Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 28 2009
Man of will planted seeds of success in North Dakota
The seed business established by Oscar Will used crops harvested by Native Americans 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 was also 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, in Pompey in central New York. He attended school until the age of 13 and then worked at local stores. Two years later, he traveled north to Fayetteville to work for his brother, William, who operated a nursery business.
Capt. William Will was a Civil War veteran. One of his friends was Maj. Edward M. Fuller. Both men shared a common interest – the dream of owning a nursery.
After the war, William went to Fayetteville and established his business; Fuller went to Bismarck in Dakota Territory to open his establishment.
While working for his brother, Oscar learned about plant propagation and seed selection and also became active in sales. Because of his competence, William turned over more responsibilities to his brother, and by 1877, Oscar was the proprietor of the Fayetteville Nurseries.
Late in 1880, Fuller sent a letter to William Will asking if he could recommend anyone who could help him with his Bismarck nursery. William recommended Oscar, and in the spring of 1881 he arrived in Bismarck.
Fuller’s business was on the northwest corner of Avenue B and North Fifth Street. 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.
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, he developed a breed that grew well in the area. He named it Pride of Dakota Flint. In order to expand his varieties of produce, Will purchased the rights to 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 business and presented him 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. At the 1886 Territorial Fair in Grand Forks, he exhibited 216 varieties of seeds and “won every first prize for seed growers at the fair.” In his 1887 catalog, he advertised several varieties of corn, oats, wheat, barley, millet, clover and buckwheat, as well as many types of fruits and vegetables.
In 1889, Will opened a larger store in Bismarck.
In the mid-1890s, Will and John Johnson became business partners. In May 1895, Will turned over management of the business to Johnson and went back East with his family.
He returned to Bismarck in February 1898 after the Northern Pacific Railroad announced it wanted 2 million of his trees planted along the tracks between Jamestown and Mandan.
As business continued to grow, Will added newer and larger greenhouses and warehouses. When Will died on Aug. 17, 1917, his seed company was reported to be “the largest of its kind west of Minneapolis.”
Although he was basically nonpartisan in his political ideology, Will was thrust into the political spotlight on two occasions.
In 1890, he was the Republican candidate for mayor of Bismarck, and in 1902 he was the Democratic candidate for North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture and Labor.
He served as a member of the first North Dakota State Fair Board in 1889 and on the state committee preparing for the 1891 World’s Fair in Chicago.
He was elected president of the State Board of Agriculture in 1893 and president of the North Dakota Seed Growers Association in 1910. Will was one of the six original inductees into the North Dakota Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Next week we will look at Oscar Will’s son, George Will.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.