old South, these newcomers to the Mexican province, the Lone Star republic, and eventually the state of Texas ate the bountiful grain as roasting ears, cornbread, mush, hominy and hominy grits, parched corn, dodgers, pone, hoecake, pudding, porridge, popcorn, and fritters, and in other forms. They consumed it with pork, beef, wild game, and molasses, and washed it down with corn whiskey. They also fed it to their livestock as grain, fodder, and ensilage. For well over a century, corn was a major source of human food and the number-one feed crop.
Corn is an extremely versatile plant. Texans used cobs for jug and bottle stoppers, smoking pipes, tool handles, corn shellers, back scratchers, torches, fishing floats, and, most importantly, firewood and meat-smoking fuel. Corn and corn liquor served as a medium of exchange. For example, settlers each paid Stephen F. Austin ten to twenty bushels of the grain annually to cover the expenses of their deputy to the Mexican Congress, Erasmo Seguín. Shucks or husks served as writing paper, wrapping for foods such as tamales, sausages, ash cakes, and fruits, and mattress and pillow stuffing. Even the stalks and leaves had multiple uses. Settlers used them as sub-roofing, roof thatching, scarecrows, light fencing, erosion stoppage, and emergency material for the construction of shelter.
The corn plant was more than an economic necessity to Texans; it was an integral part of their way of life. Shucking bees were a major component of social life during the nineteenth century. Corn dolls, uses of the grain in games, the prevalence of whiskey-drinking sprees and corncob fights, and the references to corn in language, humor, literature, music, and poetry attest to the importance of the versatile plant as a cultural ingredient.
Until recent years the principal area of corn growing in Texas was the eastern half, where rainfall and soil conditions were most favorable. During the middle of the nineteenth century corn was the dominant grain crop. Texas produced over six million bushels, twenty-five times as much as all other grain crops combined, in 1849. In 1859 the figure was over sixteen million bushels of corn, more than six times the total of all other grains.
Corn made substantial gains on cotton acreage during the Civil War. The Confederate government encouraged production of more corn and less cotton, since the former was critically needed as food for the war effort and the cotton crop could not be readily marketed through the Union naval blockade. After the war, and for the century and more since, the relative importance of corn declined in Texas because of the resurgence of cotton, vast increases in wheat production, and more recently a shift to other feed grains such as sorghum (see SORGHUM AND SORGHUM CULTURE) and soybeans. As opposed to cotton and wheat, most of the state's corn crop goes to local consumption, primarily as livestock feed on the farms where it is produced.
In 1913 Texas planted some seven million acres in corn and harvested an average of twenty-one bushels per acre. The acres had dropped to a low of 500,000 in the mid-1970s. However, the development of new hybrids increased plantings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1980 feed-corn acres reached one million. Commercial sweet corn added 1,800 acres in that year, although it should be noted that thousands of additional acres of sweet corn are grown annually in home gardens. Improved strains, more scientific cultivation and fertilization, and expansion of irrigation increased yields of corn in Texas from 10 to 25 bushels an acre during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to 90 to 120 bushels in 1975–80.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Collin, Williamson, Fannin, and Guadalupe counties led the state in corn production. Thirty years later the record producers were Williamson, Lavaca, Bell, Collin, Falls, and Hill counties. By the early 1980s the pattern had shifted dramatically to irrigated lands in the High Plains of the western Panhandle, where Parmer, Castro, Hale, Lamb, and Deaf Smith counties were in the forefront. In the late 1970s corn ranked third in cash receipts among the crops of Texas. By the early 1980s it placed fourth, behind cotton, wheat, and sorghum grain.
Over the last 100 years technology has completely altered the corn culture of Texas. Gasoline-powered tractors, gang plows and harrows, multiple-row planters, pesticides, herbicides, and mechanical corn pickers have banished the old equipment to antique stores and museums, while farms have declined sharply in number and grown in size. Change has been the rule in varieties and uses of corn, in geographical areas of production, and in mechanization. The one constant element has been the great and continued importance of the golden grain to the economy of Texas.