Articles » Ferry Morse Seed Company, San Francisco
San Francisco seedsmen
One of the major legacies of the Californian gold rush was a flourishing horticultural industry. The Californian soil was extremely fertile if it received enough water. Franciscan missionaries had grown bumper crops at the end of the 18th century. When thousands of men descended on the fledgling state in 1849 and afterwards, seeking gold, feeding them was a huge task. Wheat, which had been king, declined by about 1880 because it could no longer compete with extremely cheap new sources in Canada and the Ukraine for example but orchards and row crops continued to expand and prosper. Flowers too had a place in this expansion.
Early San Francisco had many nurseries and places to buy seed. The plants were grown on-site for sale and not just trucked in from somewhere else. Each business might have quite extensive property, an unheard-of luxury today with the value of land in a modern city. When the newly rich miners and mining suppliers from the gold rush built their ostentatious houses to show the world how much money they had, they always incorporated large gardens in the plans. That in turn fostered the growth of the nursery trade.
Charlie Abraham’s Western Nursery covered several acres in Cow Hollow. William Walker, the Alabama lawyer who came to San Francisco for the gold rush, opened his famous nursery on Folsom Street, between 3rd and 4th streets. His property is now most aptly the site of the Society of California Pioneers. Several major nurseries from the East Coast established a presence in the city.
John Saul‘s United States Nursery represented Ellwanger-Barry from Rochester, New York, a premier firm in the “Flower City”. The smart set ordered their plants from Ellwanger –Barry just as we might buy our clothes from Paris rather than the chain stores. It had more cachet.
By the mid-1870s there were more than 150 nurseries in the state of California, drawn by the rapidly expanding market. After two fairly bad business recessions in the 1870s and 1890s things picked up again.
In Ventura Theodosia Burr Shepherd developed the California flower seed industry, starting in 1874. She began in a very small way, swapping through a ladies’ magazine but after a few years, expanded her property and grew flowers for their seeds. She sold them by type in separate little envelopes. As she became more certain of her work she started to cross many petunias to grow sturdy and elegant new varieties.
One of the nation’s leading nurserymen, Peter Henderson of New York, commended her work and prophesied a great future for flower seeds in California. In 2000, California, Michigan and Florida led the country in horticultural production so his prediction was prescient.
In the mid 19th century, Detroit was a center of horticulture. As will be seen below, a modest seed store in Detroit became significant for the Bay area. R. W. Wilson from Rochester, New York, moved to Santa Clara for his health. He had always been a seed grower and so it was not surprising he would grow ‘Prizehead’ lettuce on his farm in 1874. This was said to be the first commercial crop grown for seed on the Pacific coast. Wilson sold the entire crop of seed to D. M. Ferry. Wilson ‘s health unfortunately got worse and in 1877 he sold his business to Charles Copeland (“C. C.”) Morse, and Mr A. L.Kellogg, a Methodist minister. By this time the farm was more than a hundred acres. Other crops were added to the lettuce.
In this way the first stage of a major new company began. The firm of C. C. Morse had been incorporated in 1884 after he had bought out Kellogg. By itself his name is probably not familiar to most people, even those interested in gardening. As part of Ferry-Morse, purveyors of seeds in little paper packets, it is indeed well known.
Every spring one can rely on row upon row of colorful packets appearing in garden centers, hardware stores and many other outlets. Huge crimson radishes, enticing ears of golden corn and elegant string beans beckon to us. Marigolds and zinnias compete with snapdragons and four o’clocks for our attention.
For us it is a question of choosing between all the pretty packages: Burpee, Ferry Morse and other well known names. Most of the seed companies are now part of much larger businesses due to consolidation of the industry in the past 15 or 20 years but in their day they led the market. Ferry Morse is currently owned by Groupe Limagrain, a large French farming cooperative.
Although both Ferry and Morse had each started a business at the end of the 19th century the familiar company was not put together until 1930 when C. C. Morse and Co. decided to merge with the D. M. Ferry Co. of Detroit. Neither of the founders was still alive by then but the Ferry firm was growing much of its seed in California and it made good sense. Ferry had excellent distribution facilities and had been in close touch with the Morse people for many years.
The combined firm rapidly became the largest seed company in the world. Safe new ways of canning fruit and vegetables created an even greater demand for seed. The outbreaks of botulism in the previous decade had finally led to serious reform.
Dexter Mason Ferry was born in Lowville, near Binghampton, upstate New York, in 1833. He died in California in 1907. In the 21st century Lowville is very small town, with only about 3000 inhabitants. In the nineteenth century it was probably beyond the back of beyond. Ferry grew up on a farm and gained a lot of experience with crops.
He was just a little too young for the gold rush but went to Detroit in 1853. Detroit was a centre of horticultural activity at the time. His aim was to save enough money to go to college. He began to work for Milo Gardner at the American Seed Store. By saving his money carefully he entered into partnership with Mr Gardner and later with Eber Church, to open Gardner, Ferry and Church in 1856. After his partners retired he continued the retail store as D. M. Ferry and Co, incorporated in 1879.
Ferry introduced several key changes in the seed business. He had a very keen sense of how to make his business succeed. His main insight was that since no one could tell by looking at a seed whether its would germinate successfully the principal weapon of the merchant was in an unassailable reputation for honesty and integrity.
Acting on that he threw out any seed remaining at the end of a season. Only fresh new seed was sold. In this way he more or less guaranteed adequate germination, absolutely essential for farmers and gardeners. He was among the first to put seeds of each variety into small separate envelopes, labeled and even illustrated later, something only the Shakers were doing at the time. Perhaps he had seen the Shaker methods during his boyhood in upstate New York.
He also had the idea of displaying the packets on a “commission rack” in the seed dealer’s showroom. In addition he made sure that the seed he sent out would do well in the part of the country where they were to be grown, further ensuring success. All these arrangements are now routine and we do not give them a second thought but they were real innovations when he started in the 1860s. Ferry created the modern seed business.
The catalogues reflected his imaginative philosophy. He inserted classical quotations or wrote small homilies on the benefits of growing vegetables. Chromolithographs illustrated the pages from a very early date. In some of them the field workers are seen to be women, though men are the supervisors.
Ferry also felt that “ladies” would benefit from gardening and exhorted them to “cultivate flowers as an invigorating and inspiring out-door occupation. Many are pining from monotony and depression, who might bury their cares by planting a few seeds.” (1) [This view is echoed in the immortal words of “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Doc said that someone should invent a machine in which hypochondriacal wealthy women would be obliged to go through the movements of a using a wash tub, wringing out the laundry and then ironing. This would restore them to health very fast. (2)]
Ferry bought vegetable and flower seed from growers in the Detroit area, using a number of suppliers. He developed many valuable crops, such as the lettuce noted above, and was able to lay down strict criteria and specifications.
Charles Copeland Morse was born in Thomaston, Maine in 1842. His father died when he was very young leaving a young widow with four children and no source of income. To help his mother make ends meet, his grandparents in Warren took care of him until he grew up.
Morse rapidly saw that it was extremely hard to earn a living by farming in Maine. When he was about 18, he went to sea and reached California in 1862. He liked it and stayed on doing a variety of jobs such as painting houses. In an informal biography of his father, Lester Morse notes that Charles Morse was very prudent and spent as little money as possible on everyday expenses in order to build some capital.
With each job he managed to save a bit more. First he bought the painting business and later when he was ready he had a chance to buy into Wilson’s farm. It was a good business to have. Charles Morse was a perceptive businessman, not particularly a plant person.
Morse married Maria Josephine Victoria Langford and lived most of his life in Santa Clara county. Their house in Santa Clara is now an architectural landmark. In 1974, it was restored and is now used as offices by a firm of lawyers.
Morse and his wife had five children. His son Lester L. Morse, 1871 -1953, became a noted expert on horticulture, known for his breeding of sweet peas. The crossings of the flowers were supervised by Frank Cuthbertson, a Scottish gardener, and later his son William. Cuthbertson also wrote the descriptions and notes in Morse’s Field Notes on Sweet Peas. The younger Morse commented that sweet peas were the newest vogue at the time the firm decided to add flowers to their wares in about 1884.
Lester Morse was eventually succeeded by his own son, Charles Pierce Morse. The latter died in 1970 at the age of 63. By then the company had moved its garden headquarters to Fulton, Kentucky.
The 1906 earthquake and fire completely demolished Morse’s first premises. For a time they worked out of the old Santa Clara office but quickly moved to a large temporary building in San Francisco. Later in 1907 they found permanent space in Front Street. This was achieved by the acquisition of the Cox Seed and Plant Company, a well known jobbing firm and successful in the commission packet business.
This combination put Morse in the retail commission seed business and in turn led to the need for more acreage. By 1910 Morse concentrated their seed growing in San Juan Bautista. A few years later they bought the Sacramento River Ranch and later property in Salinas. It was not long before they had 1000 acres in production.
In 1915 the Morse company won the Grand Prize for gardens at the Pan Pacific Exposition. A few years later the nursery department was separated and sold to the Vallance Nursery. The brothers John and James Vallance had previously managed this department for Morse. Divesting themselves of this division allowed C. C. Morse and Co. to focus on seeds.
The role of sweet peas
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was the heyday of sweet pea breeding. This flower played a very important role in the success of both Ferry and Morse’s businesses. Starting in Britain the craze rapidly moved to the United States.
Sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus L., first sent to London from Sicily in 1699, were completely inconspicuous for about 150 years. They were very fragrant but not very noticeable at that stage. The flowers were a combination of blue and purple. Probably the only reason they continued to be grown was the delightful scent. Over the next century, a few other colors arose spontaneously, including one with pink and white flowers known as ‘Painted Lady’ in 1730. (Keep your eye on this one.)
The leading gardener of the day, Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden, called it “pale red”. There was no specific word to describe this color in 1730. “Pink” was still just the name of a flower, describing the frilly edges of the petals, as in the tailor’s “pinking sheers”.
It is not clear why James Carter decided to breed a new variety of sweet pea but in 1865 his ‘Scarlet Invincible’ won a first class certificate at the Royal Horticultural Society’s show. (See footnote below) No sweet pea had ever won a prize before. It was an instant vehicle for commercial success. There was enormous excitement. Within ten years modifying sweet peas was the chief exercise of the flower breeding community.
A Scottish gardener who moved south with one of his employers took up sweet peas with an almost religious fervor. Henry Eckford, of Wem in Shropshire, bred a whole race of new sweet peas, the ‘Grandifloras’, plants with much larger and showier blossoms. In its turn one of his ‘Grandiflora’ flowers gave rise to another spectacular race of flowers, the ‘Spencers’. The sport (mutation) which began this line of flowers was first found at the Althorp estate of the Earls Spencer, Princess Diana’s family.
Henry Eckford won first class certificates at the Royal Horticultural Society himself in the 1870s. Almost immediately thereafter, a nurseryman in Boston, James Breck, imported Eckford seed and began selling it in this country. The news had crossed the Atlantic very fast but its path was made easier by a charismatic Massachusetts preacher, the Reverend William Tucker Hutchins of Indian Orchard. Hutchins was the quintessential booster.
Eckford seed was featured in an early catalogue of the Cox Company before the merger with Morse. By 1915, Morse was offering about 70 varieties of sweet pea, many bred in-house. The Field Notes include more than 1600 varieties by 1917. World War I was taking its toll on European breeders as so many men were sent into the trenches and killed at an alarming rate. That did not happen with such ferocity in the United States and the lead passed to them.
More or less at the same time all this was happening Dexter Ferry was visiting his former home in upstate New York. Somehow he came across a woman who had been growing ‘Painted Lady’ for many years, maybe 25 or 30. Her husband was a railwayman and they only had a very modest piece of land, rocky, dry and unpromising. Once again it is not clear but apparently the seeds had originally come from England. Since she was a poor woman and had no choice she saved her seeds each year and planted them again in the same part of her garden.
The result was a stand of sweet peas with shorter and sturdier stems which tolerated the Spartan conditions admirably. The details are missing but it is said that Ferry bought all her plants and seeds for his company. In 1889 Ferry released commercial quantities of this flower’s seed under the name of his daughter, ’Blanche Ferry’. ‘Blanche Ferry’ went on to be the ancestor of dozens of effective and successful sweet pea cultivars, all lineal descendants of the old English ‘Painted Lady’.
Business boomed. Ferry bought land in California where conditions for growing sweet peas were perfect. In 1907 the first commercial crop of sweet peas was grown in Lompoc by Robert Rennie, starting a period of immense growth in the valleys of Central California. In 1921 Ferry bought the commission packet division from Morse.
Morse had became involved with sweet peas in the 1880s. A close study of the 1917 Field Notes indicates that sometimes he worked alone in the early 1890s but also joined with W. A. Burpee, a future giant of the seed business, in introducing new cultivars.
Responding to the wishes of the public and even anticipating them is one hallmark of a successful business. Both Ferry and Morse were distinguished by this characteristic. If it had not been sweet peas it would have been something else.
Modern sophisticated San Francisco no longer seems to be a place where seed merchants could be some of the most prominent firms in town but it is valuable to remember what things were like a hundred years ago. Very few people remember that San Francisco was once a ship-building town and that over the years four million tons of coal from the Diamond mines in Antioch were consumed to make the steel.
Acknowledgements The author is grateful to Mike Tate, current Director of Sales for Ferry Morse. He provided her with copies of a booklet written in 1936 to celebrate 80 years of the Ferry Morse Company. Tanya Hollis and Wendy Welker of the California Historical Society found sources of images in the society’s collections and furnished copies of them. The staff of the San Francisco Public Library History Room was most helpful in the provision of images for this work. Mrs Janet Bryans of the San Benito Historical Society kindly provided copies of Lester Morse’s biography of his father.
References Morse, Lester L. 1917 Field Notes on Sweet Peas, 3rd edition San Francisco C. C.
Morse and Co. Morse seed catalogues Rice, Graham, 2001 The Sweet Pea Book Portland, Oregon Timber Press Various web sites
The author has since learned that James Carter could not have bred the prize winning sweet pea in 1865. He had died in 1855. The plant was bred by Steven Brown and only distributed by the James Carter firm.