Gill Bros. Seed Co.
Portland, Oregon
by Mike Dunton

The Gill FarmhouseThe Gill family farmed land east of downtown Portland, Oregon. Brothers Edward E. and Ray W. raised vegetables and flowers which Edward and Madge Gillthey then hauled, using horse and wagon, into the Portland market.

1914 was a momentous year. It witnessed the outbreak of World War I, Edward married widower Madge Williams, and the brothers decided to cease market growing activities to concentrate on the business of selling seeds.

Their big old barn was made into an office and seed room, and a large field west of the farmhouse was planted with dahlia bulbs. The business grew and soon they began publishing a mail-order catalog. Edward's step-daughter Marcella began stuffing catalogs for five cents an hour.

Gill Brother's Seed Company eventually became the primary source of regionally appropriate seeds for many Pacific Northwest gardeners. My ancestors were among those Gill customers. As a matter of fact, we still raise and offer seeds for an old Gill release, 'Sweet Meat' squash. Our stock traces its roots directly back to Gill's as it was a favorite of my mother's dad who faithfully provided space for it in his annual garden.

What set them apart from most other seed companies was the fact that from the beginning they were not simply a reseller. They had their own trial grounds, production fields and breeding programs. This is what led them to be in the position to offer seed varieties so well suited from the region.

In the 1950s, The Joseph Harris Company of New York was in a rapid growing mode. Because a a lot of their seed stock was being purchased from growers and brokers on the West Coast, they decided to set up a field office. Then in a smart business move, Harris purchased the Gill Bros. Seed Company in the early 1960s. This gave them access to Gill's local production resources as well as a huge mailing list of loyal customers.

However, Harris ended up dropping much of the Gill seed line as they felt the local varieties were of little value nationally. Then in the early 1980s, Harris merged with Moran Seed (Salinas Valley, CA) and shortly thereafter, they closed the Portland office and along with it, the final chapter of the Gill Bros. Seed Company.

Location Map - 1927 Aerial View of the Location of the Gill Seed Company - 2007
This map from the 1927 seed annual, shows their location. What was once farmland is now the heart of a large urban area.

Information Sources:

  1. Memories of Marcella Gill Relyea

  2. Accessions of seeds presented by Gill Bros. to the USDA's Genebank - This is not a complete listing of all varieties that the company introduced, but is a list of those varieties that the company provided to the USDA before they went out of business.

  3. "Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades" by Steve Solomon, 1989. (Contains a description of the events leading up to the end of the company.)

  4. Various Gill Bros. Seed Catalogs


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Some picture copyright Relyea - Gill Family and used here with permission.
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