Pioneer Seed Producer Makes the Grade

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Oscar H. Will
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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.

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.

Will & Co.’s catalogs chronicle 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.

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 United States.

Because of his lasting contributions, the North Dakota Agricultural Hall of Fame committee selected Oscar H. Will as their 2008 inductee in the pioneer category.

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 .

Published on Mar 13, 2008

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