It’s said “there are no second acts in American lives” but Luther Burbank had several of them. In 1912 alone, he had two.
“Burbank Poppies” illustration from The Burbank Seed Book, 1913)
Burbank was a man driven by a single simple goal: He wanted to spend all his time crossbreeding plants in hopes of discovering something that was prettier, tastier, hardier – or might be as significant as his discovery of the russet potato. To do that he needed financial security as well as freedom to concentrate on his work, although for most of his career he had neither. He hated running a wholesale seed business, which was no guarantee of a steady income even though the public revered him as the “plant wizard.” He came to loathe his adoring fans who continually pestered and distracted him in Santa Rosa, wanting to shake hands and boast about their lovely zinnias back home. Oh, if he could just unload the business side on someone else, and/or have some nice people award him a wad of money.
His rescue appeared at hand in 1905 when he was granted a $10,000 annuity from the Carnegie Institution. That deal was cancelled five years later amid bitter mutual recriminations; the Institution had been long dismayed he was working on the side with others on a project to write an encyclopedic series of books describing his “secrets.” The last straw was apparently his short-lived agreement to set up a distribution business with the scabrous Law brothers, who made their fortune peddling dangerous quack medicines. (All of this history is discussed at depth in the four-part “Burbank Follies” series.)
While Burbank received the occasional financial boost – the Carnegie grant, a substantial payment for an exclusive-rights deal from some distributor – he had no open doors leading to a sunny and secure future; rather, he was a 60-something man stuck on a treadmill. Then came the heyday of 1912.
The Luther Burbank Society was created to finally complete and publish the book series, a significant event that will be covered in the following article. But more importantly, that year the Luther Burbank Company was formed to completely take over his sales business. Burbank was elated. “For fifteen years at least I have been endeavoring to make some such arrangements,” he told the Press Democrat. “Henceforth I shall only engage myself in the creation of more novelties in fruits, flowers and plants.”
Burbank was paid $30,000 (the equivalent to about $775,000 today) to be followed by an annual payment of $15,000. When the new company set up offices and incorporated later that year, the PD described what a happy development this was for Burbank:
|“I have no time to make money,” he said. “I’ve more important work to do.” Happily the long-desired independence is now achieved. All the desks and typewriters were taken from Burbank’s home yesterday, together with his correspondence files and his account books. No longer will he need the services of secretary and bookkeeper. He can give all his working hours to the labor of his life, and undoubtedly the result will be a new pace of achievement, a greater number of wonders to astonish the world. Henceforth Luther Burbank will have nothing to sell to anybody. The chartered corporation will take possession of his new plant creations as fast as they are produced, and will market them with a facility that Burbank, always busy with other things, could not hope to attain.|
The principals in the new company were W. Garner Smith, a San Francisco stock broker, and Rollo Hough, a banker and attorney from Oakland. Luther Burbank was not on the board of directors – it was mostly Oakland capitalists and city boosters, including an officer from the Oakland Bank of Savings where Hough had previously worked. The only members representing Burbank’s interest were his personal San Francisco lawyer and James Edwards, Santa Rosa’s mayor 1910-1912 (and, BTW, Hilliard Comstock’s tennis partner). Hough was named General Manager of the company and Smith was secretary/treasurer. Burbank reserved the right to select the president and picked Edwards.
It may seem a bit odd for the board to lean so far away from Burbank’s Santa Rosa and towards Oakland, but the company was really based in the East Bay. An Oakland warehouse was the shipping point, mainly sending out orders for Burbank’s varieties of spineless cactus, which were being grown near Livermore. The company also purchased 7.5 acres in the “Broadmoor” tract on the southern edge of Oakland (it’s due west of the intersection of MacArthur Blvd. and Hwy 580). Besides replacing Burbank’s seed propagation operations in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, its Bay Area location was hoped to lure Burbank fans away from trekking to Santa Rosa. “A point which will be visited not only by thousands of Californians, but by 90 per cent of the tourists who come to this State,” Hough told the Hayward Review, boasting that 5,000 varieties of plants would soon be grown on the farm. Local realtors were quick to hop on the bandwagon, running ads that building lots were still available close to “Luther Burbank’s Exhibition Garden.”
Peeking a few years forward from 1912, we find the company brought Burbank even greater fame. The next year large ads such as the one seen to right appeared in newspapers nationwide; there was even a color Sunday supplement section produced. They took over the huge Army & Navy store on Market street in San Francisco and renamed it the Burbank Building to showcase his plants. Luther became somewhat an ambassador as well as a company figurehead, traveling to promote the upcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the company collapsed late in 1915
after it was discovered warehouse workers were shaving spines off regular cactus to sell them as spineless, a fraud that was revealed soon after they were planted. President Edwards and General Manager Hough – both former bankers with no prior experience managing a company of any sort – resigned. Burbank was disgraced in the eyes of many, as each product came stamped with his personal guarantee of quality and authenticity. The company was liquidated soon after Luther Burbank sued the Luther Burbank Company for “recovery of his contract money and his name.” The misadventure ended up being the worst “Act I” period of his entire life. (UPDATE: The Burbank biographies that state a bait-and-switch fraud was discovered are probably wrong. See this discussion.)
NOTED SCIENTIST SELLS ALL HIS FRUIT AND FLOWER CREATIONSLuther Burbank Will Now Devote His Entire Time to Scientific Work Having Disposed of His BusinessAN IMPORTANT DEAL IS CLOSEDBig Capitalists Are Interested and Sale Involves Past, Present and Future Creations, and is a Unique Transaction in Many Particulars
A deal of great importance, unique in its character and world-wide in its interest, was consummated in Santa Rosa on Thursday, when Luther Burbank disposed of the commercial end of his great business and will hereafter only devote his attention to the creation of novelties in fruits, flowers and plants, without having to bother about the selling and marketing of the productions.
Negotiations that have been pending for some time were ended on Thursday and papers were signed where the commercial side of the Burbank activities in giving to the work so many things in the realm of horticulture passed to Rollo Hough, banker and attorney of Oakland and W. Garner Smith of San Francisco, recently of Kentucky. These men are backed by some of California’s wealthiest men.
The sale not only includes Burbank’s past creations, but the present and future ones, for as fast as he produces the novelties will become the property of the men interested in Thursday’s transaction. In two or three years the Burbank experimental farm near Sebastopol will also pass into their ownership, it being held in the meantime by Burbank. The home place in Santa Rosa is not included in the deal. The transaction is one of the biggest of its kind ever consummated.
When seen by a Press Democrat representative at his home Thursday, Mr. Burbank confirmed the news of the sale of his business and he expressed himself as being glad to have it transferred to other hands.
“For fifteen years at least I have been endeavoring to make some such arrangements as was consummated today. I have sold all my creations, past, present and future, and henceforth I shall only engage myself in the creation of more novelties in fruits, flowers and plants. It is a big relief as it has been altogether too much of a burden to handle both sides of the business. The papers were signed today.
“I have enough novelties on hand now to keep Messrs. Hough and Smith busy for twenty years,” said Mr. Burbank. He added with a smile, “And plenty more up my sleeve.”
Mr. Burbank did not state the amount of money involved in the sale he had made, but of course, it necessarily involves a very large sum. It is understood that from time to time payments will be paid. But the sale of the novelties is absolute at this time. Mr. Burbank reiterated that he was very glad to be rid of business cares.– Press Democrat, April 5, 1912“NO BUSINESS TO WORRY OVER NOW,” SAY BURBANKPlant Breeder Sells His Creations to a CorporationConcern is Adequately Financed, and Will Establish Great Nursery and Seed FarmEnterprise With Headquarters Here
The formal transfer of the commercial side of Luther Burbank’s business to the new corporation which is henceforth to handle the Burbank seed and plant creations exclusively, was made on Thursday, Rollo J. Hough and W. Garner Smith representing the purchasers. Mr. Hough, who is actively connected with the new corporation, said to a Press Democrat representative yesterday: “The final steps have been made in taking over the commercial end of Luther Burbank’s business. In fulfillment of the conditions of the sale effected last April, Mr.Burbank turned over his business Thursday, and from now on will devote his whole energies to his creative work.
“It is our purpose to push the seed and nursery end aggressively, for we are confident that it is possible to build up a business that will rank with the largest of its kind in the United States. Mr. Burbank has already demonstrated this possibility by establishing a very thriving and profitable business.
” It is likely that Santa Rosa will be made the distributing center, and that seed farms and nurseries will be established in this vicinity, but with the exception of the establishment of the Broadmoor Seed Farm near Oakland, no definite action has been taken in this regard. The business of the company thus far has been conducted from our San Francisco offices.
“The corporation has ample resources to accomplish its purposes, up to $300,000, and is composed of a number of prominent bankers and business men of San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Rosa, a certain portion of stock in the corporation having been allotted to those friends of Mr. Burbank in Santa Rosa, who desired to be identified with the new company.”
Mr. Burbank has frequently deplored the necessity that compelled him to neglect his scientific work for the less congenial task of marketing his creations in order to keep his income up to his needs. “I have no time to make money,” he said. “I’ve more important work to do.” Happily the long-desired independence is now achieved. All the desks and typewriters were taken from Burbank’s home yesterday, together with his correspondence files and his account books. No longer will he need the services of secretary and bookkeeper. He can give all his working hours to the labor of his life, and undoubtedly the result will be a new pace of achievement, a greater number of wonders to astonish the world. Henceforth Luther Burbank will have nothing to sell to anybody. The chartered corporation will take possession of his new plant creations as fast as they are produced, and will market them with a facility that Burbank, always busy with other things, could not hope to attain. The new men in charge will be specialists in business, just as Burbank is a specialist in his line. They will do their part of the work better than ne ever could, and he will do his part still better for having their part taken off his hands.– Press Democrat, November 2, 1912JAS. R. EDWARDS NAMED PRESIDENT OF THE LUTHER BURBANK CO.
A meeting of the Board of directors of The Luther Burbank Company, sole distributors of the Burbank horticultural productions, was held on Monday and much important business was transacted. Mention of the transfer of the commercial end of Mr. Burbank’s great business to The Luther Burbank Company was made some time since. The stock was sold under the name of the Universal Seed Distribution Company, and the latter company is now merged into The Luther Burbank Company.
The directors organized on Monday by electing James R. Edwards, the well known former Mayor of Santa Rosa, and assistant cashier of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa, president; Rollo J. Hough, vice president and general manager; W. Garner Smith, secretary and treasurer; and Leo V. Belden, assistant secretary and assistant treasurer.
The board of directors are all prominent men of affairs in Northern California, men who hold a front rank in the state’s commercial life. The directors are:
The head offices of The Luther Burbank Company will be in San Francisco, with offices also in Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa will be the distributing point and mail order department. The company has leased the entire upper portion of the Hahmann building, adjoining the Santa Rosa bank building on Exchange avenue, and for the past month employees of the company have been busily engaged, answering hundreds of inquiries concerning seeds and plants. The company will undoubtedly handle an immense business.
The deal by which The Luther Burbank Company became the sole owners and distributors of Luther Burbank’s horticultural productions was one of the most gigantic and at the same time the most unique the world has known. The company came into possession of Mr. Burbank’s creations, past, present and future.
The company has, as intimated, already taken up the active work for which it was organized, and has already filled many orders from different parts of the country and world. It has only just commenced the volume of distribution of Burbank seeds and products that will be carried out when its connections are fully established.
The meeting of the directors was held in San Francisco and the full directorate was present. Mr. Edwards returned to this city after the meeting.– Press Democrat, December 3, 1912