Saturday, November 8, 2014

Jacob Leaming

I learned something about my county this morning I never knew.  Jacob Leaming, famous for Leaming corn had a farm near me in the early 1800's and became famous for growing 100 bushels per acre, year after year.

I was reading about my famous young farmer friend Nathan Brown near Hillsboro and came across this My Own Rural Life link.  It was quite an interesting read for me since I love the history of corn, especially when it pertains to the history of our farm.

In a general sense, corn is a well-acknowledged part of Clinton County’s agricultural heritage; it has been a cultivated crop in Ohio going back several thousand years – from the Adena to the Fort Ancient people to the area’s first white settlers.

But few people know that in 1856, a Clinton County farmer named Jacob Leaming did something that few had ever done. Then he started doing it on an annual basis, which was unheard of: Leaming planted corn that yielded more than 100 bushels per acre, year after year.

As word of this accomplishment spread, farmers came from miles around to visit Leaming’s farm. According to a 1925 book entitled “Fifty Famous Farmers,” Leaming’s success, “brought many neighbors to inspect the field and get better acquainted with the newcomer who was doing such extraordinary things. Not a few of them carried away sacks of corn to be used as seed … this … was referred to locally as ‘Leaming’s corn.’”

Before too long, this Clinton County farmer found himself shipping Leaming Corn all over the nation and even overseas. Now, more than 158 years later, his accomplishments are described in many agricultural history books.

And it all started with a few hungry horses.

Jacob Spicer Leaming was born in Hamilton County in 1815. His parents, Christopher and Margaret Leaming, had a farm near Madisonville, outside Cincinnati. (I was just in Madisonville last week to pick up our cut Indiana hearth stone, one big piece of limestone)

The story goes that in 1855, Leaming was traveling one day along the Bullskin Run — which roughly traces a path along State Route 133 from the Ohio River up to Clarksville, then resumes along State Route 380 up to Xenia.

He had neglected to bring feed for his horses, so he stopped at a field where some corn was being harvested and requested some for his animals. He was reportedly so impressed with the color and size of the corn that he bought a bushel for seed.

The next spring he moved to a farm just south of Wilmington on Martinsville Pike, State Route 134, to be near his brother and there the following spring he planted his new seed corn.

According to his profile in the ”Dictionary of American Biography,” “In the spring of 1856, he planted the corn he had bought the previous autumn and by careful attention was rewarded by a yield in excess of 100 bushels per acre. Farmers regarded it as a phenomenal achievement.” Thirty to forty bushels was considered a typical crop in those days.

“He raised twice as much corn per acre as his neighbors because he insisted on selection of his seed, deep planting, and careful cultivation,” states his profile.
In “Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding,” a 2009 book, the author writes, “Leaming … spent years picking out the best ears from his fields. He was a careful and intuitive observer of his crops who noticed such things like that long thin ears ripened earliest and plants with two ears grew better in unfavorable conditions.”

According to “Fifty Famous Farmers,” “Mr. Leaming was a man of keen observation, and the long day spent with the hoe in the corn field were days of study and thought and observation.”

In the 1928 book “The Hunger Fighters,” the writer says of Leaming, “Never having seen the inside of an agricultural college, this man had his own notions of what good corn ought to be like.”

In addition to careful cultivation of the best plants, he was at the forefront of other farming methods.

In “Corn: Origin, History, Technology, and Production,” the authors state, “He was an early user of legumes in his crop rotation (corn, wheat or oats, and red clover). In addition, he had learned from his father that eliminating weeds and deeper plowing would lead to higher yield.”

As Leaming himself said in an 1883 pamphlet entitled “Corn and Its Culture by a Pioneer Corn Raiser with 60 years’ Experience in the Cornfield,” “I was taught to let nothing green grow in the cornfield but the corn alone.”

According to the authors of the “Handbook of Maize: Genetics and Genomics,” Leaming also experimented with drill spacing. “He is perhaps the father of drilled corn. One grain in a place, twelve to fourteen inches apart, in rows of four feet apart, was his rule. “
As time passed, Leaming’s seeds and methods produced year after year of high yield crops. By 1870, he was selling and shipping his corn seed all over the world.

In 1878, Leaming Corn was awarded a medal at the Corn Show at the Paris Exposition —also called the Paris World’s Fair— recognized as the best in the world.
Although the initial strain is now considered rare, Leaming Corn is known throughout agricultural history circles as the first popular variety of corn.

One newspaper (maybe with a little bias as it was a local paper) called it the “Best Yellow Corn in the World.”

According to a 1916 newspaper article, published 31 years after his death in 1885, “Leaming is the corn that has made Clinton County famous. The grain which Jacob Spicer Leaming developed with such care … has grown to a type which is recognized from one end of the country to the other, and from which, it is asserted, practically all the yellow corn grown in the United States has been developed.”

So, the next time you are enjoying corn, don’t forget to raise an ear to Jacob Spicer Leaming, a corn pioneer and, at one time, a globally-recognized Clinton County farmer. Or, as one author called him, “a new kind of corn-dreamer.”

Wow, what a great story, Kathleen L. Norman!  Thank you for digging this up!  In all my years in southwest Ohio, I never heard this story.

Ed Winkle


  1. Very interesting story.

  2. Great read. And Leaming got crowned at the Paris Exposition Universelle too! I'll check what yield it will take for next year's to win that medal... ;)

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I actually started out researching an entirely different Clinton County farmer and then came across Jacob Leaming. When I started researching him, I couldn't believe how many modern experts called him out by name. I found his property on some old maps. He actually farmed quite close to Wilmington just south around SR68 and SR134, I think.