Ferry-Morse Garden Seeds Have Rochester Area Roots

If you started vegetables or flowers from seed this spring, you may have used seeds from the Ferry-Morse company currently headquartered in Norton, Massachusetts. If so, your seeds have long historical ties to Michigan and the greater Rochester community.

Three-story brick building

The seed dry house at Ferry seed farm. This building was demolished in 1986. (Courtesy of Rochester Hills Public Library)

In 1852, Dexter Mason Ferry came to Detroit with plans to attend college and began a night job as a bookkeeper for a small seed house. Four years later he became a partner in the firm, and in 1867, he and other investors took over the business and named it D. M. Ferry & Company. Ferry concentrated its efforts on the home garden market; it was the first such business to introduce illustrated seed packets geared to the home customer and sold on commission through a nationwide retailer network.

Ferry’s company assets in Detroit included a large seed warehouse and office building at Brush and Monroe streets, and a trial garden and seed farm on Grand River between today’s Joy and Tireman roads. In 1890, the company decided to move the seed farm away from the growing congestion in Detroit. Ferry looked toward relocating the seed farm to Oakland County and purchased several family farms on the southeastern edge of Pontiac. The property, totaling about 237 acres, lay east of Woodward and north of South Boulevard. James H. McCotter, an 1868 graduate of Michigan Agricultural College (now MSU), was appointed superintendent of the new Pontiac seed farm.

The work of the stock seed farm was seed breeding, and the development of new and better varieties of plants. Seed breeders took care to keep varieties true to type and to improve them whenever possible. Stock seeds were then harvested and sent to Ferry’s grower network around the country. Once they had been supplied with Ferry’s stock seeds, these growers produced the seed that was sold to retail customers.

Men , women, horses, and mules stand in front of two barns along a road

Ferry workers pose with horses and mules outside some of the barns ca. 1919. (Courtesy of Rochester Hills Public Library)

In order to produce stock seed effectively, the seed farm needed plenty of space to insulate it from cross-pollination by plants in the surrounding landscape. When the city of Pontiac began to encroach upon the farm with residential gardens, the seed farm needed to move again. Superintendent McCotter recommended relocating the farm to land just south of Rochester in Avon Township (today’s Rochester Hills). In November 1902, Ferry announced that it had purchased almost an entire section there, bounded by Hamlin, Auburn, Rochester, and John R roads.

The company made the move quickly during the winter months in order to have the Avon Township site ready for spring planting. In January 1903, the Rochester Era noted that about 150 truckloads of equipment and paraphernalia were being moved from Pontiac to Avon.

Photo of corn on the cob with catalog description

Avon Evergreen Sweet Corn was introduced in Ferry’s 1913 Seed Catalog

The Pontiac seed farm had been called “Oakview” (presumably in homage to Oakland County), and when the farm relocated to Avon Township the Oakview name came with it.

Ferry’s seeds were popular nationwide, and the company developed many award-winners and some varieties that have endured through the decades. One example is the Detroit Dark Red beet, originally developed by Ferry in 1892. This beet variety was refined and improved over the years and has remained one of the nation’s best-selling and popular beets for more than a century. In an interesting aside, Avon Township was also represented among the names of Ferry products. After the farm moved to Avon, Ferry tipped its hat to the local community by naming one of its tomato varieties Avon Early and a variety of sweet corn Avon Evergreen.

In 1912, Ferry expanded its Avon Township footprint by purchasing 113 acres on the north side of Hamlin Road for its experimental and trial gardens. The company also built housing for seed farm employees on the newly acquired property, including a 20-room boarding house for unmarried workers and a small development of family bungalows called Ferry Court.

The seed farm was self-sufficient by design. The farm had its own blacksmith shop and harness shop to care for its animals and equipment. Howard K. McCotter, who succeeded his father, James H. McCotter, as superintendent of the seed farm, introduced a herd of sheep as another way for the farm to support itself. The sheep could be fed any farm produce that was deemed undesirable—that is, not up to Ferry standards—and they produced manure that was used as fertilizer. The wool produced by the herd was sold and the resulting revenue went back into the farm.

A group of two dozen men in suits and hats stand next to a garden with a long barn building behind them

A view of the trial and experimental gardens at Ferry (Courtesy of Cathy McCotter Pouls)

In 1930, D. M. Ferry & Co. merged with one of its California-based suppliers, C. C. Morse & Co. The merged company became known as Ferry-Morse Seed Company, the name that it still carries today. With its combined assets and market share, Ferry-Morse became not only the largest merchandiser but also the largest breeder and grower of garden seeds in the world.

By 1944, population growth in Avon Township, and the resulting cross-pollination from residential gardens, again threatened the purity of Ferry-Morse strains. The company sold all of its property south of Hamlin Road to industrialist Howard L. McGregor Sr., who owned National Twist Drill as well as the Great Oaks Stock Farm west of the village of Rochester. McGregor used the former seed farm to raise feed for his cattle at Great Oaks.

Ferry-Morse retained the property north of Hamlin Road to continue its experimental and trial gardens, but that facility was also destined to leave Avon Township in 1959. At the same time, the company announced that its headquarters would be relocated from Detroit—where it had been for 103 years—to Mountain View, California. Thus, Ferry severed its ties with Detroit and all of Michigan. It has since gone through a series of mergers and ownership changes and is currently headquartered in Massachusetts.

A three-story house

This building on Hamlin Road was built as a boarding house for unmarried Ferry workers

In 1963, Howard McGregor leased the former Ferry property to Ford Tractor & Implement Operations for use as a photographic farm. Ford Tractor needed to photograph its products in a real farm setting for advertising and marketing purposes. For several years during the 1960s, photos taken of Ford equipment at the old seed farm were used in sales brochures and national print advertising campaigns. The company also shot about a dozen motion pictures at the site each year.

In early 1970, a tri-party group of investors announced that it had acquired the old Ferry property and would develop a planned community on the site. Over the next few years, partners Aetna Life Insurance Company, Slavik Investors, and Frankel Associates built the Hampton community, which included housing, retail development, and a golf course.

Three Barn Buildings

This group of former Ferry barns still stands on the Hampton Golf Course

Though Ferry departed our community more than half a century ago, a few remnants of its history can still be found in our local landscape. The former Ferry Court cottages can be seen on the north side of Hamlin Road, east of Rochester, in an area now called Wayside Park. The large boarding house—now an apartment house—stands on the north side of Hamlin Road, between Wayside Park and the Christian Memorial Gardens cemetery. Within Christian Memorial Gardens, some former Ferry buildings have been renovated for cemetery offices. South of Hamlin, three of Ferry’s barns still stand on the Hampton Golf Course. These buildings remind us of a once-great Michigan company that was a major presence in our community.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Deanne Lucas says

    My sister (Lynn McLean) and I had an uncle, Vernon Bowman, who worked at Ferry Morse in Rochester for many years. He and his family lived on Ferry Court until he was transferred to New York State. Vernon was brother to our Mom, Thelma Bowman Lucas.

    • Ralph Geil says

      I grew up on my dads farm on west Hamlin Road. We would drive through what was then the Ford Photo Farm to get to my Grandfathers farm on Auburn Road. It was neat to see all new equipment working on the Farm. The ground was very productive and grew awesome crops.

  2. Sydney Ann Zaremba says

    I believe that in the picture of all the gentlemen standing at the experimental gardens, my grandfather, Edward Siudara, who had the farm at Mead and Winkler Mill (NW quadrant) might be in the picture. He would be the shorter man, third from the end (right side) with the dark suit and light colored hat in his hand. Grandpa was good friends with Matilda Wilson and always took an interest in any kind of growing since he and grandma grew wheat fields, corn fields and many other vegetables.

  3. FLOYD LAMPINEN says

    I worked at the square mile from 1958-61,in the summer.My employer was the Great Oaks Stock Farm.Painting fence and baling hay for $ 5.00 dollars per day.After that prep,I never had a hard days work.Retired at age 68,after 54 years of work.

  4. Nice story Debbie!

  5. Ralph Geil says

    I grew up on Hamlin Road and I remember the Ford Photo farm. My dad farmed and we would drive our tractor through the farm to get to my Grandfathers farm on Auburn Road. It was awesome to see all new farm equipment being used to farm the ground. That ground was very productive soil and produced awesome crops.

  6. So hope local residents appreciate the remnants of what is still visible. The sites would make an interesting archeological project for school children (Pat Mckay & Roch.-Avon Hist. Society take note!) Please add more info. to yr. research in regard to the mansions on Ferry Ave. in Detroit. Currently, home to boutique hotels owne by the DIA Founders Society.

  7. Ralph Beach says

    My family lived at what we called the hotel, you call it the boarding house. There were 10 of us living there & my mother Mary Beach did all of the cleaning,cooking,laundry for everyone including taking care of us. She cooked on a wood stove & baked in a wood burning oven. The building was heated by a coal burning furnace & my job then was to make sure the stocker was full of coal in the morning & evening. There was a Fraternal Order of Eagles in the basement & I would sneak down & play pool & drink a soda pop. To this day I don’t know how my mother kept up with all her chores ,she was an amazing woman & the place was always spotless. Can still smell the baked breads & pies she used to make at three in the morning. Lots of fond memories were spent there.So glad to see that they restored the boarding house & kept the cottages .

    • Linnette Brandt says

      I’m a 37 yr. member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Rochester, and never new or heard any stories about the F.O.E. being in the basement of your building. Thank you for mentioning that!

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