Family Ties, Heirloom Seeds

Editor-in-Chief Hank Will connects with his grandfather through gardening and heirloom seeds.

OHWill 1919

The Oscar H. Will & Co. 1919 seed catalog links past generations to the current Editor-in-Chief of GRIT magazine.

Illustration Courtesy Hank Will

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I’ve written about my great-grandfather’s seed business on this page more than once, but I’ve not mentioned the extent to which growing some of the varieties that he released to commerce — and some that he never did — helps me feel connected to him. Oscar H. Will is the man after whom I am named and whose legacy of growing plants, saving seed and propagating trees has stuck with me through the years. My gardens typically contain some tried and true Oscar H. Will Co. varieties — some grown from heirloom seeds I saved myself — in addition to other favorites. Just the other day, I noticed that the huge bur oak acorns I collected from a lovely tree on a friend’s ranch last fall had come to life in the 5-gallon bucket where I planted them. I cannot honestly tell you why I collected the acorns, other than to say it was my great-grandfather’s guiding hand. I know where I will plant the seedlings.

Late last winter, I made some inadvertent and fortuitous connections with a few remarkable seed-saving individuals. One gentleman named John, from Montana, had been growing short-season Oscar H. Will Co. varieties for years, and he had seed to share for many of the varieties of corn, beans, wheat, melons and squash listed in the 1907 Will Co. catalog. Some of the varieties were much older and traced their lineage to the 1880s and 1890s, including the old line Great Northern — a white running shell bean that my great-grandfather released in the late 1800s. This bean was improved later at the University of Nebraska to be less of a runner and more of a bush type. For years I’ve wanted to grow the original type, and now I am. This generous man also sent me about 20 different corn varieties, including several that never made it into the Will Co. catalog, but that my grandfather, George F. Will, discussed in a book about corn he published with George E. Hyde in 1917 called Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri.  

Determined to find as many old family heirlooms as I could, I discovered that Glenn and Linda at the Sandhill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, had quite a collection of Oscar H. Will Co. varieties preserved and available for sale. From these folks, I managed to round out my collection of Will Co. corns and also obtained seed for some of the varieties from which they were developed. I also obtained squash representatives of early types given to Oscar by the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa people living around Bismarck, North Dakota, and up on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Coupled with this discovery, Farmer John from the Sustainable Seed Co. in California contacted me wondering about the provenance of an Arikara squash. Through that exchange, I learned that he, too, has been preserving my family’s seed legacy — and I obtained some of those very squash seeds.

I never had the chance to personally know, or garden beside, my Great-Grandfather Oscar. However, I know he is at my side coaching whenever I pick up the hoe or slip a tassel bag atop a stalk of Burleigh County Flint to collect pollen.

Whether you’re saving your first seed or are a veteran seed saver, I’d love to hear from you. And if you have any favorite old — or new — varieties, particularly those that help keep your cross-generational family ties tight, I’d sure love to hear about them. Email your stories and photos to me at hwill@grit.com, and they just might wind up in a future issue of the magazine.

See you in September,

Hank


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .