Community Opinion

Upside Down Under

Gardeners take notice….. Today’s message starts out with a two-part question. How many of you are gardeners and how many of you have ordered supplies from a gardening catalog?

By Marvin Baker

Most people are familiar with Gurneys, a gardening catalog that is sent to many of us from its headquarters in Ohio. There are numerous others such as Ferry Morse, High Mowing, Johnny’s, Burpee and Seeds of Change.

There’s also a catalog that no longer exists, but I suspect a number of people either ordered from the Oscar Will catalog or remember their parents ordering from it.

From 1886 until 1959, the Oscar Will Co., in Bismarck was the place to go for ordering your garden seeds in the spring. Will came to Bismarck in 1882 and started the first nursery in the territory.

I’m hoping to find out how many people may remember the Oscar Will catalog or still have some? If you do, please send an email to (mbaker@northstarorganic.com). I have a friend in Sykeston who is doing research on the Oscar Will catalog. I vaguely remember my parents talking about it. It went out of circulation the year I was born in 1959, but I suspect they were talking about residual catalogs lying around. Many of the products in that catalog dealt with varieties that were acclimated to North Dakota. That is what made Oscar and his catalog unique.

You can go back to the beginning, leading up to about the early ‘40s ,in which regional varieties were a rarity. But Oscar Will carried many of those varieties, and it was a huge boost to Dakota Territory and North Dakota.

This guy was 50, probably 75 years ahead of his time. When he came to Dakota Territory, he befriended plains Indians and almost immediately began working on corn hybrids.

He took the varieties that the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes had been growing for hundreds of years and forged out better varieties targeted for central and southern North Dakota.

In addition, one of his Indian friends gave him a bag of beans. He continued to build the seed stock of those beans, and today it is one of the top production crops in North Dakota in the Great Northern Bean. I’m not sure what Steve Zwinger’s end goal is with his research, but wouldn’t it be a gem if we could order from the Oscar Will catalog again or something like it? Surely, there must be these old catalogs lying around in somebody’s basement gathering dust. If so, look at specific variety names, days to maturity and price of product. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on those three things these days. It would be interesting to compare or actually obtain some of the products that were featured in the Oscar Will catalog.

In fact, there is a company in Carman, Manitoba, that has a number of those seeds that are considered rare today. They include Black Russian beans, Hidatsa soybeans, Mandan Bride corn, Montreal Market cantaloupe and Mandan Banquet squash. The company is called Heritage Harvest Seed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ship to the United States, but Carman is less than 100 miles north of Langdon so a person could pick up the rare seeds. Regardless, it’s good just knowing that someone is preserving the past.

There’s also Frank Kutka in Dickinson. He is working with ancient and Eastern European corn varieties to make better varieties for southwestern North Dakota.

When you come right down to it, there’s actually quite a push to build up heritage seed, especially with ancient grains, which is something the Farm Breeding Club, based in LaMoure, has been doing. You’ve probably heard of spelt, kamut, einkorn, quinoa and emmer. I still remember my uncle, Elmer Baker, growing spelt in the late 1960s in Emmons County.

I believe both Steve and Frank would like to see their projects go to the next level. Whatever happens, Steve Zwinger and Frank Kutka are a lot like Oscar Will.

So when you go out this spring to plant your garden, take a moment to think about Oscar Will and what he did for all the gardeners of North Dakota and the Dakota Territory. There was nothing like it for many years, so it was a blessing this man moved here from New York so long ago.

But because of him, today we can all try to grow the largest potato or cabbage. For some of us gardening is work, for some of us it’s pleasure. Whatever it is for you, it started with this pioneer named Oscar Will and the annual catalog he produced.



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