You can't help but notice the colorful and tempting seed packets on display this month at garden shops and grocery stores. John Yopp, whose family owned and operated Yopp Seed Co. in Paducah from about 1906 until 1983, calls this the "spring rush." He has treasured memories of growing up in the seed business.
From a childhood spent around seeds, Yopp went on to an academic and research career in plant biology, and he encouraged internationalization and scholarship as an associate provost at the University of Kentucky.
Along with memories, Yopp has a collection of several boxes' worth of Yopp Seed Co. mementos and documents that trace the history of agricultural tradition in Western Kentucky and beyond for most of the 20th century.
A busy river and rail town, Paducah was at a crossroads of commerce. Early illustrated seed packets and catalogues, bills of lading, postcards bearing orders, photographs, newspaper articles and letters offer a peek at history. There are even pairs of Dutch wooden shoes that were brought for many years by a bulb company representative from Holland.
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The Yopps and many other German Catholic families from the Franconia region of Bavaria immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s and settled into farming the fertile flatlands near St. Johns, about 12 miles south of Paducah.
By the early 1900s, Yopp's grandfather had established a sound business selling produce in Paducah. When city leaders built a covered market to bring order to the jumble of hucksters and traders along Market and Second streets, Yopp's uncle Martin — joined by Yopp's father, Herman, and later by another uncle, Ed — saw an opportunity to begin a seed-selling business. They bought an old pickle factory building across from the new market site and just two blocks from the river port.
This innovative family business eventually grew to encompass an entire city block — since demolished — with 17 floors filled with all sorts of merchandise. According to shipping records, orders were delivered by steamboat to river addresses in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Indiana, and shipped as far as Florida and California. By 1908, they had registered their own trademark, Chief Brand.
The Yopp brothers had jumped into the beginning of the mail-order seed business with perfect timing — when farmers and gardeners were recognizing a need for a stable source for seeds in a more mobile population. By the time John Yopp was born in the early 1940s, the flourishing business had become the focus of life for much of his family.
"My earliest memories are of the different fragrances," Yopp says. "Small citrus in the coolers, cured hams, Christmas candies, fir wreaths and Chesapeake oysters, wheels of rotten cheese used for catfish feed in a basement, the sharp scent of pesticides in a fourth-floor shop, and the aroma of different fresh seeds, like celery and carrots, kept in individual drawers from which orders were filled.
"We really were a global company before globalization," he says. "We imported herbs and spices from abroad to supply regional barbecue and tamale makers: Spanish paprika, and sage from Dalmatia."
Yopp says that by 1915, the Yopp Seed Co. catalogue carried 16 varieties of cabbage and 23 types of radishes. "If you find five now, you're lucky," he says.
Daffodils were another important commodity traded by Yopp Seed Co. As early as 1909, they were featured in annual catalogs, with leftover bulbs planted and naturalized in Yopp family lawns and nearby fields. One of the earliest varieties imported to Western Kentucky was the double heirloom van Sion daffodil. A cousin, Margaret Yopp Roof, was a national daffodil show judge for more than 70 years. Her longtime home, called Jonquilawn, was among the family homes where extra daffodils were naturalized The Jonquilawn daffodil is named in her honor.
When Yopp was 8, his thrifty father assigned him the task of sorting seeds scattered on the packing tables after orders were filled, a skill he retains. Yopp says it's easy to tell, say, a bean from a lettuce seed, but it takes special talent to sort tiny scattered lettuce seeds into the brown Grand Rapids, black-seeded Simpson and light-colored Boston varieties. Experienced clerks knew how to fill orders for odd measurements, such as a thimble of lettuce seed. They could read their customers' localized preferences: A potato order for an Irish family meant the round, white Cobbler variety; Mangel beets were preferred by German cattle farmers for feed.
Yopp and his wife, Donna, returned for years with their family to work the spring rush, even after he became a biology professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
The Yopp family worked with early and well- respected Cooperative Extension Service agents W.C. Johnstone, Tubby McGill and Army Armstrong to develop co-ops to market peaches, apples, strawberries and tomatoes, and to keep abreast of new plant introductions and agricultural practices that farmers could use. They collaborated in the 1930s, for example, to grow the first commercial seed crop of Kentucky 31 fescue grass, which remains popular today.
"My father had a sense of social obligation to help farmers get the best prices for their products in larger markets like Chicago and St. Louis," Yopp says.
That sense extended to hiring black employees as full-time workers with Social Security benefits. "It was unusual and controversial during segregation times," he says.
After the family business closed in the early 1980s, in part because of changing consumer behavior and the rise of big-box stores, John and Donna Yopp continued the tradition by starting a small mail-order seed business featuring heirloom varieties of historic significance. That lasted a few years. They also volunteered for about 25 years to advise and supply seed for a community-garden project in an economically depressed area in East St. Louis, Ill.
Yopp keeps an eye on heirloom varieties, hoping some that are thought to have disappeared will be rediscovered by groups such as Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
"Some, like Scarlet Short Horn carrots and White Velvet okra, which is now being sold as Silver Queen, are success stories," he says.
In 1958, Yopp's father sent him out in search of white crowder peas when their source dried up. Going from one small-town store to another, Yopp says, "I finally found them in Clarksville, Tenn. The shopkeeper would not sell all of them to me, though, because he knew his local customers needed them, too."
He holds hope that other missing varieties might surface after decades of local cultivation.
For now, his collection of Yopp Seed Co. memorabilia is private. After he retires, he said, he plans to write a book and analyze data about what was ordered during the 1900s.