Hybrid Corn Pioneers

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

| July 2012

  • Steve Kenkel's Hybrid Corn Pioneers Museum
    Steve Kenkel’s corn museum is filled with stunning vintage corn-related items, many of which are accompanied by detailed signage.
  • 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.
  • Fanning Mill
    At right, an 1881 fanning mill Steve restored. Left front: A Chatham box sheller produced by Manson Campbell Co., Detroit. At back, an Appleton Mfg. Co. (Batavia, Ill.) corn slicer.
  • Seed Corn Dryer
    A seed corn dryer typical of units used to dry the best ears for the following year’s seed. This one was produced by Vold Mfg. Co., Forest City, Iowa.
  • Cannon Cylinder Corn Sheller
    A Cannon cylinder corn sheller, patented in 1843 by F.N. Smith and manufactured by Ellis Keystone Agricultural Works, Pottstown, Pa.
  • Keystone Hand-Dropped Corn Planter
    Center: Steve restored this Keystone hand-dropped corn planter in 2009; the piece dates to 1869, manufactured by Keystone Mfg. Co, Rock Falls, Ill. Left: a Farmer’s Friend hand-drop corn planter produced by Farmer’s Friend Mfg. Co., Dayton, Ohio, in about 1887. Right: a corn planter produced by Brown Corn-Planter Works, Knox County, Ill.
  • Corn Sheller
    A right-hand corn sheller produced by Gould Mfg. Co., Seneca Falls, N.Y., patented in March 1863.
  • 1880s Grain Cleaner
    A grain cleaner dating to the late 1880s, produced by Beeman Grain Cleaner Co., Minneapolis.
  • Steve Kenkel
    A California film company filmed parts of Steve’s 2011 Expo. Here, a crew member presents Steve with a balloon creation naming him “Corn King.” 
  • George Brown Planter
    One of the first planters built by manufacturer George Brown. The piece dates to 1863.
  • Corn Slicer
    A corn slicer produced by Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia, Ill.

  • Steve Kenkel's Hybrid Corn Pioneers Museum
  • King of the Corn Field Corn Planter
  • Fanning Mill
  • Seed Corn Dryer
  • Cannon Cylinder Corn Sheller
  • Keystone Hand-Dropped Corn Planter
  • Corn Sheller
  • 1880s Grain Cleaner
  • Steve Kenkel
  • George Brown Planter
  • Corn Slicer

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.”