THE EARLY YEARS: Earl E. May founded his company in 1919 in the small southwest Iowa town of Shenandoah. He was a "natural born” salesman and quickly attracted a number of capable individuals to work with him in building a successful mail-order and retail seed and nursery business. Though he died in 1946, his legendary expertise lives on today within the garden centers which bear his name.
Born on a farm near Hayes Center, Nebraska, Earl discovered his knack for selling by earning money to go to college by trapping wolves, skinning animals, and selling turkeys. He started his career after earning a certificate to teach school at $50/month. He then entered law school, and worked his way through the University of Michigan by selling garden seed on horseback for the D.M. Ferry Seed Company.
He moved to Nebraska to finish his law degree at the University of Nebraska, and met his future wife, Gertrude Welch, the daughter of E.S. Welch, prominent nurseryman and owner of Mount Arbor Nurseries in Shenandoah, Iowa.
Drawn by the intriguing catalogs and mail order merchandising by the southwestern Iowa nurseries, Earl May shucked his law degree, married Gertrude, and moved to Shenandoah to become an apprentice to his father-in-law. In 1919, the May Seed & Nursery Company was organized. The original company sold baby chickens, tires, batteries, radios, paint, shoes and clothing as well as seed, mostly by mail.
RADIO: In the early 1920's, Earl May was able to foresee the great opportunity of talking to thousands of people by a new means of communication called radio. He traveled to Omaha, Nebraska to broadcast his program at WOAW. After two years he decided to build his own radio station in Shenandoah. In 1925, KMA was opened, at first as a department of the nursery company. It was one of the most popular stations in the country, broadcasting homespun farming and gardening talks.
Mr. May won the "Radio Digest" coveted gold cup in 1926, being voted the World's Most Popular Radio Announcer by over 452,000 people throughout the United States. The Mayfair Auditorium, home of KMA, was visited by thousands of listeners who wanted to meet the legend, and see the live broadcasts.
As Earl May wrote in one of his spring catalogs, "Be sure to come - bring your whole family. Remember, we do not put on any style here . . . if you are in your working clothes and decide to come, why come ahead, because you’ll find me here in my working clothes, too. Come as soon as you can for I promise you will have a good time and that you will be glad you made the trip."
CATALOG: After starting out with just handful of seed and nursery catalogs in 1919, during the peak years of the mail-order business, more than two million were mailed annually. Radio "advertising", a new concept, helped boost catalog sales. Gardeners could browse the catalogs filled with lush blooming plants on cold February nights, and dream of receiving seeds and nursery stock ready for spring planting. Letters to and from customers filled the pages of every catalog, and also helped sell products, such as flower seeds: "Don't envy the Zinnias across the fence, grow some yourself, with blooms immense. I want the best' you're sure to say, so buy your seed from Earl E. May."
In addition to radio broadcasting, Mr. May wrote the copy for the mail order catalogs and his "Nursery and Seed News". They were filled with product and planting advice, as well as personal anecdotes that made readers feel like real friends. When the banks failed during the Depression, he often told his farm seed customers to order and plant the seed they needed, and pay him whenever they could. A letter from Earl May in the 1948 catalog showed that his customers had great confidence in him: "During the last year over a thousand customers have sent us their signed checks and left it to us to fill in the amount required for our goods". Such kindnesses earned him a reputation as a friend and humanitarian throughout the country.
Though a powerful sales tool for many years, time eroded the catalog's effectiveness, and it was finally dropped in 1991 so the company could concentrate instead on its retail nursery and garden centers. Although there is no longer a mail-order catalog, the company is now meeting today's customer's needs by providing only the finest quality products, through its new and expanding retail garden center facilities, and online at www.earlmay.com.
GARDEN CENTERS: May Seed & Nursery Company's business was 90 percent mail order for many years, until the first brick and mortar retail store outside of Shenandoah, named the Earl May Trading Post Number 2, was opened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1930. The May Company added stores the next two years in Omaha, Nebraska, St. Joseph, Missouri, Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Ft. Dodge, Iowa. Several more were opened in the 1930's throughout the Midwest; several were open only from February through May, and were called "Spring Stores". They were usually located in downtown areas, and carried a good supply of garden seed and nursery stock.
In 1938 the decision was made to operate all stores on a year-round basis. At that time, fertilizers, insecticides, tools, and other hard goods were added to the existing merchandise line. The foundation of the present day Earl May Nursery & Garden Centers had been established. Betty Jane Shaw, the current President of Earl May Seed & Nursery, has watched her grandfather Earl May's visions develop and mature much the same as a fine oak tree.
DISTRIBUTION: As the Nursery and Garden Center operations expanded, the need continued for more storage space and shipping facilities. In the fall of 1971, a new distribution center was built just outside of Shenandoah. Earl May’s own fleet of tractor/trailers delivers merchandise and nursery stock to the garden centers daily. Stores are able to replenish inventory often, and customers have plenty of fresh merchandise to shop from.
For many years, Earl May Seed & Nursery operated a 77-acre Test Garden, which attracted thousands of visitors from all over the United States every summer. A portion of the area was used to test over 2,000 varieties of vegetables, trees, shrubs, roses and grasses for national tests and future varieties for Earl May customers. As many as 20,000 visitors attended the annual Open House to see the dazzling display of color created by thousands of blooming flowering plants. The Show Gardens were discontinued at the end of the season in 1994 and the grounds were used to construct a larger green goods growing and distribution center to better serve the retail customers.
EARL MAY TODAY: Earl May Garden Centers have been renowned for providing the best plants, seeds and gardening supplies in the Midwest. Today, Earl May Nursery & Garden Centers is among the top 10 garden centers in the nation. While the company's core business remains selling seed and nursery products, specialty items have been added to include private label lawn and garden seed, fertilizers, garden insecticides and fungicides. In addition, Earl May has added a garden gift & décor department and continues to expand the outdoor living department, with beautiful, functional patio furniture and accessories to complete the outdoor space. Landscape and container design consultation and installation as well as yard, garden & container maintenance services are offered in every store. Some Earl May Garden Centers even carry an array of pet supplies and livestock as a year-round conveniences for customers.
As times change, store facilities also change to allow customers a pleasant, up-to-date shopping experience. New construction, remodeling and relocation are ongoing. Earl May President Betty Jane Shaw is instrumental in the design and layout of stores, providing general direction and long-range strategies for all of them. All locations have been updated with new paint colors and signage to create an inviting and inspiring atmosphere for our customers.
"Customers can rely on the quality to be top notch and the employees to be knowledgeable about the plants and products. They can also find the latest varieties if they want to try new plants, or they can opt for the tried-and-true varieties, too” says Betty Jane. And the customer guarantee is among the best in the industry. Earl May will replace any plant that doesn't perform within year of purchase.
CEO Bill Shaw, Betty Jane's husband, oversees daily operations for the company from its corporate offices in Shenandoah, Iowa. The couple is on a first-name basis with managers and store personnel. “Great pride is taken in product knowledge and service. Almost any place can sell a rose bush or potted perennial, but not many can tell you how to care for them and honor a guarantee, too" says Mr. Shaw. "We want to educate our customers so they're happy with their purchase and they can enjoy it for years to come.”
The one thing that has never changed through the years is Earl May's insistence on quality products, expert advice and superior customer service.