Born on March 21,
1890, Earl May was raised on the ranch his parents had homesteaded near
Hayes Center, Nebraska. From an early age he had lofty goals and a
strong desire to attend college.
It was this
motivation that stirred an entrepreneurial spirit in the young man.
In order to earn his way into college, Earl trapped animals, hunted wolves
for the bounty, and raised and sold turkeys.
high school and still lacking the funds for college, he earned his
teaching certificate and for $50 per month, began teaching near Wauneta,
Nebraska. The following year he enrolled at the Fremont Normal
School (Fremont, Nebraska) and after completing his training, at the age
of 20, went home to become the principal of his old high school in Hayes
Center. But he yearned for more.
So in 1911, May
entered the law school at the University of Michigan. A significant
part of this phase of his life was that for several summers, Earl earned
money traveling the Eastern United States on horseback as a door-to-door
salesman for the D. M. Ferry Seed Company.
He learned to think on his feet, create customer trust, and discover that
he was a natural born salesman.
When his father
died, May headed back to Nebraska to help on the ranch but soon enrolled
in the University of Nebraska to continue studies. It was here that
he met his future wife, Gertrude Welch. An event that not only
changed his life in the typical sense, but in the direction that his
career would take as well
Miss Welch was from
Shenandoah, Iowa which at the time was the epicenter of the seed and
nursery business in the U.S. Her father, E. S. Welch had worked in
the industry since the early 1880s and in 1891 bought a company called
Mount arbor Nurseries. Welch, a contemporary of
Henry Field, grew the company into one
of the most successful wholesale nurseries in the U.S.
Earl and Gertrude
graduated, married, and decided to move to Shenandoah. The pull of
the local economy was great and Earl chose the nursery business over
practicing law. He naturally decided to learn from a master and
joined his father-in-law's company. For the next several years, Earl
applied his life experiences and strong work ethic in learning the trade.
When he felt he was ready, and with the financial backing of E. S. Welch,
he founded the Earl May Seed and Nursery Company in 1919.
For several years
the company struggled with few employees, long hours, and little payout.
Gradually they grew their mailing list and began to realize small profits.
The pivotal turning point in the growth and success of the company can
likely be attributed to Mr. May's foresight into the opportunity that the
new technology of radio had to offer.
closest station to him was WOAW in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1923 he began
taking local talent by bus to the station and personally spoke on various
topics. In January of 1924 he offered the first 10,000 listeners who
mailed him a card a free gift of iris roots. It seems like he was
pleased and that he recognized that radio was the key to his success.
However, he would not be the first seedsman to capitalize on the
technology for on February 22, 1924, Henry Field and his Seedhouse Folk
began broadcasting from their new station,
KFNF, just three blocks away from May's seedhouse.
Earl May's broadcasts, a nice mix of musical talent and agricultural
information, became quite popular and so in June of 1924, WOAW and May
Seed and Nursery announced the construction of a remote studio in the
company's administration building. Using telephone lines to connect to the
WOAW transmitter sixty miles away in Omaha, the May studio was perhaps the
longest remote radio connection of the day.
was not long (September of 1925) before they received a license to operate
and were assigned the call letters of
Using radio to
entertain and promote, Earl's leadership grew the mail order business to a
point where over two million catalogs were mailed annually. Radio
advertising helped boost catalog sales. Mr. May not only acted as
the chief broadcaster, he continued to write copy for the catalogs.
Earl passed away in 1946 but family still manage the company. Betty
Jane Shaw, Earl May's granddaughter, is the current president.
The company ceased
producing a mail order catalog in 1991 and focused on growing into a
large, regional retail nursery and garden center chain.
KMA Radio here (requires