Gurney Seed and Nursery Company
Yankton, South Dakota

Col. S. W. GurneyCharles W. Gurney, moved west to Iowa from his family's home in Massachusetts in about 1852.  At the age of 23 years he enlisted in the 3rd Iowa Veteran Infantry, Company C for service in the Civil War.  He was appointed to Quartermaster Sergeant on July 8, 1864 and promoted to Captain of Company C on September 8 of the same year.(1)  According to some sources, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before being discharged.

He returned home and opened his first seedhouse in 1866.  He operated Hesperian Nurseries in Monticello, Iowa, for several years before moving his business to Dixon County, Nebraska, in 1882.  Recognizing the trade potential in a thriving river town, C. W. moved his headquarters to Yankton, South Dakota, in 1897.

In 1906, C. W. Gurney, his seven sons, and a nephew incorporated as Gurney Seed and Nursery Company.  Price lists of the early days were gradually expanded until in 1910, Gurney published a large seed and nursery catalog with a full-color cover.

D. B. GurneyFollowing C. W.'s death in 1913, his sons and nephew continued to run the seedhouse.  In 1919, Deloss Butler Gurney, one of the Colonel sons, offered Gurney stock for sale to their customers, listing inventory worth $300,000, possession of 403 thoroughbred Duroc hogs, and 36% average earnings as sale incentives.

With D. B. as CEO, the company diversified and grew rapidly.  By 1924, the family-run seedhouse in Yankton had received orders from 46 of the 48 states, as well as five foreign countries.

Radio was just getting its start in Yankton in 1925, when John Chandler "Chan" Gurney(6), D. B.'s son, began making a reputation for himself as a talented announcer and programmer for station WNAX.

WNAXD. B. began to notice the successful efforts of one of his major competitors, Field's Seed and Nursery Company of Shenandoah, Iowa who owned radio station KFNF.

Chan was sent to Shenandoah to look over the KFNF set-up, and upon his return home, he recommend that his father purchase WNAX located in Yankton.  Thus, on February 28, 1926 (Note: one news article has the year as 1927), listeners heard: "This is station WNAX , Voice of the House of Gurney in Yankton."

Although no longer owned by Gurney Seed, WNAX is a premier station and still located in Yankton.  You can read more about WNAX by clicking here.

WNAX in the old Seedhouse in 1930By the early 1930's, the Gurney seedhouse building was one of the Yankton area's first shopping centers, housing hairdressers and barbers, dry goods, groceries, jewelry, and medicine.  Everything was available from Gurney and all was promoted by WNAX.  Product quality and helpful service did the rest, and soon Gurney became a household name.

Having been family-owned for decades, Gurney Seed and Nursery was sold in 1942 to John Nicholson, who in turn sold it to John Hesse in 1968.  Hesse sold it to Amfac, Inc. in 1980.  After Amfac, Inc. purchased Henry Field's in 1981, Gurney's and Field's eventually became the Amfac, Inc. Mail-Order Division. In June 1984, an eight-member investor group, including four Gurney executives, purchased the division from Amfac, Inc.

By then the company was shipping millions of plants of hundreds of varieties.  By the mid-1980s, Gurney's held a staff of some 700 employees and was responsible for creating more than 17 million annual catalogs with more than 4,000 products.

In 1991, Gurney's was purchased by a private direct marketing firm own by Don Krumel.  The business was then sold to Foster & Gallagher, Inc., of Illinois in 1999.  Foster & Gallagher, Inc. purchased a lot of the old, well established company names - Breck's Bulbs, Henry Field's, Michigan Bulb Company, New Holland Bulbs, Spring Hill Nursery, Stark Brothers, Garden Solutions (an online storefront featuring Brecks, Spring Hill, Henry Field, Gurneys, and Stark Bros).

They closed up Gurney's and left Yankton in May of 2000, severing a 118 year tradition and deep connection with the town.

In July of 2001, Foster & Gallagher, Inc. filed for bankruptcy.  On October 26, 2001, a new company, Scarlet Tanager Holdings, LLC, owned by Niles Kinerk, located in Greendale, Indiana, emerged as the owner of the registered trade name of Henry Fields (as well as the other Foster & Gallagher, Inc. holdings).

As of the Fall of 2006, the old Gurney building complex as seen in the old picture above, is being converted into condominiums and retail space.  Here are a few pictures from a recent trip to the area.  A far cry from the once great economic anchor in Yankton.

Sources:

  1. 3rd Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry

  2. Garden Watch Dog

  3. Foster & Gallagher Acquires Two, Sells Two - July 8, 1999

  4. "WNAX Hits The Air In '22", Sam Herley, Yankton Press & Dakotan, September 14, 1999

  5. Foster & Gallagher Bankruptcy Filed in Delaware Court

  6. John Chandler (Chan) GurneyJohn Chandler (Chan) Gurney was a Senator from South Dakota; born in Yankton, SD, May 21, 1896; attended the public schools; during the First World War served as a sergeant in Company A, Thirty-Fourth Engineers, United States Army, with service overseas 1918-1919; engaged in the seed and nursery business 1914-1926; operator of WNAX, 1926-1932; moved to Sioux Falls, SD, and engaged in the wholesale gasoline and oil business 1932-1936; unsuccessful candidate for election to the United States Senate in 1936; elected as a Republican in 1938 to the United States Senate; reelected in 1944 and served from January 3, 1939, to January 3, 1951; unsuccessful candidate for renomination in 1950; chairman, Committee on Armed Services (Eightieth Congress); appointed a member of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1951, became chairman in 1954, reappointed in 1958, and served until 1964; retired to Yankton, SD, where he died, March 9, 1985; interment in Yankton Cemetery.

Miscellaneous Notes:

Harry W. Brooks, Jr.

1984 to 1990, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Gurney Seed and Nursery Corporation. From 1982 to 1984, Chairman and Executive Vice President of the Horticulture Group of Amfac, Inc., a publicly owned financial services company. From 1978 to 1982, Senior Vice President--Public Affairs of Amfac, Inc. [Source] [Papers are here]


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