Pioneer Seed Producer Makes the Grade
Oscar H. Will inducted into Hall of Fame
Oscar H. Will
Heirloom seed enthusiasts credit him with introducing the Great Northern dry bean to the world in the late 1800s. Corn hybridizers note that about 5 percent of the genes in modern corn varieties came from a few open-pollinated dent corns he introduced more than 100 years ago. Oscar H. Will (great-grandfather to Hank, and great-great-grandfather to Erin) was a pioneer seedsman whose friendships with Native American farmers and skills as a plant breeder netted the world scores of northern-hardy varieties. For these contributions and more, Will was inducted into the Pioneer Division of North Dakota's Agricultural Hall of Fame March 8.
Oscar H. Will was born on a farm near Pompey Hill, New York, in 1855. He relocated to Bismarck, Dakota Territory, in 1881 and established the territory's first nursery in 1882. Oscar published his first mail-order catalog in 1884 as a modest, black-and-white piece with relatively few pages and a circulation of about 1,000. By 1900, Oscar H. Will & Co.'s catalog featured a four-color cover and was more agriculturally oriented, focusing especially on field corn and later hybrid field corn. At its peak, the company's catalog had more than 80 pages and had a circulation of about half a million.
In addition to seeds and nursery stock, Will & Co. did substantial early business supplying trees for homesteaders who filed tree-claims. One tree contract tendered before the turn of the 20th century was for 800,000 tree seedlings to be delivered to the city of Crookston, Minnesota. The Northern Pacific railroad in North Dakota also contracted with the company for 2 million trees to be planted along the tracks between Jamestown and Mandan (North Dakota) 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.