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Iowa man's collection, book preserves history of one county's role in corn hybridization

Hybridization of corn did more than revolutionize American agriculture … it also spawned a uniquely comprehensive collection in southwest Iowa. At face value, Steve Kenkel's collection consists of sacks from each of the 18 early seed corn companies in Shelby County, Iowa. Ultimately, though, it has become a remarkable undertaking designed to honor the history of hybrid seed corn production there.

For Steve Kenkel, it all began with a pile of sacks he happened onto in the attic of his parents' home. 'If I hadn't found those, this would never have happened,' he mused. 'I didn't plan to do any of this.' Now complete, Steve's collection consists of 34 cloth sacks, cleverly displayed on a rack built from corn check wire planter stakes. The sacks are complemented by a lavishly illustrated, painstakingly re-searched history of seed corn production in Shelby County (The Hybrid Corn Pioneers of Shelby County), a commemorative sack, placemats, hats and shirts.

Steve's collection is a tribute to his home county's role in the hybridization of corn, a development he identifies as one of mankind's greatest achievements in the last 1,000 years. One of Iowa's leading corn producers, Shelby County averaged 43 bushels per acre in the late 1920s. By 1940, when hybrid seed corn was beginning to make its mark, that figure rose to 54.6 bushels per acre; in 1969, it rocketed to 101.0 bushels per acre.

Hybrid seed corn was first used in Shelby County in 1937, Steve says. The earliest producers there began between 1939 and 1941; most had ceased operation by the early 1960s. The county's record number of seed corn producers - the most of any county in Iowa - 'helped make Shelby County the hybrid corn capital of Iowa,' Steve notes. Five decades later, with just two of those original 18 businesses still in operation, those achievements are often overlooked.

'Eleven of the 18 seed house structures are still standing,' he says. 'Most of them look like the producer just turned the key in the lock and walked away. I tell people that those seed houses are to Shelby County what the bridges are to Madison County. We just don't think anything about it because we live here.'

Collection begins in the attic

Steve, who farms and works as assistant superintendent of the Harlan (Iowa) water treatment plant, lives on a century farm near Earling, Iowa. Three years ago he found a pile of seed corn sacks in the attic of his parents' home. Having just completed restoration of his granddad's Oliver 66 and an Oliver planter, Steve looked at the sacks and saw an 'add on' to his equipment display. 'I thought there might be sacks from four or five Shelby County producers,' he recalls. 'I never dreamed there were 18 producers in this county!'

With the optimism of a new collector, Steve set out to find 18 different seed corn sacks. He soon learned the enormity of the challenge. 'When I first started, I talked to a sack collector and told him what I was trying to do. He told me I'd never find them all,' he says. 'That was the best encouragement I ever got.'

Although some of his sacks came from collectors and auctions, Steve found 40 percent by going door-to-door in Shelby County. Along the way, he heard more than a few stories from people who remembered the early seed corn operations. Encouraged by his family, he decided to compile a book recording the history of the early seed corn companies in Shelby County.

Every sack tells a story

Working like a professional researcher, Steve redoubled his efforts. He interviewed three to six people to research the history of each seed corn company. He tracked down relatives of the original producers, asking to borrow photographs of each man.

Just identifying the years each producer operated was a huge job, Steve says. He worked from the serial numbers on the bags, but also spent hours researching old promotional materials from local events, say, local athletic tournament programs. Those materials often listed sponsoring local businesses. He tracked a business's lifespan by checking materials from successive years. When a name dropped off the list, he assumed the company had folded. Every contact led to another.

'Former employees were the biggest help, if they were still around,' he says. 'Most of the people I talked to were older folks who had lived on the farm all their lives. I met a lot of people I never would have otherwise.'

Steve was both resourceful and methodical in his quest for sacks, narratives and historical documentation. 'If there's a sale within five miles of a Shelby County seed corn house,' he says, 'I'm going to be there. I target farm estate auctions, but a lot of times, they won't advertise seed corn sacks. An estate auction at a century farm can be a good source. If a sale bill lists a sheller or signs related to seed corn, that's a good clue.' Some of his sacks came from other collectors; just one in the Shelby County collection came from eBay. Several came from local people who appreciated the fact that the sacks would be preserved as part of a permanent historical display (ultimately, Steve's Shelby County collection will be given to the local historical society).

A goal as big as Iowa

Completion of the county display, however, did not end a passion. 'I'm addicted to the sacks,' Steve says happily. 'I have more than 500, and I love the history behind them. My goal, someday, is to get one from every producer in Iowa.'

Today, he displays a portion of his sack collection in a shed, but his dream is to house the entire collection in an old seed house. In the meantime, he keeps the sacks dry and out of the sun (150 bags packed in mothballs fit neatly into a 3-foot rubber tub, he notes). He's shown his Shelby County collection at the county fair, and has been invited to exhibit at the Iowa State Fair. He gives occasional presentations on the early seed corn producers and his collection, goes to shows and builds his collection (which has expanded to include memorabilia and check wire planters). 'This hobby,' he says, 'is my stress relief.'

But it's more than that. Steve is quick to admit that his work on the Shelby County collection is bigger than a pile of sacks. 'The thing that sticks out the most for me, the common factor among all these producers, is that it all happened because there were strong families. These were families that had been here for generations, and there's a lot of pride in that. Those people knew what hard work was, and they had high expectations. This is a real tribute to those guys and their families.'   FC 

- For more information: Steve Kenkel, (712) 747-2901; e-mail: nskenkel@fmctc.com

 
 
 

Strength in Numbers

Corn Items Collectors Association   showcases diverse category

Curtis Norskog doesn't remember a time when corn wasn't a key part of his life. 'I grew up on a farm, and we raised corn,' he says. He studied soils and agronomy at the University of Minnesota, was a researcher at Pioneer Hi-Bred for 35 years, was instrumental in forming the Corn Items Collectors Association and is the author of Hybrid Seed Corn Enterprises: A Brief History. Last July, he was among the Corn Items Collectors Association (CICA) exhibitors set up at the Shelby County Fair in Harlan, Iowa.

Curtis' collection got off the ground during his years at Pioneer. He didn't play favorites: He collected anything that had a connection to corn … signs, husking hooks and pegs, seed corn sacks, memo books, handheld planters, ball caps, cups, memorabilia and more. Three decades later, he says, the hobby is more accessible to the newcomer.

'eBay's been a good boost for corn collectors,' he says. 'You find stuff there that you wouldn't find otherwise. But it's also increased the price. Back in the 1980s, you could buy seed corn sacks for $1-2. Now they're $5-10 each.'

Today, he says, interest in corn items may be leveling off. 'Pioneer, DeKalb and Funk pieces are generally solid, as are signs.' His favorite haunts are farm auctions and antique stores. 'It's always fun to go around and see what there is,' he says, 'see if you can find something you haven't seen before.'

Another Harlan exhibitor, Bob Anderson, Coon Rapids, Iowa, also knows that thrill. With a collection of nearly 700 seed corn sacks as well as signs, pens and pencils, belt buckles and pocket knives, he's constantly on the prowl for new treasures. Like Curtis, Bob worked most of his life at Pioneer, and that career spawned a hobby. 'I've been in corn all my life,' he says. 'Corn's in my blood.'

New collectors have to set their priorities, he says. 'Sacks can get pretty pricey, but you can buy them a lot cheaper than toy tractors,' he notes. 'You need to know the limit of what you want to spend, and don't try to build a collection overnight.' He recommends CICA membership. 'You'll make a lot of friends in the hobby.'

Hybrid seed sacks are the most collectible, he says. Sacks with designs featuring animals or Indians cost more and are more collectible, he says. Always look for bright colors. 'Never wash a sack, even if it's really dirty,' he says. 'If you wash it, it'll strip the color out and that cuts the value. I'd rather have a dirty sack with bright colors than a clean one that's washed out.'

Sacks remain his first love. 'I never take a sack for granted,' he says. 'I appreciate each one. I wish they could tell their stories.' Some do, through attached tags, and that's a bonus for Bob. 'I like to collect sacks with tags on them. Those tags tell the year of germination, grade, variety number, purity, germination rate, where the seed was grown, the company name and dealer name. It's all interesting to me.'

History is a strong draw for many collectors, and Gerald Huebert, Portsmouth, Iowa, is no exception. A collector of check wire used in early corn planters, he relishes the lessons learned from farm relics. 'The biggest thing about collecting is the history you learn,' he says. As an example, he notes that before wire became widely accessible, rope was used in check planters. 'And some rope has wire in it.'

Gerald's exhibit of check wire samples added another dimension to the Harlan CICA display. Fairly new to the category, and getting familiar with a collection he purchased in its entirety, Gerald is still learning. 'Even check wire can be fake,' he says. 'Some of these pieces look questionable to me.'

Gerald's entry into the hobby came by accident and was unrelated to corn items. 'I started out collecting fence posts,' he says. 'Then I moved on to fence tops. Then I went to my first barbed wire show, and started on barbed wire.' Then he discovered check wire. Today, he adds to his collection by finding new pieces at shows. Although most are affordable, an 18-inch length can cost as much as $100. But finds are not unheard of. 'People find something you collect,' he says, 'and they'll just give it to you.'

- For more information:

The Corn Items Collectors Association, Robert Chamberlain, (217) 674-3334; e-mail: lain@frontiernet.net

CICA 2006 shows: Penfield, Ill., second full weekend in July; Portland, Ind., Aug. 24-28; and Colchester, Ill., Sept. 1-4.