Will's Pioneer Brand helped settle the Northern Plains – and remains a popular ephemera collectible
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.
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.
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.
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.
■ 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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: email@example.com