Aw Shucks

In Iowa, the U.S. corn capital where farmers grow more than 2.5 billion bushels of corn each summer, the Clear Lake Evening Lions have found it best to stick to what folks in the heartland know and love. Popcorn and sweet corn are the tickets to their growing club’s financial success.

Popcorn sales come via the famous Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, best known as the place where in 1959 the Winter Dance Party featured Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, only to end with the infamous plane crash that killed the trio shortly after takeoff.

Today fans of the ‘50s greats visit the ballroom and remember “The Day the Music Died.” Popular musicians continue to perform at “the Surf,” drawing big crowds to more than 35 events a year, and the Clear Lake Evening Lions sell popcorn at each of these events, netting anywhere from US$500 to US$900 in one night.

As for sweet corn, well, “Nothing says Iowa community like sitting under a tent talking with your friends and having corn stuck between your teeth,” said club president Mike Ravera on the morning of the club’s biggest event.

On the first Sunday in August each year 1,200 people or more come out to the shade of the Clear Lake City Park near the town’s nature-made draw, 3,600-acre Clear Lake, and have lunch with the Lions.

Nine dollars at the Lions’ annual Hamburger and Sweet Corn Feed buys a hamburger hot from the grill, lemonade, two [or more] ears of sweet corn picked fresh the day before, and a cookie.

Preparations for this summer’s annual fundraiser started early the day before when 3,400 ears of sweet corn were delivered to the Nickerson family farm, an Iowa Century Farm, meaning the family has owned the land for at least 100 years. Lions, with the help of the Clear Lake High School cheerleaders [who receive financial support from Lions], were there to meet it.

PDG Lisa Prochaska cleans the corn.

All morning, they sat in lawn chairs in and outside the barn, shucking corn and passing bucketsful to the cleaning team inside the barn where more cheerleaders and PDG Lisa Prochaska made sure the ears were clean and ready for cooking. Inside the farmhouse, Pauline Nickerson got up with the chickens and had trays of homemade donuts ready to feed the crowd.

“Well, I had to feed them something,” she said like a true farmer, proud of her family’s connection to the Lions, and pleased with the turnout. “This project started small and it grew and grew.”

Those are words every farmer loves to hear.

Pauline’s late husband, Richard Nickerson, was a charter member of the club and started hosting the corn shucking part of the summer fundraiser more than 30 years ago.

Early at the park on Sunday morning, Lion Rick Mayland was heating water in a milk cooler remade into a giant sweet corn cooker. Lions Jason Bradshaw and Chris Wagler flipped hamburgers in high August heat, and when asked if a second shift would come to relieve them, they laughed. “We’re on the all-day shift,” said Bradshaw.

The men are credited with helping recruit the club’s 11 new members who have joined in the last 18 months. “Chris and I joined together,” Bradshaw said. “We’ve been friends since third grade. We like giving back to the community. We were looking for service opportunities, and we found a good one.”

All the money the Lions make supports the community, including the food pantry. New Lions learn quickly how much they can do to help the folks at home, Ravera said. “And there’s not a time that we don’t have fun.”