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Seed Corn in Minnesota’s Cold Climate, 1880–1940

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Black and white photograph of Martin Carlsted turning the handle of a manual corn sheller to remove kernels, c.1910.

Martin Carlsted turning the handle of a manual corn sheller to remove kernels, c.1910.

From the time of statehood into the early 1900s, Minnesota's climate discouraged the growing of corn. Many immigrants from Northern Europe disbelieved the skeptics and set out to prove them wrong by developing special varieties of seed capable of growing corn in cold conditions. They were successful, and by the late 1930s, Minnesota had become one of the leading corn-producing states.

The ancestry of maize, the grain we know today as corn, dates back more than eight thousand years to a plant called teosinte. This plant grew in the hot, sunny climates of what became southern Mexico. It was such a critical food source for the Maya that they built temples in its honor and worshiped their god Yam Kaax, the patron of growing maize. The Inca and Aztec civilizations worshiped a sun god upon whom they depended for this vital food source.

Over thousands of years, maize migrated northward with advancing civilizations. After American Indians introduced it to European colonists in the 1600s, its nutritional value made it the preferred feed for livestock and a popular grain for use in many food products. Undoubtedly, early Euro-American farmers saw corn as the grain of the future—a crop grown in the warmer areas of the continent, but not in colder Minnesota.

Individual farmers and emerging seed companies took on the challenge of developing special corn seeds capable of growing in Minnesota. Beginning in the late 1800s, the central Minnesota community of Dassel accepted this challenge. During this period, immigrants, primarily from Scandinavia, came to the Dassel area. They were accustomed to cold weather and committed to farming.

The immigrants planted corn seed in their fields. When the corn stalks matured to the extent they could in the climate, the farmers identified the strongest stalks that displayed the best root systems and the most mature ears of corn. The ears from these selected stalks would provide the seed for research the following year.

However, using these kernels as seed depended upon reducing their moisture levels. If the seeds were not dried, their kernels would freeze during winter and lose their ability to germinate, or they would rot in the ground when planted. Without the convenience of electric power, the farmers found creative ways for drying the kernels. Some dried them by hanging the ears over wood-burning stoves in farm kitchens or in warm upstairs bedrooms.

Once the kernels had dried, farmers removed them from the ears using hand-cranked shelling and grading machines. To determine how well these kernels would germinate, they placed a specific number in rags or sawdust and kept them damp. The percent that sprouted determined the germination rate.

Farmers repeated the process of using specially selected kernels the following year. After several years, they developed new varieties of seed suited for Minnesota’s climate. Perhaps unknowingly, they had put into practice a variation of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection: the species that survives is the species that adapts.

Research conducted at the University of Minnesota aided these efforts. In 1893, using a similar process of selective reproduction, the university began work on early-maturing seed. One of the hardy varieties developed at the university was known as Minnesota 13. In 1905, the university made available limited quantities of its research seeds, including Minnesota 13, to emerging seed-corn businesses. As a result, several new varieties of Minnesota 13 seed became popular.

Efforts of the Dassel-area seed-corn operations, working in concert with the University of Minnesota, proved successful in developing new seed varieties suitable for the northern states. By 1910, farmers throughout the upper Midwest grew corn from the varieties of seed produced in the Dassel area. More than twenty individual seed-corn companies operated in this area during the first half of the 1900s. Dassel became recognized as the "Seed Corn Center of the Great Northwest." The traditional Corn Belt expanded to include portions of “cold” Minnesota.

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“Big Corn Show Will Bring a Big Crowd Here.” Dassel Dispatch, January 26, 1921.

Casey, Patrick J. The First 100 Years: A History of Meeker County. Casey, MN: N.p., 1968.

Eberhart, A. O. “Seed Corn Week.” Dassel Anchor, September 10, 1914.

“How The Dassel Seed Co. Built a Flourishing Business.” Commercial West (Minneapolis), March 30, 1935.

Johnson, Magnus. “Meeker County Changes I Have Noted.” Meeker County Farmer (Dassel), May 1921.

Johnson, N. J., and K. Johnson. Christinelund Farm. March 1, 1915. Dassel Area Historical Society.

Lamson, Frank B., ed. and comp. History of Meeker County. Reprinted by the Dassel Area Historical Society, Peru, Indiana, 1937.

“Planting Seed Corn in 1912.” Dassel Anchor, March 28, 1912.

“Prize Winning Corn Growers of the State of Minnesota.” Dassel Anchor, January 4, 1912.

Schrimper, Richard J. Minnesota Agriculture—Crops, 1858–1958. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Agriculture, 1958.

“Seed Corn—An Industry Of Dassel In Itself.” Dassel Dispatch, May 26, 1927.

“Seed Corn Jubilee—Local Corn Grower Wins Sweepstakes At State Fair.” Dassel Dispatch, September 18, 1941.

“Seed Corn Passes Test.” Dassel Dispatch, February 6, 1919.

“To Sell Their Corn.” Dassel Anchor, January 9, 1913.

“Something of a Corn Crop.” Dassel Anchor, November 9, 1911.

“Specializing in Seed Corn—Local Farmers are Aggressive and Successful in Raising and Selling of Quality Seed Corn.” Dassel Anchor, March 11, 1915.

“Will Observe Seed Corn Week.” Dassel Anchor, August 27, 1914.

“Won At International.” Dassel Dispatch, December 10, 1936.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Martin Carlsted turning the handle of a manual corn sheller to remove kernels, c.1910.
Black and white photograph of Martin Carlsted turning the handle of a manual corn sheller to remove kernels, c.1910.
Black and white photograph of an individual using a horse drawn planter to plant seed corn, c.1905.
Black and white photograph of an individual using a horse drawn planter to plant seed corn, c.1905.
Black and white photograph of horse-drawn wagons hauling bags of seed corn to a railroad station for further transporting, c.1907.
Black and white photograph of horse-drawn wagons hauling bags of seed corn to a railroad station for further transporting, c.1907.
Black and white photograph of a large lecture room at University of Minnesota with ears of corn laid out for judging by students. Photographed by Harry D. Ayer c.1910.
Black and white photograph of a large lecture room at University of Minnesota with ears of corn laid out for judging by students. Photographed by Harry D. Ayer c.1910.
Black and white photograph of two individuals tying up ears of corn on a rack for drying, c.1910
Black and white photograph of two individuals tying up ears of corn on a rack for drying, c.1910
Black and white photograph of Martin Carlsted turning the handle of a manual corn grader to grade and separate different sizes and shapes of kernels, c.1910.
Black and white photograph of Martin Carlsted turning the handle of a manual corn grader to grade and separate different sizes and shapes of kernels, c.1910.
Black and white photograph of Alfred Carlsted counting sprouted kernels to determine the percent that germinated, 1914.
Black and white photograph of Alfred Carlsted counting sprouted kernels to determine the percent that germinated, 1914.
Color scan of a Christelund Farm marketing letter, 1915.
Color scan of a Christelund Farm marketing letter, 1915.
Black and white photograph of a Settergren Seed Corn delivery truck, c.1930s.
Black and white photograph of a Settergren Seed Corn delivery truck, c.1930s.
Black and white photograph of individuals evaluating stalks and ears of the corn in a field to select the best seed for the following year, c.1940s.
Black and white photograph of individuals evaluating stalks and ears of the corn in a field to select the best seed for the following year, c.1940s.
Drawing of how the teosinte plant may have looked thousands of years ago. Used in the Disney short film The Grain That Built a Hemisphere, 1943.
Drawing of how the teosinte plant may have looked thousands of years ago. Used in the Disney short film The Grain That Built a Hemisphere, 1943.
Drawing of a temple built in honor of maize. Used in the Disney film The Grain That Built a Hemisphere, 1943.
Drawing of a temple built in honor of maize. Used in the Disney film The Grain That Built a Hemisphere, 1943.
Color image of the hand of an American Indian symbolically offering ear of corn to colonists. Used in The Grain That Built a Hemisphere.
Color image of the hand of an American Indian symbolically offering ear of corn to colonists. Used in The Grain That Built a Hemisphere.
Color image of a corn god holding an ear of corn. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user ŠJů, 2012.
Color image of a corn god holding an ear of corn. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user ŠJů, 2012.
Drawing of a maize or corn plant enjoying warm weather in Southern Mexico. Drawing by Emmeline Hall.
Drawing of a maize or corn plant enjoying warm weather in Southern Mexico. Drawing by Emmeline Hall.
Drawing of a stalk of corn shivering in Minnesota’s cold climate.
Drawing of a stalk of corn shivering in Minnesota’s cold climate.
Drawing of two individuals contemplating how to grow corn in Minnesota’s cold climate.
Drawing of two individuals contemplating how to grow corn in Minnesota’s cold climate.
Drawing of racks of corn suspended over a warm kitchen stove.
Drawing of racks of corn suspended over a warm kitchen stove.
Drawing of a farmer and his wife in bed with ears of corn suspended above them for drying in a warm bedroom.
Drawing of a farmer and his wife in bed with ears of corn suspended above them for drying in a warm bedroom.
Color drawing of the four steps involved in the selective reproduction of better seed.
Color drawing of the four steps involved in the selective reproduction of better seed.
Map of the United States showing major and minor corn growing areas.
Map of the United States showing major and minor corn growing areas.

Turning Point

In 1905, the University of Minnesota makes available limited quantities of its Minnesota 13 research-seed stock to several Minnesota seed businesses. This innovation ultimately advances the commercial production of early-maturing seed for Minnesota corn farmers.

Chronology

c.6,000 BCE

Ancient civilizations in southern Mexico domesticate a bush-like plant containing small kernels called teosinte.

c.5,000 BCE

Teosinte, or the "grain of the gods," discovered to be edible, becomes a critical food source for Maya, Inca, and Aztec people.

1200 CE

Maize, a plant with larger cobs and more kernels, cultivated from teosinte, migrates further north and east and is grown by American Indians in the northeastern U.S., where it becomes known as corn.

1621

The Wampanoag Indians introduce early European colonists in America to maize.

1700s

Corn becomes a major food source throughout the American colonies.

1800s

Farmers migrating westward bring European methods of crop farming into what will become known as the "Corn Belt."

1880

More than 62 million acres of corn are produced in the U.S.

c.1880s

Immigrant farmers from northern Europe in the Dassel area begin the process of adapting corn for Minnesota's cold climate.

1890s

The University of Minnesota begins research to develop early-maturing corn suitable for the colder northern states. One product of this research is "Minnesota 13" seed corn.

1905

Limited quantities of "Minnesota 13" seed corn become available to Dassel-area farmers.

1910

U.S. farmers plant more than 100 million acres of corn; 2.2 million acres are planted in Minnesota.

1910s

Midwestern farmers are growing corn from seed produced in the Dassel area.

c.1930

Cooperative efforts by the University of Minnesota and emerging seed-corn businesses make Minnesota one of the top corn-producing states and bring much of Minnesota into the Corn Belt.

Late 1930s

The Dassel area earns recognition as the "Seed Corn Capital of the Great Northwest" as its seed-corn industry grows.