Hybrid Corn Pioneers

Steve Kenkel celebrates Shelby County, Iowa’s role in hybrid corn development

King of the Corn Field Corn Planter

A King of the Corn Field corn planter and fertilizer distributor, manufactured by Whitman Agricultural Works, Auburn, Maine, in 1889.

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If you tell Steve Kenkel he’s corny, he’ll probably respond with a smile. That’s because the Earling, Iowa, farmer holds a two-day Hybrid Corn Pioneers Historical Expo every other year at his one-of-a-kind Hybrid Corn Collector museum. Among the rare items on display are an 1863 George W. Brown wooden corn planter, a 2-row Jones hand planter, an 1848 cylinder corn sheller and a field marker dating to the 1850s.

A sign at Steve’s museum reads, “Welcome To Shelby County — Hybrid Corn Capital of Iowa.” The greeting honors the history of the 18 seed companies that sprang up in Shelby County in the early 1900s. Some of the pieces displayed in his museum are connected to those businesses.

Steve’s goal is to help people understand the significance of corn to Iowa’s agricultural history. He also wants to highlight how hybrid corn development, in which Shelby County farmers were deeply involved, drove significant changes in American agriculture as a whole.

Comprehensive exhibit

Displays in Steve’s museum showcase corn-related implements, tools and memorabilia from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. But not all of the Expo displays are housed inside the museum. Steve uses a vintage check-planter to plant three varieties of corn commonly grown as early as 1850. An open-pollinated corn (Reid’s Yellow Dent), the first American corn hybrid (US-13) and one of today’s triple-stack varieties (Dekalb 62-97) are planted in three plots nearby.

“The corn plots readily demonstrate how the quality of corn plants has improved over the last 100 years,” Steve says. “It also gives visitors a chance to see what wire-checked corn is. That’s a process my grandfather used. I wanted to see what it was like too. By having the plots right outside the museum, I can explain why open-pollinated corn often ended up on the ground, why yields were so much less and how new hybrids spurred development of corn pickers and tractors.”

In the early 1900s, as scientists discovered how heredity influenced plant development and function, the process for creating more satisfactory corn hybrids was set in motion. “Scientists still don’t completely understand how hybrid vigor occurs,” Steve says. “But there’s no disputing the results. Scientists are now creating hybrid seeds with yield potential that would have astounded our forefathers.”

Shelby county’s hybrid corn pioneer heritage

During the expo, Steve gives a short presentation on hybrid corn development and the role Shelby County farmers played in the process. It all started when Shelby County corn took first prize at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1926, Dr. Alva Wilson of Harlan (also in Shelby County) became the first hybrid seed corn pioneer after using hand-pollination techniques for four years to cross high-yielding strains of corn. The resulting Wilson Yellow Dent was widely used in Iowa. Farmers who planted Wilson Yellow Dent led Iowa Corn and Small Grain Growers Assn. yield tests for nine consecutive years.

Between 1930 and 1940, hybrid seed corn yields in Shelby County rose from 36 bushels per acre to 54.6. In 1940, Shelby County was one of 25 Iowa counties to produce more than 6 million bushels of corn.

In 1942, Iowa farmers became the first in the nation to plant their entire acreage to hybrid corn. By 1946, 18 hybrid corn seed companies operated in Shelby County. In 1960, Shelby was one of eight Iowa counties producing more than 12 million bushels of corn, more than doubling 1940 production rates.

The Brown planter

Hybrid corn varieties revolutionized agriculture, Steve says, driving development of corn pickers and picker design and spurring growing use of tractors. His museum holds one of the earliest implements that revolutionized corn production: George W. Brown’s wooden planter.

In the 1878 History of Knox County, based on Knox County, Ill., Brown was described as a carpenter and “practical mechanic” often called on by neighbors to make and repair “rude farm implements.” Between carpentry jobs, Brown found himself pressed to keep up with his farm work. The result was his determination to find a better way to plant corn.

“He studied a great deal and made many plans and models,” the booklet notes. “John S. Winter, Esq., remembers being at his house in 1846. He found Mr. Brown barefoot, his only clothing a straw hat, shirt and jeans pants. Mr. Brown conceived the idea of turning a cultivator into a corn planter. His first idea was to drop three rows at once, placing the shovels of the cultivator as wide apart as he wished to have the corn rows, and boxes of corn on the beams back of the shovels, so fixed that the centre of each box would be over the middle of the furrows made by the shovels. A slide was so adjusted that by moving it there would be an aperture at the centre of the bottom of each box large enough for three to five kernels of corn to slip through, which would of course fall into the middle of each furrow behind the shovel. This slide was to be operated by a man walking behind the machine. He [Brown] attached heavy wheels to the cultivator back of the boxes, which were made of sections sawed off from logs, and which would roll the ground after the corn was dropped in, filling and leveling the furrow.”

Brown experimented with his first design, eventually perfecting a corn planter operated by two men and a team of horses. The implement could plant 16-20 acres per day. He later established Brown’s Corn-Planter Works, employing as many as 230 men in the 1870s. In 1878, the company manufactured 8,000 planters.

Rare, early implements

Steve’s collection includes rare, early implements like a row-marking sled and a 2-row planter. Because the sleds were made of wood, he speculates, few survived once more efficient methods were developed. “This field marker is from about 1850 to 1870,” Steve says. “I bought it on a sale south of Chicago. It was in about four different pieces when I got it. It’s a rare piece.”

Row-marking sleds (also known as field markers) helped farmers space rows and hills with consistency. Hills were commonly marked by using a wooden “sled” with runners spaced the same width as corn rows. A team of horses drew the sled across the field. On the return trip, the farmer used the previous track as a guide and dragged the sled back, marking the next row. Once parallel lines were marked across the field, the process was repeated at right angles to create a checkerboard pattern. Seeds were planted at each intersection of tracks. Up to 30 acres a day could be planted using that method.

Steve’s 2-row Jones Improved Hand Corn Planter dates to 1854. In a vintage ad in Curtis Norskog’s Corn Collectibles Book Three: Hand Corn Planters & Seeder Patents, the hand-held implement is described as an alternative to the horse-drawn planter.

“One experienced man will plant nearly or quite as much corn in a day as two hands and two horses will with a horse corn planter, and it costs less than one-quarter as much. It plants and covers the corn more every time. It plants two rows at once. Where a few were used last year, large numbers are wanted this season. Try it and save your team and extra hand for other work. Manufactured by Emerson & Co., Rockford, Ill.”

Sacks and shellers

No corn museum would be complete without a collection of shellers. Steve’s 1848 cylinder corn sheller is a hit with visitors of all ages. “I make a point of incorporating youth activities in my expo,” Steve says. “Kids love the sheller. During the expo, we’ll have more corn shelled with the hand sheller by the kids who are here than by the motorized sheller that’s part of our display.”

Other special shellers in his museum include one made in 1892 by Mountville (Pa.) Mfg. Co. and an Eagle sheller dating to 1850. The March 1850 issue of American Farmer featured an ad placed by Sinclair & Co., Baltimore, for Eagle corn shellers, “made with single and double spouts, for hand power — capacity 150 to 250 bushels.”

One of the museum’s prime attractions is a collection of 1,200 sacks displayed on the building’s walls, illustrating the number of American hybrid seed producers from 1900 to 1950. “People are very surprised at the extent of vintage corn-related items displayed here,” Steve says. “They also appreciate the authentic state of the pieces. When I restore a wooden piece, I don’t paint it. I stain it. That maintains the period look while it protects the wood. It also allows original logos or lettering to be visible.”

Several items in the museum are on loan from members of the Corn Items Collectors Assn.’s collections. Steve credits people he’s met over the years for helping make the museum a reality. “It’s a work in progress,” he says. “It wasn’t something I set out to do. What I’ve discovered is that you can hear about and read about this equipment but it all becomes more real when you actually see it being used. I’m very pleased to be able to help preserve these vintage agricultural items so they can be enjoyed by people 100 years from now.” FC 

For more information: Private tours are available by appointment June 15-Sept. 15. Contact Steve Kenkel at (712) 579-1320; nskenkel@fmctc.com. The next Hybrid Corn Pioneers Historical Expo — featuring demonstrations, exhibits, tractor parades and more — will be held Aug. 24-25, 2013 at the Hybrid Corn Collector museum. 

Corn Items Collectors Assn. 

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at sorensenlms@gmail.com. 

Read how the Carstens 1880 Farmstead's Pingel seed house in Shelby, Iowa influenced corn production in Seed House Opens Window onto the Past.