America's Pansy Capital
More Than Just Celery
A headline from the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1954 amplified what many Kalamazooans had known for the previous two decades: “Kalamazoo Fields Produce 6,000,000 Pansy Plants, 4th of Nation’s Supply”. While most of those familiar with local history know about the importance of the celery industry on the economic development of 19th century Kalamazoo, fewer are as familiar with the rich history of the cultivation of pansies.
By the 1920s, the mint and celery industries, which had begun in the second half of the 19th century, had slowed considerably, but local farmers would adapt to 20th century market forces by cultivating a new crop to be sold to large midwestern markets–the pansy flower. A derivative of the French word pensee, meaning thought, the garden flower became a major cash crop both before WWII and afterward.
Large fields of pansies became a common sight from the 1920s through the 1950s. Several of the area’s biggest sellers were Vander Salm’s Flower Shop, John Eberlink, Jacob Flipse, and Peter Valstar. Like many, Valstar had been connected to celery growing for years before he began his effort to sell pansies. Valstar has been credited as the first farmer to focus on pansies, as early as 1905. Valstar, like others, realized that one could add pansies to celery fields as they bloomed earlier in the season than celery.
Farms were typically located on the city’s southside along S. Burdick Street, where the mucky soil near Axtell and Portage Creek made for ideal conditions. Vander Salm’s Flower Shop is the first business to be listed in the city directory as a pansy plant grower in 1929.
“There are, experts say, several hundred varieties of pansies, but only three or four are developed here, and of these the Donovan stock probably is the best known. True, most of the growers harvest their own seeds, but originally it probably was Donovan.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 May 1942, p.26
Most of the local farmers were more interested in selling the pansy flower than its seed. Peter Valstar told the Gazette in 1930, “The best seed comes from Massachusetts and sells for $200 a pound, but a pound is good for 150,000 plants. Most of the local growers produce the major portion of their own seed. When the time for the spring pansy show comes, the growers pick many of the largest and finest pansies and use those to produce seed.” Successful pansy production relied on both labor and optimal weather. A springtime freeze or a severe winter could dramatically impact crops. In 1942, four million of the plants were reported to have been shipped out of Kalamazoo.
Kalamazoo Pansy Show
The inaugural Kalamazoo Pansy Show was sponsored by the southside branch of the Kalamazoo Trust & Savings Bank in May 1929. The annual event’s purpose was “to stimulate a friendly and healthy rivalry among pansy growers. To broadcast the information that the raising of pansies has become one of Kalamazoo’s important industries. To encourage the raising of pansies–thereby making a more beautiful city.” The first year saw 23 growers enter the contest, with 2800 attendees.
In 1933, a beauty/talent contest was added to the two-day event’s festivities. Grace Marshall beat out 19 other young women to win both her title as Pansy Queen, and the grand prize of a three-day trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Eventually, like celery before it, the pansy industry waned in importance by the 1960s. Fields within the city were converted into lots for residential or commercial development. Despite the decline in pansy growing, the flower bedding industry continues to be an important part of the local economy.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, September 2023
“Twenty entered in Pansy Queen popularity test”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 February 1933, p.2
“County’s pansy crop, smallest in years, moving”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 April 1944, p.14
“This year’s heavy pansy crop heads for far-flung markets”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 April 1945, p.11
“Kalamazoo fields produce 6,000,000 pansy plants, 4th of nation’s supply”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 May 1954, p.22
Kalamazoo: the place behind the products
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