Bringing History to Life


| November 2005



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!'