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Oscar H. Will, Seed Man


Oscar H. Will, nationally known seed man, came to Bismarck, Dakota Territory, in the spring of 1881 to work with Edward M. Fuller employed Oscar in his Bismarck seed house.

He purchased the greenhouse from Fuller on this date in 1884 and also started a nursery and seed business. It was first called Pioneer Seed House in 1897 and then Oscar H. Will & Company.

Will built the business into multiple buildings, greenhouses, nurseries and farms, with a regular work force of 25 employees and seasonal help. His catalog circulation increased from 1,000 in 1881 to 120,000 in 1917. Many families grew up with Will Seed Company seed catalogs, with their colorful covers of fruits and vegetables.

Will was a very productive plant breeder, seeing the value of the native cultivars of corn from the Upper Missouri Valley and began selecting and breeding them. He was responsible for creating hardy varieties of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers available to homesteaders.

Corn was one vegetable that Will worked with extensively because it adapted readily to extreme climates and varied soils. The Great Northern bean, developed by Will, came from Son of a Star, a Hidatsa Indian who gave him a bag of beans in 1896. He spent three years propagating them and then gave them the name, Great Northern, which is still one of the world’s most popular bean varieties.

The “Our First Farmers” exhibit at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn includes a display about Oscar H. Will and his Bismarck seed company. The exhibit shows the connection between the first farmers of the plains--the Mandan, Hidatsas and Arikaras--and Will’s seed company.

Will died on August 26, 1917, and his son, George Francis, took over the company. He was president of the State Board of Agriculture at one time and, in 1923, was inducted into the North Dakota Agricultural College Hall of Fame.

Source: “History of North Dakota” by Elwyn B. Robinson

by Cathy A. Langemo, WritePlus Inc.