Museum chronicles Minnesota's role as corn pioneer

DASSEL, Minn. -- In the early 1900s, Minnesota was considered just too cold to ever grow corn. A corn seed variety called Minnesota 13 changed all of that, and farmers from Dassel, Minn., played a central role in bringing Minnesota, the Dakotas a...

The Dassel Area Historical Society operates a museum in the former Universal Laboratories factory for separating rye grain from ergot fungus, which was used in pharmaceuticals. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

DASSEL, Minn. - In the early 1900s, Minnesota was considered just too cold to ever grow corn.
A corn seed variety called Minnesota 13 changed all of that, and farmers from Dassel, Minn., played a central role in bringing Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin into the Corn Belt by the late 1930s.
On June 28, the Dassel Area Historical Society held a grand opening for a new exhibit - Seed Corn: From Maize to Amazing - dedicated to the town’s corn hybrid history. The society operates a museum connected to agriculture, in a historic building that once milled ergot into products for the pharmaceutical industry.
The new corn exhibit was financed, in part, by a $47,200 grant from Minnesota Historical Society, through its Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Dedicating a floor of the building to the corn exhibit, the museum uses photos, images, text and artifacts to raise up the “amazing story of the seed corn industry” in the Dassel area in the 1890s. The museum at 901 First St., in Dassel, is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., or by appointment.
Minnesota 13 - an inbred line developed by the University of Minnesota in the late 1890s - is heavily featured. An outdoor demonstration plot allows visitors to see the purest descendents available from the actual Minnesota 13 variety.
Corn made Dassel
Kurt Greenley, a Minneapolis lawyer and a proud son of a seed corn executive, helped develop the exhibit.
“The seed corn industry made the town of Dassel,” Greenley says.
His father, Kermit Greenley, was a researcher and owner of Pride Hybrid Co. and Weather Master Hybrid Seeds.
As the Dassel fable goes, Scandinavian immigrants came to the Dassel area in the late 1800s, and wanted to grow corn there.
At first, farmers used simple selection - choosing and regrowing corn ears and kernels that were favorable for size, shape, color, texture and moisture. By 1915, they could reliably grow corn for silage. Before electricity, companies dried seed corn to the proper 12 percent moisture with racks mounted on the walls behind cook stoves. Workers would shell it using machines cranked by hand, grade it, and transport it to market in horse-drawn carts.
By 1921, they were growing better corn for grain and hosting regional corn shows, dominating competitions in the late 1920s. Corn breeding companies were started and led by their namesakes - Andrew Haapala in 1906, C.J. Peterson in 1916 and Arthur and Albin Dahlman in 1922. About 20 individual seed businesses were started in the region, working to develop fast-maturing, high-yielding varieties.
By 1937, Commercial West magazine of Minneapolis dubbed Dassel the “Seed Corn Center of the Great Northwest.”
Since the 1700s
A typical visit to the Daseel corn exhibit starts with a 10-minute film about the history of the crop.
The Academy Award-nominated documentary film, “The Grain that Built a Hemisphere,” produced by Walt Disney in 1942, tells how corn originated from “teosinte,” a plant that grew 6,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. Early corn types were used and revered by the Maya, Aztec and Inca peoples.
The Dassel exhibit tells the modern story of corn with 21 educational panels, 3 feet wide and 6 feet tall, often with a mix of vintage photos and artifacts. The retractable panels are designed to be mobile and taken to other locations. They tell how corn was introduced to American colonists in the 1700s and how corn continues to evolve today, tackling the genetic modified organism issue with even-handedness.
As the story goes, commercial corn initially was “open pollinated” - not a hybrid. Corn plants contain both male (tassel) and female (silk) parts. The tassel sheds pollen, which falls on the silks, each of which is attached to a potential kernel in the ear.
Minnesota 13 was developed by the University of Minnesota in the late 1880s and improved in the early 1890s, according to 2007 research at the University of Illinois. It was popular because of its improved yield potential and relatively early maturity. University of Illinois researchers say it is the genetic background for 13 percent of U.S. hybrid corn.
Moonshine delight
Minnesota 13 was also branded as the variety that moonshiners preferred for making whiskey during prohibition, effective Jan. 16, 1920 to Dec. 5, 1933. Moonshine made in the St. Cloud area was also called Minnesota 13, with legends of sub-specialty distillers in the communities of Albany, Melrose, Avon and Holdingford. A documentary film company is in the process of making a film called “Minnesota 13: From the Grain to the Glass.”
As time went on, the Dassel companies developed their own inbred lines, created by pollinating the ear of each plant only with the pollen from the same plant - also called self-
polination or self-fertilization. It is only when two unrelated inbred lines are crossed that the progeny become large and vigorous hybrids.
The process includes detasseling, or taking the male parts off of plants, to ensure that only the desired crosses take place. Greenley says the seed corn industry was a key cultural factor for Dassel, where companies hired legions of youths to do the tedious, uncomfortable “detasseling” process that was important in expanding hybrids for farmers. Detasseling became less important in the 1970s with the development of sterile lines.
“More than uncomfortable, I would say it was miserable,” says Greenley, who managed detasseling teams for his father’s companies. “They were going through muddy, buggy fields in hot, humid weather. It was a challenge.”
Shift toward hybrids
In 1992, Time Magazine recognized the development of hybrid corn seed as one of man’s greatest achievements in the previous 1,000 years. Volunteers at the Dassel museum lived that history.
Duane Smith is a seed company retiree who works in the demonstration plots. He covers emerging ear shoots with small bags to prevent contact with foreign pollen, and then hand-pollinates with only Minnesota 13 pollen. The seed for the plot came from the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, which is charged with preserving historic germplasm. He says Minnesota 13 is interesting because it doesn’t have the vigor of modern hybrids and is far more susceptible to insects and wind.
James “Tex” Haapala, 79, is a volunteer who worked in his family’s multi-generational business. Haapala’s great-grandfather started a seed corn business near Dassel in 1910. Tex’s grandfather, Levi, took over the business in 1936 and operated it as Levi Haapala and Sons until 1949. Then Tex’s father, Bernard, and uncles Ray and Bruce took over the business and owned it until 1968. When the Haapalas sold to ACCO Seed, Tex, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, went to work for ACCO, then Payco Seed, and in 1975 cofounded Top Farm Hybrids.
Haapala says Dassel was an effect nationally, but especially in the region.
“From Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, I’d say we had a pretty good percent of the seed business,” Haapala says.

Related Topics: DASSELCORN
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