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Thursday, May 7, 2009

FORGOTTEN PEOPLE -- HARRY SAIER, SEEDSMAN

TULIPS IN BLOOM AT THE SAIER FARM SOMETIME IN THE 1950s

seedsman: one who deals in seeds

One of the several places that I have lived is in the state of Michigan. Stories can be found no matter where you live -- about folks and the environment. This story is about a man and his apparent love of seeds. It is a story about the loss of a fascinating thread that was once woven into a local culture.

Outside of Lansing, Michigan is an old farmstead that once belonged to a dynamic seedsman by the name of Harry Saier. His home and the outbuildings still exist on the property however Harry doesn't and neither does his seed company. Unfortunately, I do not know when Mr. Saier died but I do know that he began his seed business on that farmstead in 1911.

About thirty years ago, I became aware that there had been a seed business at a Dimondale country place outside of Lansing when a friend of mine bought the property and contents of Saier's estate. His beautiful, two-story, brick Victorian home was brimming with antiques that were quickly sold to an antique dealer.

My friend invited me out to her newly acquired place where I marveled at the serene beauty of the farm. She commented that the former owner had been a seedsman and that the estate had been tied up in court for quite awhile.

What I found most interesting was the barn. Especially the second floor of the early, Pennsylvania-type forebay, barn. On the second floor were stacks of wooden folding seed cases that were used to display seed packets in stores. There were hundreds of them! All were in excellent shape, had great patina, Saier's logo imprinted, and were about four feet by three feet in size with flat backs that folded out. I instantly could visualize one on my kitchen wall filled with a collection of old seed packs. My friend had an offer on the table from someone who would buy all the cases for $15.00 each. I offered her $60.00 for two and she quickly took me up on it.


HIS CATALOG LIST OF RARE SEEDS FOR MAIL ORDER SALES

HIS CATALOG LIST FOR THE OVER 5000 TYPES OF SEEDS HE OFFERED

Today, as I sit in my home in Kentucky, I look at his brown seed packs on my Saier seed shelf and wonder about the man's life. Intrigued from the aspect of how could a man so prolific in his seed offerings become a ghost of a figure today? Very little is known about Harry and his seed business. Below I have gathered what few characteristics I could find about the man and his commerce:
-- that he began his seed business in 1911.
-- that he used two different names for his seed company, Saier Seeds and Pioneer Seeds.
-- that he was still in business about the 1950s.
-- when he aged he sold all his plant inventory to two young men from California.
-- that the young men who bought the inventory became the J.L. Hudson seed company.
-- that he printed his own newsprint-type of catalog.
-- that he imported seeds from all over the world.
-- that he carried over 5000 different kinds of seeds.
-- that he sold bulbs.
-- that his seeds were sold both in local stores and by mail order,
-- that he specialized in rare seeds.
--that he also sold plants and trees.
-- that he lived alone later in life.

OLD TIN SIGN OF THE SAIER SEED BUSINESS -- LANSING POST OFFICE MAILING ADDRESS, BUT CONDUCTED BUSINESS IN DIMONDALE, MICHIGAN

My daughter found this sign in a Lansing antique shop many years ago. I always thought it was wonderful. Lucky for me that she decided to give up the sign this year. I became the happy recipient of it!

ORIGINAL SEED MATERIAL FROM THE SAIER FARM GIVEN TO ME BY WORKERS

In the early 2000s I heard the farm, house and all, was sold to a company that turned the property into a cemetery. When hearing about the sale I was once again living in Michigan. I decided to stop in to see if there were any remnants of Saier's business about the property. I ran into two young, wonderful workers that told the sad story of how one outbuilding was full of Mr. Saier's old records which had been sent off to a landfill. They also told me of an old printing machine that Mr Saier used to roll off his self-designed catalogs. The printer also ended up in a landfill.

Luckily, one of the young men saved some of the seed packs along with duplicate copies of one of Saier's catalogs. Not a scrap was left in any of the building to indicate that there was once a thriving seed business located there. Then, he told me to wait a minute. He ducked into one of the buildings and walked out with some things in his hands which he gave to me. A newsprint catalog, some small cloth sacks, and some brown seed packs. "No one has shown any interest in this man except you so you should have these," he said.

As I read through his catalog offerings I realized that Harry Saier was an early heirloom seed saver and could easily be at the forefront of the movement if he were alive today.


SAIER'S SMALL ARTICLE HE WROTE IN HIS CATALOG.

Yet, today he has joined the ranks of the man he wrote about in the only catalog that I have of his (see article above). Harry Saier wrote -- "the writer did not sign his name, otherwise I would have recorded it, 55 years after! What changes occur in 55 years! How easily we are forgotten in the course of 55 years!"




9 comments:

  1. That's for writing this article. My name is Michele Keast Ott and I am the Great Granddaughter of Harry E Sair. I spent time at the farm and still think of that place. Harry died Dec 18, 1976 and I was 15 years old. You mentioned stuff going to an antique dealer which for me is sad. There were many things in the house that had been in the family for decades. My Grandmother did manage to get some things out of the house before it was sold. My Grandmother and her sister Dorothy grew up there. After my Grandfather Roger Keast was killed during WWII my Dad and Uncle lived at the farm. My Dad has great stories about the farm. My parents and my Dad's cousin were at the farm in 2005. There were things of Grandpa's still in the barn. No one lives in that great big house it is now an office for the cemetery. The farm was a fun place to run around. Grandpa couldn't see well but he knew where all the holes where in the barn floor. I have very fond memories of my Great Grandfather and the farm. We did manage to get one of the metal Saier Seed signs and I have some of his catalogs whic he had pressed flowers in.
    michelekeastott@hotmail.com

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  2. Hi Michele, Will email you for more info!

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  3. Such an interesting story! Last year I ordered some seed from the J.L. Hudson company for a projet I was working on at the University of Arizona. Today, I received their 2011 catalog and read Mr. Hudson's excerpt about the 100th anniversary of his company. I had no idea of his Lansing connection. The excerpt mentions Harry Saier so I googled him and found this Folkways article. I grew up in Hastings, MI and have a degree in horticulture from MSU. Thanks to all of you for keeping this wonderful piece of horticultural history alive!

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  4. Anonymous -- thanks for your very interesting comments. I will have to get the J. L. catalog and read what they say about Mr. Saier. A relative left a comment at the top of this section about her great-granfather Mr Saier. I think it would be great if the agricultural schools had some of the students track down some of the history on these old seedsmen. It is an important part of our ag history. The sad part with Mr. Saier is that all the paper history of his company was still on the farm a few years ago and were destroyed by a new owner that sent them to a landfill. -- barbara

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  5. I too have a Harry Saier connection. If I have this right, I am his first cousin twice removed. My family has some memorabilia from the farm that my sister happened upon when driving by the farm one day. I believe the owners were having a garage sale. katie.benghauser@gmail.com

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  6. Katie -- right now the property is owned by a corporation. I think they have disposed of any remnant of the Harry Saier business. i sent an email giving you a bit more of what I know. -- thanks for introducing yourself. You have an interesting relative on your family tree. -- barbara

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  7. Hi Barb,
    It's Michele again Harry's Great Granddaughter. Thanks again for the seed packets that you sent me awhile back. Katie and I are now in touch cause she found my comment on here. She is heading out to the farm soon to take pictures. I am now doing some Saier genealogy and Kate has already been working on it.

    The farm became a cemetery during Harry's lifetime. I think tax wise it was a good choice and at that time he was pretty close to being retired. The down side was eventually the corporation that bought the cemetery/farm got the house too. I just hope that it never gets torn down. The Saier's were very active in the Lansing area since 1852. The original homestead is no longer there in Millett which is an unincorporated area just south of Lansing. Harry's farm is all that is left and is a piece of history for that area and for horticulture.

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  8. Michele, How wonderful to hear from you and also that you and Katie got in touch.

    One thing I would like to point out, if I didn't already -- the barn on the property is called a fore-bay barn. Fore-bay refers to the form of the barn. This form originated with the German Dutch barn builders of Pennsylvania. The form is seldom found in Michigan. I don't know when Harry moved onto the property but if he had anything to do with building the barn it probably links him back to PA Dutch origins. When I looked over the barn several years ago the builder had inscribed his name in the rock foundation (bottom level) about waist high on the right hand side of the foundation if I remember correctly. I think it was dated also. It was located on the Logan street side. That sure would be a neat thing to get a photo of. I think also, the workers told me that the original printing press was located in one of the barns where he printed off his newsletters. I also read a book, again several years ago, that was wrote by a fairly famous woman gardener in the early part of 1900s that mentions ordering from Harry Saier. If I can ever remember the book I will put it here in this comment section.

    I would suggest that all the outbuildings should be recorded and photos taken of them for your family geneology. Probably the corporate owners would let you through the house to take interior photos. The exposed brick wall in the kitchen was revealed after former owners peeled off the plaster so it is not the original look of the kitchen.


    You are fortunate to have such a splendid seedsman in your family.

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  9. Thanks Barb,

    Katie was there and got pictures of the inside of the house and some of the grounds. I remember you told me that the barn has its origins with the German/Dutch builders of PA. I also remember that you told me there was a date on the barn. Katie couldn't find it but one of the men there knew where it was. 1882. Now I am wondering who it belonged to before my Great Grandfather bought it. We know he moved the business and family out to the farm around 1920. I do not think that property was owned by family prior to that. The Saier's have been in the Lansing area since 1852 so we do have some history there.

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