Corn husk mat made in Wisconsin and used by the Bakke family of Iowa. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum object # 1977.096.001.

“Large quantities of corn husks are wasted every year, which might be made useful in many ways.”

An article in the 1874 issue of the journal American Agriculturalist offered instructions for making indoor and outdoor floor mats from braided corn husks, a ubiquitous byproduct in farming communities throughout the United States. This use of corn husks as a craft medium dates back many centuries, if not millennia, in the Americas.

The Krueger family of Watertown, Wisconsin husking corn, ca. 1903. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-1896.

The unidentified Wisconsin woman who made this mat, now in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, elevated this humble form to a more decorative level through a complex pattern of concentric circles and waves. The mat was donated to Vesterheim by the daughter of the original owner, Martha Aaker Bakke, who used it in her Iowa home. According to family history, Bakke acquired the mat around 1906 from “an elderly lady who lived on a farm near Stoughton (or Koshkonong), Wisconsin, and was from Norway or of Norwegian descent. The maker was about 80 years of age and had made a number of mats in her lifetime.”

Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover the identity of the thrifty and talented woman who made this intricately patterned mat. A note in the Vesterheim files indicating that the maker’s daughter was a “Mrs. Gjerset” did not turn up any results in census records or other genealogy resources.

However, it is possible to reconstruct the story of the mat’s use by Martha Bakke and her family. Bakke was born Martha Aaker in the rural community of Pleasant Springs, Dane County, Wisconsin in 1869, the oldest daughter of Norwegian immigrants Etling (or Elling) and Anna Aaker. The Aakers were one of hundreds of families who left Norway and established farms in southeastern Dane County in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1885, the family relocated from Pleasant Springs to a much larger farm in nearby Dunkirk.

In 1891, 22-year-old Martha married Iowa native John Bakke and left Wisconsin for Winneshiek County, Iowa. According to family history, she acquired the mat in the Stoughton area around 1906—fifteen years after moving to Iowa. Perhaps she purchased it during a visit to her parents’ home in Wisconsin. According to Bakke’s daughter, who later used it in her own home, the mat was treated with care and was never used outdoors. Now more than 100 years old, the fragile corn husks have held up remarkably well.

Emily Kircher, Cupcake Rug, crocheted fabric, approx. 18" square. Via Etsy.com

Today’s do-it-yourself crafters might call this use of corn husks “upcycling,” or the transformation of waste materials into useful products. For example, using a technique not far from that used in braiding a corn husk mat, Illinois artist Emily Kircher upcycles fabric sourced from yard sales, thrift stores, and “mill ends” from textile factories into colorful crocheted rugs.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

Sources
The American Agriculturalist: For the Farm, Garden, and Household, vol. 33 (New York: Orange Judd Co., 1874), p. 385 (via Google Books)

History of Dane County: Biographical and Genealogical, vol. 1 (Madison: Western Historical Association, 1906), p. 17-18 (via Google Books)

Emily Kircher, Recycling Artist. Website. http://www.etchouse.com/EKRA/

Advertisements