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Oscar Will Helped 'Seed' North Dakota

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Author Topic: Oscar Will Helped 'Seed' North Dakota  (Read 326 times)
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« on: June 28, 2009, 12:55:40 pm »

                                                   Oscar Will helped 'seed' N.D.

Jun 28, 2009

Because of the contributions made by Oscar Will and his son George, North Dakota is much richer in
the areas of agriculture, education, history and anthropology.

The seed business established by Oscar Will utilized crops harvested by American Indians to enrich
the varieties of hardy grains and vegetables grown in the upper Great Plains. His work in education
was rewarded by having a school named after him.

George Will continued to expand the seed business and also was active in turning out more than 100 works on anthropology, history and horticulture. He also translated important historical works into English.

Oscar Henry Will was born Sept. 9, 1855, at Pompey in central New York, to Francis A. and Margaret (Barchie) Will.

At 15, Will went to work in Fayetteville for his brother, William, who operated a nursery business.

While working for his brother, Oscar Will learned the skills of plant propagation and seed selection and also became active in the sales aspect of the business.

Late in 1880, Major Edward M. Fuller sent a letter to his friend William Will asking if he could recommend anyone who could help him with the nursery he had just started in Bismarck in Dakota Territory. Oscar Will was recommended, and in the spring of 1881, he arrived in Bismarck.

Fuller's establishment was located on the northwest corner of Avenue B and North Fifth Street and consisted of two greenhouses and a garden of 15 acres. Business was booming because of the "tree-claim" amendment to the Timber Culture Act of 1878, which allowed early pioneers an extra 160 acres of land if trees were planted.

Many young trees grew wild on the sand bars and along the shoreline of the Missouri River. Fuller and Will contracted with traders, trappers and Native Americans to dig up these saplings and bring them to Bismarck.

By August of 1882, the business had purchased 10,000 young trees. They now had three greenhouses and, by May of 1883, these buildings contained 1 million plants. It was Will's inspiration that they put out a seed catalog so that people could order from their greenhouse.

On July 1, 1884, Fuller leased the business to Will. One of Will's first major undertakings was developing a hardy field corn. Through native corn obtained from Fort Stevenson in 1882, Will was able to develop a breed that grew well in the area, had a short growing season, and produced large yields. He named this breed Pride of Dakota Flint.

In order to expand his varieties of produce, Will purchased the rights of other hardy seeds from local farmers.

One of the most successful seeds was literally dumped right into Will's lap. In the mid-1880s, Son of a Star, a Hidatsa Indian, came into Will's establishment and presented the owner with a bag of beans. From this sample, Will developed the Great Northern Bean, the most important dry bean cultivated on the Northern Plains.

Will became a master at selecting and breeding the best seeds. He also marketed garden and field equipment, insecticides, and fertilizer. In 1889, Will opened a larger store at North Fourth and Thayer.

In 1890, Will received a big boost from the North Dakota Legislature when it passed a law promoting a bounty for every landowner who planted and cultivated at least 400 trees per acre. This time period also marked the beginning of rapid immigration into North Dakota. This boom created an even greater demand for trees and field and garden seeds.

In the mid-1890s, Will acquired John Johnson as a business partner. In May of 1895, Will turned over management of the business to Johnson and went back East with his family. He returned to Bismarck in February of 1898 after the Northern Pacific Railroad announced that they wanted 2 million of his trees planted along the tracks between Jamestown and Mandan.

Will kept adding newer and larger greenhouses and warehouses. By the time of Oscar Will's death on Aug. 17, 1917, his seed company was reported to be "the largest of its kind west of Minneapolis."

Will also was active in Bismarck civic affairs. He gave generously to the local library and the school. He served as president of the fire department, was a member of the Bismarck Commercial Club from 1906 until his death and played a large role while he was a member of the school board from 1901 to 1910.

Next week we will look at Oscar Will's son, George Will, who continued to improve and grow the seed business and who made significant contributions in history and anthropology.

(This column is written by

Curt Eriksmoen

and edited by

Jan Eriksmoen.

You can reach the Eriksmoens by e-mail at
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