Earl May built an empire through broadcasting and farm sales
Editor’s Note: This story from Register reporter Tom Longden is part of our Famous Iowa Database, where we feature hundreds of notable names of the actor John wayne to the author of “Nancy Drew” Mildred Wirt Benson.
Earl May first dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Then he found a new love: garden seeds and nursery plants. They helped him build an empire and made him a household name.
As a pioneering broadcaster, mail-order businessman and promoter, May had few equals.
He was born on a farm in Hayes Center, Nebraska, graduated from the local school, then taught to earn money for college. He had created a fund for college when he was a child by raising turkeys and trapping wild animals for their skins.
At 20, May graduated from Fremont College in Nebraska, returned to the Hayes Center to become a principal, and then began studying law at the University of Michigan in 1911.
He graduated from the University of Nebraska Law School at Lincoln in 1915.
May’s life changed in Michigan when he became interested in the seed business with a summer vacation job. He had easy success with DM Ferry & Co. as he traveled on horseback, selling seeds to farmers along the way. In 1916 May married Gertrude Welch, her University of Nebraska classmate, daughter of ES Welch, president of Mount Arbor Nurseries in Shenandoah. The couple went on to have a son and a daughter.
May became an executive at Mount Arbor Nurseries, then started her own seed business, Earl May Seed & Nursery Co., in 1919, ensuring it was well established before resigning from Mount Arbor in 1920.
A visionary man, May turned to radio in 1924, using this new medium to market his products to farmers in the Midwest. Founding the KMA radio station in 1925, he originated morning shows, which farmers appreciated for weather updates and forecasts.
In 1926, Radio Digest named May the country’s most popular radio announcer. His folkloric approach had enormous appeal.
In 1927, May spent $ 100,000 on his new KMA studios in Shenandoah. The modern facility, called Mayfair, could seat 1,000 people in a cinema-like auditorium, and the following year attracted 400,000 visitors wishing to participate in live broadcasts.
May was a citizen and often honored. He and rival nurseryman Henry Field have transformed Shenandoah into a thriving and exciting community, attracting dozens of tourists.
During the Depression, May won legions of loyal customers when he shipped seeds to cash-strapped farmers, telling them they could pay for it when they could. And they did.
While on vacation at her summer home in Mercer, Wisconsin, May fell ill and then suffered a series of heart attacks. He died in 1946 of uremic poisoning at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota.
After his death, he was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Shenandoah.
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