Should Corn Really Be Knee-High by the Fourth of July?

Here’s a look at 
the origins of the old adage.

Stacie Rogers

Like proverbs, they can be true or not at all, and if they roll off the tongue favorably, they might just stick around for a while. Add a rhyme element and the chance of a saying surviving the ages goes up. And despite the sleuthing efforts of many, the source can be a mystery.

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They’re adages. We rely on them as constants in our complex world. We crave their simplicity. Sometimes adages are comforting to say even if they’ve lost meaning over time. Take the often quoted “a penny saved is a penny earned,” from Poor Richard’s Almanack by Benjamin Franklin.

Sure, it’s true, and likely still used as relevant parenting advice. But then why are we so anxious to toss our pennies into the little container next to the cash register at the gas station?

“Knee-high by the Fourth of July” is an adage, or accepted truth, that refers to the height of a corn plant by Independence Day, using a farmer’s leg as a yardstick. My foray into the source of that oft-used phrase usually resulted in internet ramblings about the irrelevance of the adage. Most farmers, ag-educators, and others in the know agree that advances in all aspects of growing corn have resulted in a crop that might not be faring so well if it’s only knee-high by then. Waist-high might be the more appropriate description.

Hmm, this seems like just the opportunity for a crafter of adages. How about, “waist-high by the Fourth of July, bursting bins when November is nigh”? One alternate suggestion floating out in cyberspace claims we’ve got it all wrong. Paraphrased, a rogue adage naysayer claims this is really a reference to a horseback rider in a cornfield in colonial times—when seated upon the horse, it’s where a rider’s knee meets the top of the corn plant.

I’m wondering why the rider is in the corn at this point? Since a seated rider’s knee is likely 3½ to 4 feet off the ground, that colonial corn must have been growing at an advanced pace.

Let’s do the seated rider math from the top down. Measured in hands, or 4-inch increments, 14.5 hands, or 58 inches, at the withers is a good size for a colonial horse used for riding. A rider’s knee is about 1 foot below the point of the horse’s withers—I settled on this after searching online images of historical horseback riders ranging from Lady Godiva to John Wayne. So 58 minus 12 yields a corn height of 46 inches, or nearly 4 feet, which is pretty stout corn for the early days…and get out of my colonial cornfield with that horse, if you please!

I took to gleaning old volumes of The National Stockman and Farmer in an effort to find an early use of the phrase.In Vol. XII-No. 11, Pittsburgh, Pa., Thursday, June 27, 1889, a writer identified only as K.M.B. states, “Gradually the hot sun has warmed the soil, and corn is now beginning to make some growth, and if no untoward circumstances arise, we shall yet secure enough for our wants, and mayhap have a few million bushels to spare. It used to be an old saying in these parts of the Great West that ‘Corn knee-high the Fourth of July, makes the cribs crack in October and November.’ So, if we have no unusually early frosts in the fall, we may still look for reasonable returns for our labor this Spring.”

It’s been the benchmark for centuries, the adage that found a way to stick around with the help of a little rhyme. It’s outwitted the advances of agronomy.
So, if you’re road-tripping across the heartland this Independence Day and you look across those acres of green corn thick as the hide on a farm dog’s back, go ahead, roll down the window and say it out loud: “Knee-high by the Fourth of July!”

If it’s taller than that you’re forgiven; by tomorrow or the next day, it will be waist-high or better. And if you’re lucky, on a still night when the stars are aligned just right, you’ll be able to hear it grow. It’s a tradition for Field Editor Stacie Rogers’ family to pose for a picture with their corn on July 4.

Read more of Greg’s musings on farm life at: poeticfarmer.com

The saying goes…

Farms are a fertile source of adages and proverbs that ring true today. Here are a few of our favorites:

“Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight and bull-strong.” Meaning: Plan ahead to avoid problems.

“Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.” Meaning: Don’t waste time on things you can’t change.

“Make hay while the sun shines.” Meaning: Do something while you can—the opportunity may be gone later.

“Barking dogs seldom bite.” Meaning: People who talk the most often do the least.

“Do not let the foxes guard the henhouse.” Meaning: Do not give a job to someone who will exploit it.

Plus, check out: 10 Easy Vegetables Every Midwest Gardener Should Grow in their Garden.