Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace was an Iowan who made an impact on agriculture throughout the state, the nation and the world. His love for the soil and for agriculture was part of the Wallace family heritage. Wallace was a colorful and controversial public figure. But there was never any doubt—Henry A. Wallace knew his farming.
A Love of Learning
Henry Agard Wallace was born on a farm near Orient, Iowa in Adair County on October 8, 1888. The Wallace’s were one of Iowa’s best known farm families. As a youngster his first passions were science and farming. He was eight years old when the family moved to a farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. His chores included milking cows and eeding the chickens and livestock. As a 10-year-old he had his own garden, which produced food for the family. Strawberries remained a favorite plant throughout his life.
George Washington Carver was a major influence in the life of young Henry. He met Carver when he was six years old. Carver was a student and colleague of Henry’s father at Iowa State College. His father invited the young Carver to the family home. Carver provided a scientific direction to Wallace’s interest and love of plants. Carver would take the young boy on walks collecting specimens in fields around Ames. He helped the boy identify species of plants and plant parts. In the greenhouse he taught Young Henry about plant breeding. They would experiment with sick plants and crop breeding.
Experimenting with Corn
In high school Henry began experimenting with corn to develop a hybrid that would produce a large number of bushels per acre. Between 1910 and 1930 corn shows were very popular around the state. Farmers would enter ten of their best ears of corn. Judges rated the corn on its appearance. It was thought the best looking corn would also produce the best yields. At age 16 he tested corn judged to be beautiful and prize winning against corn that was less beautiful in appearance. He proved that there was no relationship between the yield and the appearance of the corn ears.
It was while he was in college that he became fascinated with a then new science—genetics. Mathematically inclined he taught himself statistics. Henry A. Wallace would be instrumental in getting the subject of statistics introduced at Iowa State. Wallace used statistics to mathematically relate the price of corn to raising pigs.
Wallace graduated from Iowa State in 1910. After graduation he began working on corn-breeding experiments. By 1920 he was one of a handful of people in the nation who understood the potential for working with hybrids. Hybrids were created by crossing two different strands of corn and coming up with a new strand. By 1924 Wallace produced a high-yielding hybrid which he called Copper Cross. In 1924 Copper Cross became the first hybrid ever to win the gold medal in the Iowa Corn Yield Contest at Iowa State.
A New Product for Farmers
His grandfather “Uncle Henry” Wallace founded the weekly publication Wallaces’ Farmer. Henry A. served as editor of this publication from 1921 to 1933. As editor of Wallaces’ Farmer, Henry A. helped establish the state corn yield contest, annual corn husking contest and Master Farmer Awards as well as made Wallaces’ Farmer the most influential farm journal in the nation.
After he took over as the editor of Wallaces’ Farmer, Wallace tirelessly wrote about the virtues of using hybrid seed. At the time most farmers didn’t understand what Wallace was telling them. Wallace did not invent the hybrid seed corn. He never claimed to. But he saw the commercial possibilities for the seed corn and set out to prove it.
There was no place for farmers to buy hybrid seed. In 1926 Wallace came up with a plan to make the product available to farmers. He formed a company called Hi-Bred Corn Company, later to be called Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1935. It became the world’s first and largest hybrid seed company. Wallace’s research was one of the most important plant genetic contributions from 1920 to 1940.
In 1933 only one percent of all farmland in Iowa was planted with hybrid seed. By 1943 almost a hundred percent of the farmland was planted with hybrid seed. Bushels per acre increased in that same period from 24.1 to 31.
A Cabinet Post in Agriculture
As Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, farmers had a voice in Washington—the voice of Henry A. Wallace. He helped formulate and administer New Deal, policies of controlled production, soil conservation and high farm prices from 1933 to 1940. The New Deal was President Roosevelt’s plan for helping American through the depression. He started the first food stamp plan. As secretary of agriculture he developed crop subsidy and soil conservation programs that benefited the farm program for at least six decades.
During his first year in Washington Wallace established a precedent for future secretaries. He traveled 40,000 miles. He visited every state. He made 88 speeches on farm problems, foreign trade and religion. He produced 22 articles for publication and wrote three books.
Working Vice President
Henry became vice president under Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. As vice president Henry A. Wallace assumed many new duties that made him the first working modern vice president. Before Wallace the vice president’s main duty was to preside over the Senate. President Roosevelt made Wallace the head of the Board of Economic Warfare, a group that supported the U.S. war effort.
Wallace became a goodwill ambassador to Latin America, the Soviet Union and China. He became the first vice president to be actually involved in the work of the executive branch of the government and to represent the U.S. in foreign relations.
In 1940 Wallace and his wife attended the Mexican presidential inauguration. They stayed over six weeks and inspected the deteriorating conditions of Mexican agriculture. Wallace urged the Rockefeller Foundation to establish an experimental station to improve conditions and productivity in Mexico. When the experimental station was established Iowan Norman Borlaug was hired to work there. Borlaug’s Green Revolution, a plan to lessen world hunger through better agriculture, began to spread around the world.
Wallace was not chosen to be on the ballot as vice president with Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Senator Harry Truman from Missouri was selected. When President Roosevelt died in April 1945 Harry Truman became president. If Wallace had been renominated he would have become president in 1945. During 1945 to 1946 Wallace served for a short time as the Secretary of Commerce before resigning the cabinet position.
Return to His First Love
In 1948 he campaigned for president on the Progressive Party ticket. He received more than a million popular votes, but no electoral votes. He later broke from the Progressive Party and retired from politics.
When he left political office, Wallace returned to his original love of farming at his South Salem, New York home. Wallace’s final years were spent running an experimental farm. He returned to his first love of experimenting with the development of varieties of plants, including corn, strawberries, and gladioli. He was very successful with chicken breeding. At one time it was said that “half of the egg-laying hens in the world were genetically related to Henry Wallace’s chickens.” He remained a scientist to the end of his life. When Wallace became ill with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) he kept a detailed report of his deteriorating condition in hopes it would help scientists’ understand the disease. Wallace died in 1965.
Remembering Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace left a lasting influence on American agriculture as a scientist, an agriculturalist, a journalist, a cabinet member, an elected politician, an author, an economist and a statesman. In December 1999 the Des Moines Register named Henry A. Wallace the “Most Influential Iowan of the 20th Century.” In 1966, one year after his death, he received the Iowa Award. This is the highest honor the state of Iowa bestows on a citizen who has been an outstanding leader and made outstanding contributions to their field throughout their life and career.
Memories of Henry A. Wallace can be found at various places around the state. His birthplace farmstead in Adair County was dedicated in 1996 as the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center.
- Carolyn Hardesty, Ed., “Henry A., The Third Henry Wallace,” The Goldfinch 12, no. 3 (February 1991): 18-20.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.