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Field, Henry Ames
(December 6, 1871–October 17, 1949)

–nurseryman and radio broadcaster—was as much a man of the soil and of the airwaves as Iowa has ever produced. His seed and nursery company was among the most famous and successful in the nation, and his broadcasts over the radio station he established in Shenandoah, Iowa, made him an institution for farmer and gardeners throughout Iowa and the Midwest.

    Field was born in Page County, Iowa, the oldest of eight children. As a lad he went around Shenandoah selling vegetables and seeds harvested from the garden on the Field family farm. In 1889 he graduated from Shenandoah High School and, after attending Normal College in Shenandoah, became a country schoolteacher. He devoted his summers to cultivating a truck farm on property near Shenandoah that he called Sleepy Hollow, and in 1899 he published a four-page catalog to broaden the market for his seeds.

    As his agricultural enterprise grew, Field gave up teaching, constructed a seedhouse in Shenandoah, and in 1907 incorporated the Henry Field Seed Company. He made himself accessible to seedhouse visitors by placing his business desk in the center of the store and chatting with everyone who came by. The catalogs that helped fuel his success offered folksy information for gardeners and farmer They evolved into regular issues of a magazine titled Seed Sense, a combination almanac and mail-order seed catalog that the subtitle announced was "For the Man Behind the Hoe."

    "Cut out the book English and talk modern United States," Field told his employees, "what I call Missouri English."He used his folksy, down-home appeal to compete with other firms based in Shenandoah, most notably the Mount Arbor Nurseries, Shenandoah Nurseries, and the Earl May Seed and Nursery Company.

    Earl May would become Henry's most spirited competitor and, by adapting some of Field's innovative business strategies, would help make Shenandoah a community widely recognized for its nurseries and seedhouses. No development better highlighted their competition and their ability to take advantage of new ideas than their energetic support of radio.

    Radio came to the Midwest in the early 1920s. Field recognized the potential advertising boon of being able to send broadcasts into people's homes, and in 1924 built 500 watt radio station KFNF in his Shenandoah seedhouse. Field called it "The Friendly farmer Station."Others used the call letters to give the station the slogan, "Kind Friends Never Fail."

    Earl May followed suit in 1925 by establishing KMA, his own 500-watt radio station, just down the street from KFNF. When Field built a radio auditorium to allow fans to watch broadcasts, May constructed an even larger hall with the same intent. Both stations began sponsoring autumn jubilees that brought tens of thousands of fans to Shenandoah for free food, shopping at the seedhouses, and nonstop broadcasts by the radio musicians and entertainers.

    Even as they battled for the business of farmer, gardeners, and their families, Field and May each realized the value of having a worthy, high-visibility competitor just down the street. In 1925, for example, Henry Field was voted "World's Most Popular Radio Broadcaster" by Radio Digest magazine. The next year he removed his name from consideration and threw his support behind Earl May, who won the national recognition in 1926.

    In the infancy of broadcasting, Field experimented with programming possibilities. He relied on his "Seedhouse Folk" and community volunteers for live music, sermons, discussions of agricultural issues, and performances of hymns and Henry's beloved "old-fashioned music."Each noon he sat before the microphone and, as "Henry Himself," visited about the weather, his garden, his business, and whatever else occurred to him at the moment.

    Several of Field's sisters also became established radio personalities. Helen Field Fischer gave gardening hints. Jessie Field Shambaugh used her time on the air to explore ideas of youth development and Service that were to become the foundations of the 4-H Clubs of America. Leanna Driftmier's Mother's Hour program developed into a program on KMA called Kitchen-Klatter, which would remain on the air for more than half a century and involve three generations of Driftmier's family.

    Field's own family life was a regular subject of his broadcasts. In 1892 he had married Annie Hawxby, a classmate at Normal College. They had one child, Frank, who would later become a well-known broadcaster on KMA. Annie died in 1899 from complications of scarlet fever, and in 1900 Henry married Edna Thompson, with whom he had eight daughters and two sons. Four years after Edna's death from Bright's Disease in 1925, Field wed again, this time to Bertha McCullen.

    In 1932 Field threw his hat into the political ring as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. He defeated his primary opponent, incumbent Senator Smith Wildman Brookhart, but lost in the general election in the landslide that swept Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats into office. Field later said he was relieved he had not won. "The way things are in Washington these days," he observed, "if I'd gone down there I'd be dead or crazy by now."

    With the coming of the Great Depression, the Henry Field Company suffered financial distress. Bonds sold in 1930 to fund company operations were foreclosed upon in 1933. Despite the fact that it had grown into one of the nation's largest mail-order seed companies, Field lost ownership of the firm, and it was reorganized as the Henry Field Seed and Nursery Company. His broadcasts on KFNF maintained their popularity through the years, and he continued to air his six-days-a-week visits until his death.
Sources The Henry Field Collection is housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. See also Robert Birkby, KMA Radio: The First Sixty Years (1985); Bob Birkby and Janice Nahra Friedel, "Henry, Himself," Palimpsest 64 (1983), 150–69; and Lucile Driftmier Verness, The Story of an American Family (1950).
Contributor: Robert Birkby