William D burt Letterhead

The History of the W.D. Burt Seed Companies 1894 – 1944

by: Delene Burt, Richard E. Burt, and Thomas Burt

WD Burt portrait 1895

William D. Burt, better known as W.D., to his family and friends was an enterprising teenager in the early 1890’s.  His father, George owned a hotel call the Parker House, located in the small hamlet of Dalton, New York.   The hotel was located close to the railroad and was frequented by salesmen from Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia and parts west.  As high school completion was nearing, W.D. had dreams of college, but lack of wealth and a history of incipient tuberculosis caused W.D. to think along other lines.  It was by pure chance, that W.D. found an advertisement from a seed company in Philadelphia offering a prize for growing the biggest pumpkin.  Little did W.D. know that reading the advertisement, would change his life and make him an entrepreneur.

In the early 1890’s gardening and gardeners were oddities.  So when W.D. began to till the muck soil in the back of the Parker House Hotel to grow his giant pumpkin, he found himself the object of everyone’s jokes.  But in the end, the joke was on the jokesters, as he won the prize.

W.D. was inquisitive and did a great deal of research before he sent for his pumpkin seeds from the Philadelphia Company.  The best authorities of the day said that to raise a giant pumpkin one needed to fertilize with hog manure.  While other experts advised to submerse the pumpkin tendrils in milk.  W.D. wasn’t taking any chances and he experimented using both techniques. 

The prize pumpkin was planted in rich soil and as the buds formed he clipped off all except one.  This meant he would only grow one pumpkin on the vine, but the tendrils of this one pumpkin were submersed in a saucer of milk daily.   Soon the town’s people were no longer calling W.D. “Punkin” and people would stop by daily to watch his pumpkin grow.  It was said you could stand there and actually see it grow.  Of course the pumpkin won the prize.  It was proudly placed on display at the Parker House Hotel for all to admire.   In those days teenagers were able to tend the bar, and it was while acting as bartender that a salesman suggested that W.D. should package the pumpkin seeds and sell them.
Burt Bros Ad
In 1894 W.D. enlisted the help of his sister, Jenny and they took scissors, paste and brown wrapping paper to make the first seed packets. 
These were sold to the town’s people for a penny a seed, and quickly word got out far and near.  The following year the demand for seeds grew.  The next season he grew more mammoth pumpkins, and by the third year he added several different kinds of vegetables to his list.  He continued to experiment with different methods of preserving the seeds.   More and more people heard about his pumpkins and placed orders by mail, but this was not sufficient to sustain and increase his business and profitability. W.D realized that he needed to go door to door peddling his seeds which he did.  All the while he cultivated his garden, saved the seeds and spent the fall and early winter canvassing the country for many miles around.  The farmers and townspeople gradually came to depend on his garden seeds.

Burt Brothers Onion
                  PacketAlthough W.D. unwittingly entered and won a pumpkin growing contest in 1894, he did not actually begin his business until 1896.  In the start up years W.D. enlisted his sister Jenny, and his brother Warren’s help.  In fact, the first few years the business was called Burt Brothers.  During this time the brothers also established several small feed, bean and seed stores in Western New York.  By 1900 Warren and W.D. decided to give up their partnership, as Warren wanted to pursue his interest in greenhouses.  Warren was a horticulturist by heart.   W.D. on the other hand, wanted to expand his seed business and changed the name to W.D. Burt Seed Co.

Eventually his seed packets came to the attention of the 5 and 10 cents stores, namely: S.S. Kresge, F.W. Woolworth and S.H. Kress.  It was the 5 and 10 cent stores orders, along with the Sears Roebuck orders that finally put W.D. Burt and Burt Seed Company on the over-night road to success.  The demand for seed packets from these companies made it possible for W.D. to purchase seeds from Italy, Holland, France, England and Japan.  Seeds were also obtained locally in Western New York, Colorado and Canada.  At the company’s height of production it employed over fifty people and produced over 20,000,000 seed packets per year.

A great deal of the success of the seed company can be attributed to the brightly colored lithographed “Collection Bags”.  The “Collection Bags” each contained five or more packets of seeds that were depicted in rich, vibrant colors thanks to the litho processed used.

Old Home
                        Collection SmallThe seed business was thriving in 1925 when W.D. unexpectedly passed away.  His son, Malcolm, took over the running of the family business along with his step-mother.  Malcolm purchased her share of the business in 1929 and kept it running under the name of Genesee Valley Seed Co.   In the early ‘40s when the U.S. became engulfed in WWII and Malcolm was unable to get seeds shipped from over-seas, he dissolved the seed company.  He was a printer by heart and he turned the seed company warehouse into a print shop.  When Malcolm abandoned the seed company there were still millions of seed packets on the third floor of the warehouse.  Malcolm and his son, Richard, who was a teenager at the time, carried the seed packets down the warehouse elevators and donated them to “the War Effort”.  In 1975 when Richard E. Burt decided he needed to do something with the remaining seed packets on the third floor he began selling them through advertisements in Yankee Magazine and The Antique Trader.  People were enthralled by the color lithography.  Packets were purchased by Sturbridge Village, Mark Trout and by reproduction artists like Andy Rooney to name a few.  It was one of the first jobs for Tom as a teenager, creating those collections for shipment.
Wildflower Seed Mix

Although the seed business closed its doors in the “40s the building that housed the seed business still remains.   The dark brown wooden edifice is a reminder of another time, when life was a little simpler and townspeople  worked where they lived.  The Burt Seed Company was one man’s dream, but a whole town’s accomplishment.  Evidence of one of W.D.’s cultivated gardens still remains. Two blocks away from where the old warehouse stands, is a peony patch that blooms each spring and carries its wonderful sweet scents wafting on the breeze and into the homes of its nearby neighbors.  W.D.’s peonies live on in the yards of many Dalton residents, including his great grandson’s.  These are not the only flowers that live on; there are many that still flourish today.

WD Burt Celery
The original W.D. Burt
Co., packets were printed by the Stecher Printing Co. and later on by Genesee Valley Lithography using a printing process known as Stone Lithography. Everyone probably knows the famous Currier and Ives lithographs of the 19th century.  They were done by this same stone lithography method. The process was perfected in Bavaria and Italy and works on the theory that grease and water don’t mix.  Litho means stone, and in the case of lithography a fine grained limestone is used.  The image areas of this finely grained limestone are treated with a greasy substance that will carry, or hold the ink, while the blank areas will hold only water and repel the ink.  Ink is a grease based material.  Artists would draw images directly on the stone with a greasy crayon; the blank areas would then be treated with an acid to ensure their ability to repel the ink.  The stone was secured to the bed of the printing press and along with the bed slid back and forth under sets of dampening rollers followed by a set of ink rollers.  The stone made contact with the impression cylinder which was wrapped with the paper that picked up the image.  This completed the cycle.  Large flat cylinder presses similar to the type of press used for letter printing were used.  Color litho was a labor intensive process, as each color required its own stone and there could be as many as 12 colors.  That would require 12 runs through the press.  If you observe an original Burt Seed packet through a magnifying glass you will see unorganized groups of splotches of color and very little blending of two colors to form a third. 

In the last few years, the packets have been featured in magazines and in April of 2013, the United States Post Office offered a first class stamp series called
"Vintage Seed Packets."  This series relied heavily on the W.D. Burt Seed Packets, in fact seven of the ten stamps were taken from the Burt packets.  Today you can see images of W.D. Burt Seed packets on coffee cups, sachets, towels, wallpaper and framed prints.  W.D. Burt Seed Company lives on today in homes all across America.

USPS Seed Stamps
Seed Comparison 1
Seed Comparison 2

Forbes Cover March 22, 1919

Growing up, my grandfather, Malcolm always told us the story of W.D. and how he started the seed company by growing a massive pumpkin in the dooryard of his father's hotel (the Parker House).

While completing some researc
h several years ago, I came across a reference to this article and my nephew was finally able to find a microfilmed copy at a university in the Southwest.  Below is a copy of that article published in the March 22, 1919 edition of the Forbes Magazine, about W.D. Burt, the early history and the "Great Pumpkin Story"

Forbes Magazine Mar 22, 1919
Fact-Story that outclasses the pumpkin that changed into royal coach

W.D. Burt at his desk

o lad ever wanted to go to college harder than I did when I was handed a high school diploma back in the ‘90s.
Two things denied me this privilege – lack of wealth, poor health.

The future looked mighty gloomy for me one day, by the merest chance, my attention was directed to an advertisement that was destined to make me glad that I never went to an academic institution.

A big seed company in Philadelphia was offering a prize for growing the biggest pumpkin. At first the idea of entering this contest was very amusing, and as a joke I sent for the pumpkin seeds.

Incipient tuberculosis dictated an outdoor life for me, and I naturally turned to gardening – pumpkin gardening at that. It was too good a joke to be kept quiet; for miles around fun was poked at me from every source by the amused countryside, I was nicknamed “Punkin.” You see I lived right in town where everybody could easily see what I was doing as they passed by. My father was the owner of a small hotel, and the only place where I could raise my pumpkins was in the adjoining yard.

                                                                                    Few Gardeners Then

No one would take a second look at a dooryard garden. Nowadays we have grown accustomed to the idea from seeing many War Gardens; but that was not the case a quarter of a century ago. When my pumpkin seeds were well germinated and the vines started, the wonder and amusement grew. To begin with, the ground had been spaded up carefully and all well fertilized with hog manure. I had become earnestly interested and the best authorities that I could find on the subject maintained that there was but one way to enrich the soil to suit the taste of a hungry pumpkin vine, to use hog fertilizer. As soon as the vines were well started the healthiest one was selected for my experiment. It is a well-known fact that wherever the pumpkin vine carries a group of leaves, just underneath will be found a cluster of tiny tendrils. These tendrils extend down into the ground and furnish nourishment, as do the original roots. Where the first set of tendrils started to grow, I scooped away the soil and placed a pan of milk. A little beyond the tendrils I cut the vine off. Eventually the vine blossomed and I was careful to allow only one pumpkin set to form. In two weeks, I had a well-shaped green pumpkin growing on my vine between the roots and the tendrils.
On one side that fortunate pumpkin was fed up on rich hog fertilized soil, while on the other it was nourished with milk. Some people will tell you today that you could actually see that pumpkin grow. Any-how it expanded rapidly. As its size became enormous compared with any pumpkin that anybody had seen, people quit laughing at my enterprise and their fun turned to wonder. Hundreds of people came to see this big “punkin,” and so its fame spread far. Many people wrote me asking how I had managed to grow such a big specimen, and later when harvest time came wanted to buy seeds from it. Of course, my pumpkin won the prize. Up to this time I had never thought of going into the seed business. In fact, I knew absolutely nothing whatever about it. The offers to buy seed suggested that I might do a good business in selling the contents of my prize pumpkin. Every last seed was disposed of at a cent apiece. This was my start in the seed world.

From Pumpkins to other Vegetables

Next season I grew more mammoth pumpkins, all the time getting more and more interested in in raising garden produce for the value of the seeds. By the third year I had added several different kinds of vegetables to my list and was experimenting with different methods of preserving the seeds. Several years I did a fairly good local business. More and more people heard of my famous pumpkins, and I began to get orders from all over the country asking for that particular kind of seeds. The mail order business, however was not sufficient, and I depended upon a house to house peddling to swell the results. Year after year I cultivated my garden, saved the seeds, and then spent the late fall and early winter canvassing the country for many miles around. The farmers and townspeople gradually came to depend on me for garden seeds. Eventually I tried the commission box trade. My gardens were enlarged and I employed several men to help in taking care of them. The seeds were placed in ordinary paper sacks, marked with a pencil and placed in rough basswood boxes for display. These commission boxes were distributed in all the stores where I could get the proprietors interested, and later I collected the boxes and the money for seeds sold. In early spring each box was filled again and displayed in some store.

Enters Mail Order Field

Commission box business was not a success the way I conducted it and the fact was evident that I must find some other market for my seeds. I invested what looked then like a young fortune $10, in a single advertisement which ran in a national farm magazine. That was the way I broke into the mail order business, and of course it was a great help to be able to feature the mammoth pumpkin in this advertising campaign. That was a good many years ago. They still write me from all over the world for those big pumpkin seeds. The original pumpkin garden has increased in size until it covers many acres and its vines actually grow around the globe. Naturally, pumpkin seeds do not comprise the great bulk of my business today, but just the same those first pumpkin seeds were the foundation.

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Thomas Burt

No reproductions without prior permission