Every Iowan knows that corn isn’t just a crop. As a key part of our state’s economy, adjacent agricultural industries, and history—it’s more like a way of life.
But did you know that 100 years ago, Altoona helped irrevocably change the world of corn farming? That’s right.
Our nation’s first acre of hybrid seed corn was grown here in the summer of 1923, on a family farm just a few blocks away from Olde Town Altoona.
This was a big deal, and not just for our community. In the last century, the development of hybrid seed corn has revolutionized the agricultural industry by exponentially improving yields, increasing crop resilience, and promoting innovation—to the benefit of the entire planet.
The Competition that Started it All
In 1923, Iowa State University organized a corn yield test, a competition in which farmers could showcase their seed varieties and find out whose had the most potential.
George Kurtzweil (part of a successful agricultural family) decided to give it a shot. He was joined by his sister Ruth and his good friend Henry A. Wallace, a fellow Central Iowa farmer who later became the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The three of them opted to grow their experimental yield on the Kurtzweil family farm in Altoona, in an isolated field close to where the 100 block of 1st Street North is today. This was their game plan, according to the book “Rising to New Heights, 150 Years of Altoona History”, written by Altoona resident Alex Payne:
“The two men were convinced that hybrid seed corn was the way of the future. Wallace and Kurtzweil picked Copper Cross as the type of hybrid corn they would enter in the corn yield test trials. They reasoned that the distinctive color of the variety would distinguish it from other corn and make comparisons more accurate.”
Now, it was time to grow. And that they did.
A Slight Failure, a Big Success, and a Truly Historic Harvest
Much to their disappointment, George and Henry didn’t end up winning the yield test. However, they turned out just fine. Later that year, the two of them signed the first-ever commercial contract for hybrid seed corn production in the U.S.—an accomplishment that helped them develop into now-revered pioneering figures in the agricultural industry.
But none of this would’ve been possible without Ruth. She deserves just as much credit in this story of local success.
Ruth Kurtzweil carried out all of the detasseling (the process of removing the top of corn plants to eliminate unwanted pollination) by herself! In other words, she single-handedly detasseled Iowa’s ENTIRE supply of hybrid corn during the 1923 harvest season, a feat that solidified her place in national agricultural history.
Celebrating With a “Cornival” 100 Years Later
What would a 100-year anniversary be without a proper celebration? Meaningless, if you ask us. The Altoona Arts and Culture Commission and the Altoona Area Historical Society feel the same way. As such, they’ll be throwing a super fun, summer-long “Cornival” this year!
The event is set to include all sorts of fun activities like a community corn feed, kids’ coloring contests, and corn cob car races, just to name a few.
But that’s not all. The most exciting part of the “Cornival” will be the unveiling of 6-foot-tall corn statues placed throughout the Altoona community! (Think Herky on Parade or CyclONE City, but much “cornier”.)
Follow us, the Altoona Arts and Culture Commission, and the Altoona Area Historical Society on social media to receive important updates about the event and other local happenings!