Talking Seed Bag Design with Dr. Clay Yeoman of Spink County Mercantile
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Clay Yeoman, Redfield dentist and owner of Spink County Mercantile, never sells from his personal collection of vintage, (mostly) South Dakota seed bags. Except once.
“A lady came in one day and she started crying,” recalls Charlyn Deardemphl, who works at the Mercantile. “She saw a bag that belonged to her father’s business. So [Dr. Yeoman] came down during his dinner hour and he sold that lady this bag just for sentimental reasons and cause he has a heart of gold.”
“So for his birthday this year, [co-worker] Bonnie and I found another one of those bags.” Sporting a pheasant logo, the bag was once distributed by the Wilbur Seed Company of Miller, South Dakota.
Dr. Yeoman became interested in seed bags as a young man doing summer work in the 70’s. “I kind of started because I worked for Sakota Seed as a kid,” says Yeoman. “They had a field over by Dell Rapids,” his hometown. “I found some Sakota bags and went from there,” but didn’t get serious about collecting until later, “because I didn’t have any money.”
His impressive collection hangs from a banister on the balcony of the historic downtown Redfield building where he opened his Mercantile, an antiques emporium with stalls by over two dozen vendors from as far away as Florida.
The era of the burlap seed bag has long passed. “There’s a few that are still made,” says Yeoman. "There’s some grass seed ones, but not the corn. Most of those companies went out of business in the 50’s and 60’s.”
Before consolidation by the seed giants, from the 30’s into the 70’s, a golden era of seed bag design bloomed across the American breadbasket. Hundreds of small towns throughout the Midwest had their own seed companies, with their own logos. Many of these local Midwestern suppliers ordered their bags from the (still existing) Bemis company, then based out of St. Louis, with factories in Minneapolis, Omaha and elsewhere. Though the local companies didn’t often make and screen print their own seed bags, they received them with made-to-order logos relevant to their locale.
“One of my favorite bags — cause I grew up in Dell Rapids — has a scene of the Dells,” says Yeoman. “I’m sure they told them what they wanted on their bag.” Pheasants were unsurprisingly popular, featured on bags out of Miller, Elk Point, and Clark. The proprietor of the Bridgewater Milling Company was either a USD alum or a (C)oyote fan some kind.
The beginning of the end probably started when corn hybrids were developed by DeKalb as far back as the 1930s, but the hybrids didn’t take off in popularity until the late 40’s. As the small seed companies were bought out or went out of business, the golden era of seed bag design went into a gradual decline. DeKalb’s famous “winged ear” logo, designed in 1935, might be the last, still-ubiquitous (on roadside signs) reminder of that era. Eventually, the seed giants shifted away from burlap bags to paper, then to plastic bins.
The bags that hang from the banister at the Spink County Mercantile are echoes of a different era of design, and of agriculture. "I have some wheat grower bags, that I know are still in business,” says Yeoman. “As for the corn, as far as I know there’s none of them that are still out there.”
Many thousands of burlap seed and feed bags were made, but relatively few are still around. “A lot of them didn’t survive because people made them into things,” says Yeoman. Dish towels and aprons were popular ways to repurpose.
The value of a seed bag is driven by regional sentiment. There is no blue book of bags, no seed bag equivalent of the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card.
“If there were some Redfield bags here — and I have never found a Redfield company, though I know there were a couple,” says Yeoman, “Redfield bags would sell for more here than they would in Watertown. People like the local products.”
Pro-tip for anybody thinking about starting a seed bag collection: “If you wash them, the graphics aren’t very colorfast. A lot of the bags [on the banister at Spink County Mercantile] are kind of dirty, because I don’t want to wash them.”
“They weren’t meant to be something that lasted very long.”