A Field Gardener

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on February 23, 2012

Peonies are particularly popular pass-alongs, not only because they’re beautiful in bloom, but also because they’re extremely tough and long-lived. Of particular note among these peonies is an early red one called the Double Fern Leaf Peony (Paeonia tenuifolia 'Rubra Flora Plena'). Its leaves are unique to the peony world, as its name implies. So how did so many of these peonies find their way to seven villages in Iowa?

Youngster sniffing the peonies
in Homestead
Dbl. Fern Leaf Peony close-up

omewhat rare, the Double Fern Leaf Peony currently sells for an incredible $30 to $60 a pot at nurseries and garden centers.  But gardeners in the seven Amana villages don’t have to pay those prices.  While most peony lovers salivate at the thought of owning just one plant, Double Fern Leaf Peonies grow in profusion in the Amanas.  There are literally rows of them lining driveways and filling garden beds.  In fact, it probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch to designate the Amanas as the Fern Leaf Peony Capitol of the U.S.

It all started with Henry Field.  a well-known master gardener and nurseryman in the late 1800s, who still lends his name today to the Henry Field mail order nursery business.  Field had an affinity for Fern Leaf Peonies, but found them much too difficult to propagate for his nursery business.  He and his family grew them, however, including his sister, a Mrs. Horner.  Mrs. Horner lived on a farm in rural Homestead (one of the Amana villages), and her family doctor was Dr. William Moershel, an Amana resident who had a practice in Homestead.  At some point during this doctor/patient relationship, Mrs. Horner gifted Dr. Moershel and his wife with several Fern Leaf Peony plants that she had originally gotten from her brother.  The plants, having multiplied considerably in the meantime, were inherited by the late Dr. Henry Moershel (Dr. William Moershel’s son) and his wife, Henrietta, who passed starts along to her Amana friends.  The Moershels’ daughter, Connie Zuber, has continued the passalong tradition.  Over the decades, the peonies have found their way to all seven villages.  Judging by the number of blooms in Homestead every spring, that village continues to be the undisputed champion Fern Leaf Peony grower among the seven villages.

Ultimately responsible for the Fern Leaf Peony bonanza in the Amanas, Henry Field was born in 1871 in Page County, near Shenandoah in southwestern Iowa.  An enterprising young lad, he gathered seed from flowers in his mother’s garden, packaged them in homemade envelopes, and sold them.  He also harvested produce from the family’s vegetable garden, walked the two miles to Shenandoah, and sold his vegetables door-to-door.  At age ten he began offering strawberry plants, seed potatoes, and pansy plants as well.  At age 15 he found employment at the Livingston Seed Company in Des Moines, where he gained valuable experience in operating a business that sells seeds.

After graduating from high school, Field attended Western Normal College in Shenandoah.  In 1882 he married his college classmate, Annie Hawxby, who enjoyed gardening and was also interested in the seed business.  Together they launched a truck farming business just outside Shenandoah.  So massive were the yields from their farm that other farmers and gardeners began requesting seeds from them. 

Sadly, Annie died of scarlet fever in 1899, leaving behind Henry and a young son. Despite his grief, he pressed onward, converting one of the rooms in his home into an office and the only barn on the property into a seedhouse.  His sales strategy was to price his seed lower than that of the popular national firm of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.  Much to Field’s satisfaction, it worked.

Henry Field, seedsman and radio

In 1900, Field married Edna Thompson.  Born to that union were ten children: Faith, Hope, Philip, Josephine, Jessie, Mary, Ruth, Georgia, John, and Celestia.  Needless to say, he loved family life!  He made it a point to always be present at the table for meals and looked forward to nights with his family.  Though he put in long hours of work—sometimes as many as 16—he was never far away, working in the gardens or in the seedhouse.

Field incorporated his company in 1907.  The company grossed $63,000 ($1,500,030 in today’s dollars) in its first year.  Using the slogan, “"Seeds that yield are sold by Field," he expanded his business beyond the borders of Page County by gearing up for a mail order nursery business that would encompass the entire U.S.

Although Field was passionate about his business, that wasn’t his only interest.  He was fascinated by broadcast radio—so much so that he actually built himself a broadcast studio on top of his seedhouse.  In 1924, he joined the emerging broadcast field by launching radio station KFNF, one of less than 300 radio stations in the entire country.  He had a slogan for his station as well, which is reflected in its call letters:  “Keep Friendly, Never Frown."  The format included country entertainment of various kinds, information about happenings locally and nationally, and, most importantly, informing folks about his seed business.

Current catalog

Tragedy struck once more in April of 1925, when his wife, Edna, succumbed to Bright's Disease.  He dedicated himself to raising his children in the four years following.  In 1929 he married a company employee, Bertha McCullen.  By all accounts she was a loving wife and a caring mother to Field’s children.

Field's company was, at this point, ranked as one of the largest seed businesses in the country.  Scores, if not hundreds, of Shenandoans were employed by Field, and two-thirds of the mail arriving at the town’s post office was attributed to his businesses.

Field officially retired in 1938, at the age of 67, but he retained the title of company president until his death on Oct. 17, 1949.  In that year, the company generated approximately $3,000,000 ($45,660,000 in today’s dollars) from sales and had close to a million customers.

Since Field’s death, the company has changed hands five times and is currently owned by Scarlet Tanager Holdings, LLC.  It appears that after being sold so many times, customer service has suffered considerably. The radio station also changed ownership and location several times over the years.  It is currently an FM station now owned by McCook Radio Group in Nebraska.

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
I'm new to this, but how do I pull up the topic of peonies? goodscentslady2 May 20, 2015 5:31 AM 0
Untitled RandyBoatwright Mar 2, 2012 8:46 PM 1
Enlightening Sharon Mar 2, 2012 8:43 PM 3
How wonderful! Zanymuse Feb 25, 2012 12:10 PM 1

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