×
×

Seed Corn to Shelterbelts

Author Photo
By Oscar H. Will Iii And Erin C. Will | May 1, 2005

1 / 6
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.
2 / 6
Left: Pioneer Brand logo.Bottom left: Oscar H. Will & Co. seed packet, years unknown. The colorful packets were most likely used in store displays and seed racks.Bottom right: This letterhead lists George F. Will as the company president and dates to at least the early 1940s.
3 / 6
Above: Oscar H. Will & Co. was proud to offer Fulton Brand cloth sacks for sale, and as packaging for their own feed and seed products.
4 / 6
Right: 1904 photograph of the Oscar H. Will & Co. building in Bismarck, N.D.
5 / 6
Left: Shipment of Oscar H. Will & Co.’s seed corn en route to Russia in the mid-1920s.
6 / 6
Below (from top): Will’s 1916 catalog featured a spray of gladiolus on the front, but even then, the company was a significant player in agricultural seed supply, which is the theme of that catalog’s back cover; a Native American woman shelling corn is a theme that appears on several Will & Co. catalogs. This image from the 1928 catalog is accompanied by a small inset showing a modern farm behind a lush field of alfalfa; during World War II, Will’s Pioneer Home Garden Collection was temporarily renamed Will’s Victory Garden Collection, but it still included all the essentials for feeding a family throughout the year.

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.

Although Oscar was generous in crediting his Native American
friends for their gifts of seed, most of his early catalog covers
were fairly traditional for the time, adorned with fantastical
floral or vegetable still-life images. This was not the case later
in the company’s history, as George became more influential, taking
control of the company on his father’s death in 1917. George was a
passionate student of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa people, all
of who farmed along the upper reaches of the Missouri River before
Oscar arrived in the territory.

The cover of the 1911 catalog was the first to formally
celebrate the Native American connection. Two panels commemorated
the 1882 gift of “Squaw” corn to Oscar by Native American farmers
as the basis for then modern varieties. Oscar developed two
important and long-lasting varieties of field corn known as Dakota
White Flint and Gehu Flint from that initial gift of multi-colored
corn; both were still listed in the 1959 catalog.

In 1913, Will & Co.’s catalog cover featured a spray of
flowers alongside a picture of the statue of Sakakawea on the
grounds of the North Dakota State Capitol. The cover of the 1919
catalog featured a painting of a Native American woman cultivating
corn with a hoe fashioned from a bison shoulder blade – the caption
referred to her as a “Pioneer Agriculturist.” Field corn varieties
such as Will & Co.’s Gehu Yellow Flint, Will’s Dakota White
Flint, Northwestern Dent, Pioneer White Dent and Square Deal Dent
were also featured on the 1919 cover. By this time, the company
offered a “Pioneer Indian Collection” of garden seed that included,
among other items, Mandan Squash, a couple varieties of Native
American corn, and Native American beans. Later catalogs would
identify some of the varieties in the collection as Arikara Yellow
bean, Hidatsa red bean, and Mandan sweet corn, to name a few.

Throughout the 1920s to the company’s closing, most catalog
cover images were painted by regionally known artist, poet and
George’s good friend, Clell G. Gannon. The covers often illustrated
aspects of Native American agriculture or ritual, affirming
George’s genuine interest in Native American farming and culture.
For example, the image on the cover of the 1937 catalog depicts a
Mandan Corn Priest blessing seed corn before planting, while the
cover on the 1941 catalog shows Scattered Corn, a Mandan woman,
hand-shelling ear corn into a woven basket.

A Sioux man named White Crow also provided images for a few
catalog covers. According to Will family legend, White Crow
periodically dropped art off at the seed store in return for cash
loans. More often than not, the loans became sales, and George at
one time had quite a collection of White Crow’s works. Will &
Co.’s 1945 catalog featured White Crow’s beautiful painting of a
Mandan village with three women working beneath the drying
scaffold, preparing corn and other produce for winter storage.

During World War II, catalog covers continued to feature Native
American themes on the front, but the backs offered patriotic
sentiments. The 1942 catalog featured Will’s Defense Garden
Collection on the back cover. The catalogs for 1943 and 1944
featured Will’s Victory Garden Collection, and in 1945, the space
was again devoted to Will’s Pioneer Home Garden Collection.

In 1950, the Native American gift of corn was again commemorated
in Gannon’s cover painting depicting a head-dress-clad man handing
over bundles of red and yellow corn to two buckskin-clad “pioneers”
sporting animal skin caps and carrying flintlock rifles. Beneath
the painting, the cover also featured a photograph of the
then-oldest living Mandan corn grower by the name of Crow’s Heart,
alongside a photo of ears of Will & Co.’s own Pioneer Hybrid N
field corn.

When George died in 1955, his eldest son, George F. Will Jr.,
took over the business. George Jr. continued the tradition of using
Gannon’s artwork for catalog covers. Gannon’s painting for 1956
consisted of two panels – one showing the company’s trademark
oxen-drawn prairie schooner with the words “Will’s Pioneer Brand”
and the other a modern farmstead complete with house, barn and
silo. Inset beneath the painting was the image of an ear of “Native
Indian Corn” on the left and a “Modern Northern Plains Hybrid” on
the right.

The final Oscar H. Will & Co. catalog, mailed to customers
in 1959, gave no indication that the company’s private stockholders
had decided to liquidate. In his letter to customers, George Jr.
wrote of the company’s move to a modern, efficient and fireproof
building with excellent access to rail and truck loading.

Although the Will family saved some representative artifacts of
the business, many early records and other items were destroyed in
an 1898 fire. However, the company was large enough, and had enough
of an impact, that letterhead, postcards, seed packets, pesticide
containers, thermometers, cloth seed and feed sacks have survived.
Many of these items point to other ventures that were part of Oscar
H. Will & Co.

Seeds, trees and more

Will & Co. did substantial early business supplying trees
for homesteaders who had filed tree-claims. One tree contract
tendered before the turn of the century was for 800,000 tree
seedlings to be delivered to Crookston, Minn. The Northern Pacific
railroad in North Dakota also contracted with the company for two
million trees to be planted along the tracks between Jamestown and
Mandan as a living snow fence, a task reputed to have taken from
1898 to 1901 to complete. Large tree orders were later delivered to
the Canadian government and U.S. National Park Service. Certainly,
many of the older trees still growing in shelterbelts in the
Northern Plains are the result of Oscar’s efforts.

The company was also a dealer for a number of seeders, planters,
cultivators, fanning mills and many other pieces of agricultural
equipment. Back pages of the catalog were devoted to Clipper brand
seed cleaners manufactured by A.T. Ferrell & Co., Hudson brand
spraying, planting and cultivating equipment, and Cyclone brand
seeders and poultry equipment. For the livestock producer, the
company offered a number of specialty feeds, minerals and milk
replacer, some of which were manufactured in-house. Cotton feed
sacks bearing Will’s Pioneer Brand have survived alongside cloth
seed sacks to this day.

During the Great Depression, George, encouraged by a couple of
employees, adapted a coffee roaster for use in roasting sunflower
seeds. The salty confection, then known as “Russian peanuts,” was a
favorite of the immigrants who inhabited the German-Russian towns
around Bismarck. According to George Jr., his dad test-marketed the
seeds through the Bismarck Bakery for a year, and quickly expanded
to other venues. Will & Co.’s sunflower seed envelopes are
often found in collections of seed company ephemera.

Whether it was improving the quality of life in early northern
prairie communities by providing trees for shade and shelter from
the wind; shrubs, lawns and flowers for general beautification;
fruit trees, vegetable seeds and plants for fresh produce – or the
introduction of many varieties of hardy and short-seasoned grains
that made regional dry-land farming a viable enterprise, Oscar and
his company played a significant role in opening up the Northern
Plains to settlement.

Epilogue

When the Oscar H. Will & Co. was liquidated in 1959, the
Farmer Seed & Nursery Co. of Faribault, Minn., bought Will’s
mailing list. The company’s seed-rack business was sold to
Ferry-Morse of Detroit, Mich., and the Pioneer Hybrid Seed Corn Co.
of Des Moines, Iowa, became the new owners of the name Pioneer
Brand. Later, the nursery’s acreage was developed and now sits
beneath the Kirkwood Mall of Bismarck. George Jr. bought the
sunflower seed business, and in 1960, offered a limited seed
catalog under the name Will’s Bismarck Seed House. This division of
Will’s Incorporated continued to operate into the late 1960s, at
which point, the sunflower seed business demanded all of George
Jr.’s attention. Will’s trademarked Sunnuts and Sunseeds were
distributed nationwide with warehouses in North Dakota, California
and New Jersey until 1979 when George Jr. finally retired – nearly
100 years after his grandfather Oscar had arrived at Bismarck,
Dakota Territory.

Sources for Will & Co.’s Seeds

? More than 60 of Will & Co.’s introductions, including 36
varieties of corn, can be requested from the USDA through their
National Germplasm System at: www.ars-grin.gov/npgs/orders.html

? Several varieties of corn, watermelon, squash and the Bison
tomato are available from Sandhill Preservation Center at:
www.sandhillpreservation.com

? Arikara Yellow bean and Hidatsa Shield Figure bean are
available from Seed Savers Exchange at: 3076 North Winn Road,
Decorah, IA 52101; www.seedsavers.org

? Great Northern bean and Millet’s Dakota tomato are available
from Victory Seeds at: P.O. Box 192, Molalla, OR 97038;
www.victoryseeds.com

? Bison tomato is available from Tanager Song Farm at:
www.tanagersongfarm.com

Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector, freelance
writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits
his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East
Andover, N.H. Write him at: 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325;
(717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu

Erin C. Will recently graduated from Grinnell College,
Grinnell, Iowa, with a major in anthropology. She currently works
at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and plans to
attend graduate school. Write her at: 5319 S. Maryland Ave., Apt.
3, Chicago, IL 60615; e-mail: ecwill04@yahoo.com

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment