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Kafir Corn

Kafir corn carnival, El Dorado, circa 1920During a brief period of time, Kansans went crazy over kafir corn, the once popular sorghum grain that survived the droughts of Kansas.  People covered homes, cars, and stores in golden and silvery plumes of grain. They fed it to their livestock.  They even popped it to eat.  Kafir corn was everywhere!

Kafir corn was so popular in El Dorado, Butler County, residents declared kafir the queen of the prairie and staged a three-day festival in honor of the grain.  The carnival promoted the planting of kafir and generated memories and money for thousands of Kansans.  It even generated a kafir "yell."

"Once you walked through, not only were you inside Kafirville, but you were in another world," said one of the visitors.  "Let these days be days that will live long in the history of our county because of the pleasure and profit that they bring," stated the Walnut Valley Times of El Dorado.

The predecessor of today's milo and grain sorghums, kafir became the celebrated subject of the Butler County harvest festivals because of its drought and heat resistance and its usefulness as cattle and poultry feed.  Bankers gave away kafir seed packets to encourage farmers to plant the hardy grain.

The first Kafir Corn Carnival in 1911 drew more than 20,000 people.  El Dorado's own population was slightly more than 3,000.  The carnival featured a queen contest, with the public votimg on the candidates.  The winner and eight maids as runners-up reigned throughout the festivities and received numerous prizes.

Morning barbecues were followed by afternoon parades each day.  Floats, decorated cars, horseback riders, and decorated buggies and carriages competed for prizes. Schools closed on the final day so students could march in the school children's parade.

Each year the community added new features to the carnival.  In 1914 a former Butler County resident returned from his new home in South Africa with a young Rhodesian who was dubbed "kafir boy" and rode a float in the parade.  In 1915 a fraternal organization called the Knights of Mapira was founded to promote the carnival.  The initiation included a symbolic tour through southern Rhodesia with members carrying a perfect stalk of kafir.  Members wore orange fezes with black tassels.

Merchants and townships created masterful exhibits in patriotic colors.  The A. Weidemann music store featured a six-foot-long guitar of glue, kafir seed, and wood. Al Spain's billiard hall displayed kafir heads, Lincoln Township depicted Abraham Lincoln, and Douglas Township created a bell and U. S. flag.  The last kafir carnival was held in 1929 as farmers turned to new crops.

Harvesting Kafir Corn, Comanche CountyNamed for the Kafir tribe in Natal, South Africa, the grain was introduced to the United States in 1876.  The slender cylindrical heads of kafir came in three varieties: white-, red-, and black-hulled.  The stalks sometimes reached heights of five to eight feet.

Ellsworth County claims the first kafir crop.  In 1886 eight-year-old Sam Fleming recalled that he and his older brother Will helped their father plant the original seeds. Ordered from a Georgia company's newspaper advertisement, the elder Fleming paid 65 cents for a small package.  Using a tin funnel-shaped tube, they carefully planted one grain at a time 15 inches apart.  The heads were cut before the grain was ripe and were laid in winrows to cure and ripen.  Fleming planted 10 acres the second and third years and sold many packages of the seed and fodder.

Farmers along Mill Creek in Wabaunsee County continued to grow kafir until the 1940s and 1950s.  They used the grain as the primary element in chicken feed at a time when most farmers relied on "egg money" to supplement their income.  Hogs and cows also ate kafir since it was much cheaper to raise than corn and oats.  Most people refused to eat kafir but some enjoyed it popped.  "It wasn't bad, but not as good as popped corn," said Florence Simon of Wabaunsee County. 

Kafir production declined between the 1930s and 1950s as more and more farmers opted for milo, the next generation in sorghum.  A contributing factor to its decline was that kafir had to be harvested with horse-drawn equipment and required hand processing whereas milo could be easily cut with the combines.  As a result, kafir became a memory for Kansas farm families.

Entry: Kafir Corn

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: June 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.