Upside Down Under

100 years ahead of his time…

When Oscar Will came to Bismarck, Dakota Territory in 1883, his goal was to learn about the Plains Indians and what they were growing and to later develop those varieties for commercial use.

By Marvin Baker

What actually started out with several researched corn varieties, turned out much bigger than anything he could have imagined.

In fact, Will, who came from New York to the prairie, started a seed company in Bismarck that would stay in business for 75 years.

Every year, the Will Co. churned out a seed catalog that many North Dakotans looked forward to receiving.

To the residents of the state, this catalog had far greater value than any of the others because many of the varieties listed were developed by Will and his staff. The products were acclimated to this latitude, thus were easier to grow.

And maybe that’s why 17,000 farms were growing produce commercially in the ‘20s and ‘30s across the state. Will may have provided the spark to ignite a local foods movement 100 years before it became a household word.

The State Historical Society maintains digital copies of the Will catalog and there are a select few people across North Dakota who still have original copies of the catalog.

I found a digital copy of the 1921 catalog and read through it. There is a lot of interesting information throughout, including products that modern-day science will tell you can’t grow in North Dakota, as well as other common plants.

Borecole seed was one of the products that Will sold. It was said to be more hardy than cabbage and made an excellent green for fall and early spring. Today, we call it kale, but Will used the Dutch translation of the plant.

Very near the borecole were two common cabbage varieties; Late Flat Dutch and Copenhagen.

The Will catalog listed five varieties of celery, which is about as many as you’ll find in any catalog today. One was called Golden Self Blanching, which is still around today.

There were seven sweet corn varieties. This is what Will took pride in. Four of the seven were Indian corn and three were developed in the seed house in Bismarck. Of the total, three; Assiniboine Yellow, Nuetta and Stowell’s Evergreen, were grown in the past five years by the Farm Breeding Club in variety trials here in the state.

Dwarf Green Okra was listed as a “southern vegetable that is not hard to grow in North Dakota.”

Two of the 13 onion varieties are still common today. They are Ailsa Craig and Australian Brown. But there was also Will’s Dakota Globe that was said to be adapted in every way to our growing conditions in North Dakota.

There was a Fort Berthold Pumpkin, Will’s All The Time and Strasburg White radishes, Bloomsdale spinach, which is common today and Arikara Winter Squash.

The Will catalog also featured Comstock Spanish Tobacco, which was a cross between Orinoco and Havana. It was said to be the most hardy and was easy to raise in North Dakota if started indoors.

Numerous flowers, herbs and fertilizers were advertised in this 1921 catalog that also included insecticides. One of them was called Sulpho Tobacco Soap, a concoction of pulverized tobacco leaf with dish soap. It wasn’t poisonous to humans but killed everything from roaches to cut worms.

Apple, cherry and plum fruit trees were also advertised and 4-5-foot trees were sold for $1.25.

If you look in catalogs today, you’ll find numerous varieties of blackberries, but none of them are listed as being grown north of Zone 5, which would be southern Nebraska and northern Kansas.

However, Will had a blackberry for sale called Eldorado which was the “most valuable variety for the north.” A dozen canes cost 95 cents.

The catalog had all kinds of other items from planting equipment to garden hoses.

At least one of the descriptions was also very interesting. Will sold a rutabaga seed that was to be planted in late June and early July. It would grow until freeze up and yields were said to increase with frequent tillage, a big difference given today’s no-till acreage.

The front and back pages of each catalog were printed in color and usually featured American Indians on the front and a North Dakota variety or two on the back.

The first catalog was mailed to 1,000 people in the territory, but by the 1950s, tens of thousands were going all over the nation.

Yes, Oscar Will was unique and far ahead of his time. Maybe that’s why his customers were so fond of him and his company.

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