Thomas R. O'Donnell

Marker to recognize location of H.A. Wallace’s first corn-breeding experiment

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2015 at 7:10 am
Henry A. Wallace in 1939, as secretary of agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Henry A. Wallace in 1939, as secretary of agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Credit: washington_area_spark via photopin cc

It’s hard to think of it now, but at the turn of the 20th century the area of Des Moines just southwest of Drake University was a largely open field. And on 10 acres at 38th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, where Grace United Methodist Church now stands, the roots of an agricultural and scientific revolution began to take hold.

The land once was the home of Henry C. Wallace, the founder, with his father, “Uncle Henry” Wallace, of the influential Wallace’s Farmer magazine. Henry C.’s son, Henry Agard Wallace, was 13 when the family moved to the location, according to the definitive Henry A. Wallace biography, “American Dreamer.”

Henry A., of course, went on to become secretary of agriculture, vice president and secretary of commerce. He also founded the hybrid seed corn company that today is the giant DuPont Pioneer in Johnston.

The seed empire’s embryo was formed on that Des Moines acreage. Now a local committee wants to recognize the location’s significance.

Iowa Peacemakers Monument, Inc., received permission last week from the Grace UMC Administrative Board to place a marker honoring Wallace on the northwest corner of the church property. That would place it at 38th and Cottage Grove, where it will be most visible and later development is unlikely to displace it, Pastor David Swinton told me in an email.

Grace United Methodist Church in Des Moines and the corner at 38th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue where a marker honoring Henry A. Wallace would be placed. Credit: Paula Ann Mohr.

Grace UMC in Des Moines and the corner at 38th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue where a marker honoring Henry A. Wallace would be placed. Credit: Paula Ann Mohr.

The Peacemakers group already has erected one Des Moines monument, “Path to Peace,” on the grounds of Des Moines Area Community College’s urban campus.

Monuments serve to educate, said the Rev. Chet Guinn, a longtime Des Moines activist who heads the Peacemakers committee. That’s the goal in honoring Henry A. Wallace.

“Of all the significant people from Iowa, the Wallace family comes right up there,” Guinn said. “But if you ask people where they think all this might have taken place, they’re in the dark.”

“American Dreamer,” by former Iowa Senator John Culver and former Des Moines Register reporter John Hyde, lays out the history. Henry A. Wallace was born Oct. 7, 1888, in Adair County. When he was 3, his father started work as an agriculture professor at Iowa State College and the family moved to Ames.

The Wallaces befriended the college’s first and only African-American student, George Washington Carver. He took an interest in Henry and for about a year, when the lad was 6, took him on “botanizing expeditions” around Ames. Carver “pointed out to me the flowers and the parts of flowers,” Wallace recalled later in an oral history the book cites.

Detail from a statue of Carver at the George Washington Carver Garden in the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Carver statue at the George Washington Carver Garden in the Missouri Botanical Garden. Credit: XPI3 Beqy via photopin cc

Carver, as most people know, went on to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and became famous for developing new plants and uses for them.

The monument will celebrate Carver and Wallace’s relationship, Guinn said. With support from donors, the committee plans to install a bronze plaque on a boulder at the corner. “If the church is willing, we’ll start looking for a sculptor to do sculptures of the boy (Wallace) and Carver” to accompany the boulder, Guinn said.

That’s still in the works, though. The cost would be around $120,000 dollars and “I’m not sure we have the stomach for that,” Guinn added. “The boulder and the explanatory plaque would be sufficient to accomplish our main goal.”

If you’re interested in donating, Guinn suggests contacting committee member Karla Hansen at karlahansen(at)hotmail.com.

Shortly before Carver left for Tuskegee, Henry C. Wallace resigned his faculty appointment at Iowa State. In 1895, he and Uncle Henry joined forces to retool a small farm newspaper into what became Wallaces’ Farmer magazine.

The Wallaces moved to a rental house in Des Moines. By 1902, Henry C. Wallace was wealthy enough to buy the 10 acres on what was Des Moines’ west edge and build a $5,000 house there. His son was just 13.

Two years later, Henry A. conducted an experiment on the property that proved pivotal in his life-long quest to improve corn yield.

At the time, farmers were taught that the most attractive corn was the best corn. Competitions were held – some sponsored by Wallaces’ Farmer – to find the most perfect ears.

The leading advocate of this view was Perry Holden, an assistant Iowa State College agriculture dean and Wallace family friend. In January 1904 15-year-old Henry A. Wallace attended a two-week course Holden conducted.

The teenager didn’t buy Holden’s assertions, Culver and Hyde wrote. Looks didn’t matter, he said; only yield did. Holden said beauty did equal yield, and challenged Wallace to test Reid yellow dent corn, the standard for beauty, against less attractive ears.

That summer, in a rigorous test on five acres of the family’s Cottage Grove property, Wallace proved that some of the ugliest ears yielded the most corn while some of the ones Holden thought most beautiful were among the worst. It was an early example of the scientific rigor Wallace would apply in his later hybrid seed corn work.

Wallace’s first attempt at crossbreeding corn, however, may have happened elsewhere. It’s unclear from American Dreamer what experiments he carried out in his later teen years or while attending Iowa State College. But the biography says he tried inbreeding corn in 1913 on a small plot near the home his father built at 37th Street and John Lynde Road – more than a mile south of Cottage Grove.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that Wallace, building on the work of others, grew and sold his first hybrid seed corn.

Regardless of where Henry A. Wallace first started cross-pollinating corn, there’s no doubt the Methodist church location is significant. It’s where he first delved into the mechanics of corn yield and succeeded in turning conventional wisdom on its head – a characteristic for which he became known.

The marker text Grace UMC’s board approved reads:

In 1904, Henry A. Wallace, age 15, was permitted by his parents to use five acres at this site to experiment with the controlled pollination of corn, a successful venture that revolutionized agriculture.

Henry learned basic genetics from the flowerbeds of his mother and field trips with George Washington Carver.

A son of slaves, Carver broke the educational color barrier in Iowa when Simpson College, Indianola, enrolled him and later facilitated his transfer to Iowa State College, Ames, where he excelled in horticulture.

The adult Wallace served the nation as Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President and Secretary of Commerce. At the conclusion of his public life he stated:

“I firmly believe that there is nothing more important that I can do than work in the cause of peace.”

– Iowa Peace Monument Committee, 2015

The marker will go up this summer, Guinn said. It and the later sculpture “will be an invitation to learn more about Wallace and it has side lessons: an interracial message, an intergenerational message, a science message, a feeding-a-hungry-world message. There’s a lot of potential in having a marker to tell people this story.”

Swinton, the Grace UMC pastor, agreed. The parsonage he lives in was built by John P. Wallace, Henry A. Wallace’s uncle. The Wallace history “feels like part of our own history,” even though the family had no direct connection with the church.

Besides teaching the lessons Guinn mentioned, the marker “can also lead to stories about questioning conventional wisdom,” Swinton wrote. The teen-aged Wallace’s tests at that location taught him that how corn looks matters little to its productivity.

“Perhaps too, he learned that how people look on the outside doesn’t tell you anything about the kind of intellect and kindness and other qualities they have on the inside,” Swinton added. “Perhaps with these lessons, we can continue to plant seeds at this location.”

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  1. Thanks Tom!

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