Ron Kelsey: The seed sack saver
FALCON HEIGHTS -- From bright shades of red, yellow and blue to the traditional off-white color, Ron Kelsey's collection of bushel-sized cloth seed sacks have drawn a lot of interest from visitors to the Minnesota State Fair in recent years.
Kelsey, a former agriculture teacher and FFA advisor from Lamberton, owns what may be the largest collection of cloth seed sacks in Minnesota. The collection, which includes more than 400 different sacks, was sought after by four agricultural and historical museums in just the last year.
While Kelsey hasn't shared the collection in museums yet, he displays a portion of them each year in the Horticulture Building on the state fairgrounds.
"I bring the sacks because of the interest of so many people to see them," said Kelsey, who set up the display last week in preparation for the state fair, which begins today in Falcon Heights.
Kelsey is serving his 13th year as the Minnesota State Fair's Farm Crops Superintendent, though he has logged more than 50 years of service at the Great Minnesota Get-together. Visitors will find him in the vicinity of his seed sack display from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day of the state fair.
Kelsey began collecting cloth seed sacks about 30 years ago, after finding some of them on auctions or displayed in antique shops.
"My father did business with two corn companies and we had sacks around," Kelsey explained. With seven sisters in his family, he said the seed sacks were often re-used as dish towels, while the more colorfully patterned cloth flour sacks were repurposed for dresses, aprons and other garments.
Kelsey's dad grew Minhybrid seed corn, a variety developed by the University of Minnesota. In 1944, he said there were 267 farmers growing Minhybrid seed.
The size of each seed corn sack was regulated to hold just one bushel of seed -- a measure enacted by 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the purpose of international trade.
"If it was a soybean bag, there might be more (than a bushel)," Kelsey said.
The use of cloth seed sacks continued until the early 1960s, when cheaper options such as paper and plastic bags were introduced.
When Kelsey began to see the cloth sacks sold at auctions, it piqued his interest because of his own family's use of the bags. Pretty soon, he was searching for bags wherever he could find them.
"I just started buying them and got the collection that way," he said. "I went to sales and auctions -- not too far from home, really.
"After I had the collection well under way, then I started purchasing from eBay," he added. "You have to pay pretty good for them now."
While the most Kelsey has ever paid for a cloth seed sack was about $100 -- for a bag advertising Sears-Roebuck & Co. corn seed that he found offered on eBay -- Kelsey said the most he's ever seen a bag sell for was $500. That particular cloth sack was decorated with a picture of Abraham Lincoln and was offered for sale from southern Minnesota.
The graphic designs included on the cloth sacks are often what people admire about them.
"I think it's interesting, back then, that they used as much color as they did," said Kelsey, adding that there were burgundy-colored seed sacks with gold lettering to tout the University of Minnesota and other school colors to represent the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Iowa Hawkeyes and Wisconsin Badgers.
Initially, Kelsey's collection was limited solely to Minnesota seed corn sacks, but after seeing some of the graphics featured on bags from other states, he started buying them, too.
The most sought-after bags now -- and thus the more expensive -- are those that feature illustrations of the American Indian.
Kelsey said there were three main companies in the Twin Cities -- Chase, Bemis and Fulton -- who did the graphic design for seed companies during the era of cloth seed sacks. They typically printed their name on the back side of the cloth bags.
The most unique bags in Kelsey's collection include one from a seed corn company in Wisconsin that featured a little girl sitting on a corn pile. The girl happens to be the daughter of the people who established the company. On another, Kelsey points out a picture of the man who won the 1938 hand corn picking contest in Iowa, under the heading of Champion Seeds.
"I have seed sacks from Montgomery Ward when they sold corn, Gambles, Spiegel," Kelsey shared. "I did get one up by the Canadian border -- an open pollinated bag. It's my oldest one, that was before hybrids, and it was a sack that was never used."
In recent years, Kelsey has been asked to write a book about the collection -- several graphic designers have approached him at the state fair about such a project -- and he's received emails from England and the former Soviet Union with requests to share his story.
"A person from Canada emailed me and wanted to purchase one, but they really aren't for sale," Kelsey said. "(The sacks) are getting more difficult to find all the time. Some are a dime a dozen, like Dekalb and Pioneer."
To view Kelsey's collection of cloth seed sacks, look for the display in the Horticulture Building on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The fair begins today and continues through Labor Day.