Thursday, November 8, 2012

Henry Philipps, Toledo Seedsman

It is one of those topsy-turvy reckonings. A sure sign of winter is the arrival in the mail of seed catalogs. Whether you farm hundreds of acres, garden intensively, or have a potted plant on your windowsill, you can spend many an idle winter hour gazing at the garden plants in the seed catalogs. They are clever advertisements, but are also a way to kick-start spring dreams of what one might plant.

Toledo once had its own, home-grown (pardon the pun) seed company. The Henry Philipps Seed and Implement Company was located at 115-117 St. Clair Street. Their seed catalogs advertised seeds for “growers, importers, wholesale and retail…garden, field, and flower seeds.” Catalogs featured big, appealing engravings of vegetables, implying that customers could grow similar crops in their backyards. “We guarantee that all our Seeds are of good, germinating quality,” although, as every gardener knows, seeds sometimes fail to grow, “owing to causes we cannot control and beyond our responsibility.”

Henry Philipps was a pioneer in both the seed industry and Toledo itself. Philipps (1829-1896) was born in Brunswick, Germany. He sailed for New York in 1849, and after a 42 day voyage, landed in America. He immediately took the train to Buffalo, and then a steamboat across Lake Erie to Toledo. After doing some farming and working as a clerk, he established a seed business in February of 1852 .

Philipps, at various times, sold seed, farming implements, and other kinds of products need by the farmer. During the 1870s and 80s, he had a separate hardware store on Summit Street. He formally incorporated in 1888, and became involved in several other enterprises. Philipps built houses and organized what was known as the Columbia Heights Addition. He helped develop business blocks on St. Clair, Summit Street, and on Superior, and was involved in the Adams Street streetcar line. All the while raising a family of thirteen children!

Clearly, Henry Philipps was a “mover and shaker” in early Toledo. Philipps died in 1896, but his company went on for several more years, issuing annual catalogs with advertisements for fertilizer, insecticides, mouse and mole traps, shotguns, and windmills. One catalog listed a dangerous sounding product called “Great Western Powder.” The powder was, in fact, gunpowder, advertised for use on stumps: “For blasting stumps and boulders there is no other explosive so effectual and safe to handle.” One would hope so.

At the house Philipps built in his Columbia Heights addition in 1866, he had gardens, orchards, and a trout stream. He won a prize at the Ohio State Fair in 1868 for “best agricultural boiler.” Whether he was an agriculturalist or a “middleman” in the agricultural products industry is hard to say. But in the farming world of the 19th and 20th centuries, one could hardly do without Henry Philipps and his dream-inducing seed catalogs.