Gardening won’t be the same without Gurney’s

Gardening won't be the same without Gurney's By Bob Karolevitz We didn't get our Gurney's seed catalog this year.

Somebody must have taken us off the list, and so gardening time is not the same at our farm this spring.

Then, to top it off, we get the sad news that Gurney's is leaving Yankton after more than a century, and now we've really got tears in our horseradish (which is a sneaky way to slip in the title of one of my books).

Anyway, the imminent departure of the nationally known firm to Michigan has brought back a flood of memories to me and other aging folks who remember the company's heyday in the 1930s.

Although Gurney's was based in Yankton, it was really a South Dakota tradition. From Veblen to Fairfax, Elkton to Edgemont and all the points in between, people ordered "seeds and trees that grow and satisfy" from the colorful catalog.

Then when pioneer Radio Station WNAX became "The Voice of the House of Gurney" on Feb. 28, 1927, it was picked up on crystal sets, Atwater Kent and Crosley radios throughout the central United States. As the station's roster of talent grew, Yankton became a mecca for tourists, not only from South Dakota, but elsewhere in the country's mid-section, all anxious to see and hear Lawrence Welk play his "squeeze box" and Happy Jack O'Malley, the Irish fiddler from Montrose, sing Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?

Gurney's only owned WNAX for less than a dozen years (the station was sold to Gardner Cowles, Jr., of Des Moines in 1938), but for those of us growing up in the "Dirty Thirties," the two of them were synonymous. We forgot all about the drouth, grasshoppers and depression when we listened to George B. German, the cowboy troubador, strumming his guitar and selling Hamlin's Wizard Oil.

I can remember George's favorite story about the farmer who accidentally cut off his dog's tail. First he rubbed Hamlin's Wizard Oil on the stub, and the dog grew a new tail. Then he put a little of the magic potion on the dismembered tail � and it grew a new dog!

As a youngster, I rode up the rope service elevator to the third floor of the Gurney building to see the Rosebud Kids perform in the glassed-in studio. I laughed at the antics of Oscar Fiddlepoop (actually Oscar Kosta, father of the Rosebud Kids) and listened to John Peter DePagter and other announcers selling Master Liquid Hog tonic, Georgie Porgie Breakfast Food and Crazy Crystals guaranteed to alleviate, if not cure, constipation, rheumatism, bad complexion, colds, kidney trouble, diabetes, Bright's disease, neuritis, nephritis and other maladies.

My memories include standing in line at the annual Gurney's Pancake Days when more than 100,000 visitors were said to have flocked into Yankton for a free meal and to shop in the Gurney mini-mall which was years ahead of its time. I also remember Chan Gurney (later the U.S. senator) broadcasting play-by-play basketball games through the static from such places as the Mitchell Corn Palace.

Oh, and you've probably heard me tell of the time I dug the worms and went bullhead fishing in the Jim River with Lawrence Welk in his white balloon-tired Model A with Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra painted on the side. After all, it was my one touch of Venus, so why shouldn't I write about it over and over again?

Yes, Gurney's and WNAX were very much a memorable part of my youthful past. Later I relived it all with the arrival of the annual seed catalog.

But this year it didn't come. I wonder if I'll ever get one from Michigan.

© 2000 Robert F. Karolevitz

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