Master Gardener - Julie Barnes
W. Atlee Burpee & Fordhook Farm
By Julie Barnes
This winter many of us will peruse seed catalogs anticipating a new garden year. While thumbing through them lets reflect on a true pioneer who revolutionized the mail order promotion of seeds. This would be Washington Atlee Burpee, who in 1888 converted a several hundred acre farmstead in Bucks County, Pennsylvania into a world famous showcase of experimental gardens that he named Fordhook Farm. Atlee, originated from a family of physicians. From the very young age of 14 he demonstrated a passion for raising poultry, devising experimental breeding programs, writing scholarly articles and corresponding with prominent European breeders. Several of these experts were surprised to find out that this expert was only 16 years of age upon meeting him two years later. In 1876, at age 18, Atlee left medical school and borrowed $1000 from his mother to establish his own mail order poultry and livestock business, W. Atlee Burpee & Company. He raised and sold chickens, dogs, sheep and corn seed for feed. Many of his customers were immigrant farmers who also expressed a longing for the vegetables they missed from their old country. In 1877, his second year of business, Atlee began to reshape his enterprise into the first research based seed company in The United States. A new cabbage variety called ‘Surehead’ with improved disease resistance was presented. Thru mail order catalogues rural America could be offered lighter compact seeds. A yearly purchase of seeds would provide consistent business, since farmers only acquired poultry or livestock every five to six years. At that time most of Atlee Burpee’s customers were farmers rather than home gardeners, so his catalogue was named “Burpees Farm Annual.” He provided the text in these Annuals together with tantalizing names and descriptions that were complemented by enticing artwork. Insistent on quality and excellence in all company aspects, Burpee seeds and products were backed by a guarantee. If customers were not satisfied, they were replaced for up to one year after the purchase date.
In this era, American seed companies obtained their seed from European breeders. Atlee soon recognized that European vegetable varieties did not meet the “Burpee Standard” measure for quality and performance. Through research and communication with customers, he concluded that the European-bred seeds were incompatible with American soil and climate conditions. Attlee decided to rectify that by adapting these European stocks to American growing conditions through selective breeding and hybridization. He bought Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and transformed it into a world famous plant breeding and testing facility. It also served as the family home. Atlee spent several summers traveling between the United States and Europe seeking new and interesting plant varieties to send back to Fordhork Farm to evaluate. In 1894 ‘Iceberg” lettuce was developed. This lettuce stayed crisp longer than other varieties so it could be shipped for long distances to homes and restaurants. Now Americans could enjoy salad year round. In 1902, golden “Bantam Corn” was introduced, a yellow sweet corn with a “buttery flavor.” Until then only white corn was considered fit for table fare while yellow was meant to feed livestock and poultry. Another favorite introduced in 1907 was the ‘Fordhook’ lima bean which was the first ever bush lima bean. The keys to Burpees success were clear; the company bred and offered vegetables different and better than competing varieties while seeds arrived easily by mail. In the 1890’s Burpee’s commitment to quality was expressed in the motto that is still in use today: Burpee Seeds Grow. At the time of Atlee’s death in 1915, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world distributing 1 million catalogues a year and receiving 10,000 orders a day at peak times. Today, The Burpee Company still remains faithful to W. Atlee Burpee’s vision for innovation, quality and customer service while testing still goes on at Fordhook Farm.