Lamberton man has huge collection of sacks, some to be displayed at upcoming state fair
By Patricia Buchette
From the tattoo of an ear of corn on his forearm, to his collection of 1,400 seed corn sacks, Ron Kelsey of Lamberton is constantly promoting the value and importance of corn production in the State of Minnesota.
The retired agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Red Rock Central Public School in Lamberton, has been the Minnesota State Fair’s Farm Crops Superintendent for 22 years. On Jan. 15, the Minnesota State Fair board awarded him with an honorary life membership in the Minnesota State Agricultural Society.
Ron is a self-starter with determination that has served him all his life. And those characteristics have been on full display since day one.
On May 13, 1940, Dale Kelsey, (Ron’s father) was planting corn. He returned home to water the horses and to have lunch. His wife Fern greeted him with news of the imminent birth of their seventh child. There was corn to be planted, and Dale, Fern, and the children drove eight miles to the hospital in Madelia. Fern and her suitcase were dropped off at the curb, and the family returned home.
The expectant mother was not met with ceremony. The nurse brought her to a room, warning her not to bother her since she had the whole hospital to clean. The 12-bed Madelia Community Hospital was formerly a private residence. The nurse went about her business, and when she returned with dinner for her patient, Fern was holding a baby boy.
“You have a baby!” the nurse exclaimed.
Fern Kelsey’s response? “Why do you think I came here?”
Ron’s continued his penchant for doing things his way as a young boy.
“I contracted polio in the summer of 1946,” he explained. “Our farm was quarantined. My parents would carry me outside where I would lie in a tent during the day and be taken back in at night. The doctor would visit every day. I couldn’t move my eyes and head... I had to move my whole body.”
Ron said his symptoms that were not severe enough for an iron lung, but incapacitated him so that he could not move.
“School started late that year because of polio, “he said. “Students met outside at schools, and when it got too cold, class was indoors with open windows.”
Once he got better, his legs didn’t work well and so, in his words, “I taught myself to walk.” He demonstrated his exercise of sitting in his chair and propelling himself forward.
“There was no State Fair in 1946 because of polio. I went to the State Fair in 1947, and by that time, I could walk. In 1947, the Agriculture Horticulture building was brand new. I don’t remember much... I was seven years old.”
Ron has been to the State Fair every year since then, except in 2020 when it was closed again... this time for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My dad showed field corn at the State Fair for 52 fairs and won 30 championships,” he said. “He raised seed corn for Enestvedt Seed Company near Sacred Heart.”
It was during this time when Ron became interested in the cloth bags in which seed was sold, and began collecting them. At present, his collection numbers about 1,400. He plans to exhibit 350 at the State Fair again this year.
“Not many people consider collecting sacks because they are so large,” he said. “I have 20 to 25 tubs in which I store the sacks.”
His collection, having grown to the extent it has, has created interest.
“I don’t sell any of the sacks,” he said, and has no plans for their ultimate disposition.
In addition to the seed corn bags, Ron has a collection of flour sacks and, with a voice of experience, he relates the usages for sacks in earlier years when times were hard.
“You could take the color out of patterned bags and make dish towels and underwear.”
Patterned sacks were used for dresses worn by his seven sisters. When the family shopped in Lewistown, they had to get the right patterned sack, sometimes having to move a stack of bags to get to a matching pattern.
Some flour sacks had patterns of toys on them. Once cut out, the remnant became stuffing, was thrust into the form, and there was nothing left but a toy.
One of the interesting experiences of exhibiting his collection is the response from others.
At one of the exhibitions Ron was standing off to the side and saw two young men looking at the sacks. One of them said, “What kind of person would save all of these? He must be crazy.” The second responded, “I saw him on television, and he seemed normal.’”
Ron likes to tell the story of a family from Prescott, Wisc., who viewed his seed sack collection. One of them exclaimed, “There is Aunty Patsy. That is our aunt.” The Jacques Seed Corn sack displayed a young girl sitting on a pile of corn. The family didn’t have one of the sacks, so he obtained another and gave it to them.
Graphic designers have also been interested in the bags. They are often curious how the likenesses could be printed on seed sacks with the (lack of) technology of the time. It is confusing to them how this transfer could be accomplished, said Ron.
At times, visitors who look at the display try to find a sack from their area.
“One person asked if I had any sacks from New York. I found one and showed it to him. It was from the county in New York where he was from.”
Ron frequently gets questions. One gentleman who heard about pollination had a question. “Who invented pollination?” he asked. Ron responded, “I bet it was God.”
He buys sacks wherever he finds them -- at auctions, online, and some have been gifted to him. His most expensive sack? “I bought one on eBay,” he said. “It was a Sears & Roebuck seed corn sack. I paid $100 for it.”
His favorite is the little girl on the Jacques Seed corn sack.
“Museums are interested,” he said when asked about his collection that has attracted the interest of the textile department at the University of Minnesota. They are assisting him as he seeks to store them safely.”
Ron has examples in his collection of unique uses for the sacks.
“Seed sacks are interesting,” he said. “My wife made a vest from a sack. Somebody made a carrying bag out of an Enestvedt Seed Company sack that I bought online from California.
Seed corn sacks are just one of the features of the Agriculture Horticulture Building. Seed art is a popular exhibit and is over 50 years old. Minnesota is the only state in the union that does seed art for exhibition. Seed art is created from such seeds as millet, timothy, wheat, oats, and canola. Ground corn is used to create a white color. It is not permissible to use weed seeds.
Liz Schreiber, using crop art, designed the official Minnesota State Fair poster for this year’s Great Minnesota Get Together. Schreiber has shown her seed art since 2004 with a likeness of Slim Whitman created from seeds. Her 2023 poster features cattle, antique tractors, and, of course, corn.
One year, Liz Schreiber created a crop art likeness of Grumpy the Cat. The cat, so nicknamed, was an American Internet celebrity cat. Feline dwarfism caused a permanently “grumpy” facial appearance that became famous. Grumpy’s owners and agent brought the cat to the fair to see the work of art, and Ron was assigned responsibility to oversee the press event. When filming was complete, questions were asked. Grumpy’s agent refused, saying they were there only for photographs. When the agent was overruled, she angrily returned to her limousine while Grumpy’s owners answered questions.
Other crop art exhibits include jewelry and clothing.
“I started a wearable seed class. Students made jewelry and boots out of seeds. My daughter made a bikini using seeds. Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion viewed the exhibit and said, ‘Is this (bikini) some type of a fertility item?’”
He also started a demonstration for kids at the fair.
“Eight at a time can sit at a table and create their own seed art. When they are done, we put their projects in a plastic bag so they don’t lose any of the seeds,” said Ron.
As Minnesota State Fair’s Farm Crops Superintendent, Ron sees it all, and his many stories could fill volumes.
This year, he will bring a special exhibit to the Minnesota State Fair. When going through an old storage unit in the 1896 school, he was told he could have whatever was found. The area had been taken over by mice, but safe in a metal grain germinator, he found samples from grain grown in Lamberton in 1920. Boxes were created to display the samples of Russian rye, rye, timothy, wheat, and oats that were found. These samples will be exhibited at this year’s fair.