Column: Henry A. Wallace, and his ‘History of the Cornbelt’

Ray Crippen

Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Oct. 20, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — My guess is many area people remember Henry A. Wallace. Henry A. Wallace was vice president of the United States (1940-1944). Henry A. Wallace was a U.S. Secretary of Commerce from that time when school kids had to memorize names of U.S. Cabinet secretaries. (Can you identify Henry Morgenthau, Cordell Hull, James A. Farley? Frances Perkins?)

Kids had to remember the vice president as Henry A. Wallace

Wallace — Henry Wallace was a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the editor of Wallace’s Farmer. Henry Wallace helped to found Iowa’s 4-H clubs and the Iowa Farm Bureau.

The Wallaces are surely one of Iowa’s most illustrious families. Politics aside, Henry A. Wallace developed several important corn hybrids. He was founder of the Hi-Bred Corn Co. which became the Pioneer Hi-Bred Co. He left an estate (1965) of $125 million.


Half-a-century ago, Henry A. wrote a history of the U.S. Cornbelt. You talk about climate change …

Did you know there was a major change in the U.S. Cornbelt climate a little over 100 years ago? I didn’t know. I was reading what Henry A. wrote about corn. Corn is a No. 1 topic right now. U.S. farmers — area farmers — are bringing in the biggest corn crop in all history. Thirteen billion bushels or more.

In his, “History of the Cornbelt,” Henry A. Wallace wrote:

“Finally, by 1900, the main outlines of the Cornbelt had been defined. Just one great change remained to be made.

“The relatively moist weather of the (18) eighties and (18) nineties attracted too large an acreage of corn into Kansas. With the drier weather of the first half of the 20th century, Kansas, which had been in third place (in national corn production) … dropped to 11th place.

“Minnesota, which had been in 11th place, climbed to third. The hot, dry weather which forced much of Kansas out of corn favored Minnesota. Minnesota became the last frontier of the Cornbelt and profited by the sudden introduction of early types of hybrid corn and new types of machinery adapted to the large farms of southwestern Minnesota.”

Kansas has waited more than a century for a return of “the old corn climate.” It has never come back.

I got caught up in corn — I read about what is thought to be the first-ever shipment of corn out of Minnesota, 250 or 260 gunny sacks of corn.


(You identified Frances Perkins. Another test: do you know what a gunny sack is? I haven’t seen a gunny sack for a long time. I used to carry 100-pound gunny sacks of potatoes. I remember gunny sacks as rugs inside kitchen doors.)

Minnesota’s gunny sacker was its first governor, Henry Sibley. James J. Hill, the man who built the Great Northern railroad, also wrote a history of farming in Minnesota after he made his great fortune.

“I remember the first corn that was shipped (from Minnesota)” James Hill wrote.

“People did not generally believe corn would grow in Minnesota, but Gen. Sibley had a cornfield on the bottomland above Mendota and raised some 250 or 260 gunny-bags of corn.

“This was regarded as of sufficient importance to justify taking the St. Louis steamboat up to Mendota to load this corn for St. Louis. I thought the General was rather a plucky man in sending out the corn and paying the rate of freight demanded; I think the rate was 35 cents a hundred (pounds) to St. Louis.

“Although the shipment today would not be called a large one, the boat could then reasonably well afford to go on from St. Paul to Mendota in order to get 250 or 260 gunny-bags of corn.”

There were some bittersweet times in Minnesota’s cornfields between the year of the “gunny bags” and the year (1956) when Henry A. Wallace wrote his history.

Among other things, during those years — what? five hundred thousand? — Minnesota school kids, both boys and girls, were excused from classes this time of year. They were out in the cornfields picking ears, one at a time. They were in the fields by dawn and they worked until sunset. And it was cold. Day after day. That was part of life in the shifting U.S. Cornbelt.

Related Topics: HISTORY
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