Seed Corn to Shelterbelts

Will's Pioneer Brand helped settle the Northern Plains – and remains a popular ephemera collectible


| May 2005



1895PhotographofOscarHWill.jpg

Opposite page, clockwise from top left:▪ 1895 photograph of Oscar H. Will taken by I.U. Doust, Syracuse, N.Y. Oscar was raised on a farm south of Syracuse at Pompey, N.Y. (State Historical Society of North Dakota 0029-001).▪ Early oat sack with Will’s Pioneer Brand and logo.▪ The back of a 1916 Pioneer Brand seed catalog.▪ This image, painted by White Crow, depicts Mandan women beneath their corn scaffold preparing the dried corn for winter storage. In the lower left, near White Crow’s signature, is an open cache pit ready to receive the season’s bounty.▪ George F. Will in 1925.▪ Confectionary sunflower seeds became a part of the Will & Co. operation in the mid-1930s. That aspect of the business continued until 1979.

The Pioneer Brand today is universally associated with Pioneer Hybrids International, a DuPont company headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. However, that trademark was first associated with a Bismarck, Dakota Territory, seed and nursery business created in the early 1880s by Oscar H. Will. Will's Pioneer Brand seed served farmers and gardeners around the world for more than 75 years, reaching customers through a colorful, informative and now collectible annual mail-order catalog. The value of that trademark was such that its sale to Pioneer Hybrids proved it to be one of the largest assets of Oscar H. Will & Co. in the late 1950s.

Oscar and his son, George F. Will, introduced important agricultural varieties of corn and beans, in addition to hardy and fast-maturing vegetables for northern gardens. It wasn't all about seeds, however, as the company also introduced many hardy trees and shrubs, including the Russian olive in 1906, and supplied millions of trees to the windswept region. Although the company was voluntarily liquidated in 1959, its legacy lives.

Heirloom seed suppliers continue to offer many of the company's corn and vegetable seeds, and dry bean enthusiasts select Will's Great Northern by the tons at grocery stores nationwide. Scholars discuss the significance of the company's impact on modern agriculture in the north, including a recent report that credits Will's Northwestern Dent corn with providing at least 5 percent of the genetic background of all modern corn hybrids in the U.S. And people interested in early American commercial art - especially related to agriculture - collect ephemera from the once thriving company.

Cataloging history

Oscar published his first mail-order catalog in 1884 at Bismarck, Dakota Territory, three years after he arrived there to run Major Edward M. Fuller's greenhouse, garden and floral shop. It was a modest, black-and-white piece with relatively few pages, and a circulation of about 1,000. He offered trees, shrubs, flower and vegetable seed, cut flowers, fresh vegetables in season, and he continued to call the company the Bismarck Greenhouses & Nursery, the name Fuller chose when it was established in 1881.

Within just a few years, the company's name was changed to Oscar H. Will & Co. to reflect a brief partnership, and shortly after, the moniker "Pioneer Seed House of the Northwest" appeared on catalog covers along with the registered trademark "Will's Pioneer Brand." By the early 1900s, the catalog had grown in size and circulation, reaching as far as Russia, South Africa and Colombia. The larger catalog featured a color cover and was more agriculturally oriented, focusing especially on field corn, and later hybrid field corn. At its peak, Will & Co.'s catalog grew to more than 80 pages and had a circulation of about half a million.

Will & Co.'s catalogs chronicled early corn variety development and hybridization in the northern plains, and the agricultural contributions of Native American farmers who successfully worked that land long before European contact. Oscar and his son, George, were keenly aware of the skill of Native farmers in both seed selection and growing practices, and much of the company's ongoing success was the direct result of gifts of seed from Native American friends. For example, Will & Co.'s most famous introduction, the Great Northern bean, was selected from a leather pouch of seed given to Oscar in 1883 by Son of Star (Son of a Star in some references), a Hidatsa man living at the Ft. Berthold Reservation.

david henne
7/27/2014 12:45:33 AM

Was a side view of a yellow picture of an Indian, on a yellow ear of corn, ever used in Pioneer advertising? I have a pressed glass ashtray with such an image on it.