(March 21, 1890–December 19, 1946)
–pioneer radio broadcaster and founder of a successful seed and nursery company that still bears his name—helped put the town of Shenandoah, Iowa, on the map as an energetic center of the nursery industry, innovative marketing strategies, and early radio broadcasting.
Born near Hayes Center, Nebraska, and raised on a ranch his parents had homesteaded, May received a degree from Fremont Normal College and served briefly as principal of the high school in his hometown. In 1911 he enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, working in the summers as a door-to-door salesman for the D. M. Ferry Seed Company.
Upon the death of his father, May left the University of Michigan and returned to Hayes Center to be close to his family. He continued his education at the University of Nebraska, earning a law degree in 1915. While at the university he met Gertrude Welch of Shenandoah, whose father, Edward S. Welch, was president of the Mount Arbor Nurseries. Along with the Shenandoah Nurseries and the Henry Field Seed Company, Welch's firm was establishing southwestern Iowa as an important area for the production and marketing of seeds, plants, and products for gardens and farms.
Earl and Gertrude married in 1916 and moved to Shenandoah, where Earl joined his father-in-law's firm. Three years later, with advice and financial backing from Welch, May founded the Earl May Seed and Nursery Company. It struggled through its initial years, relying heavily on mail-order catalogs to generate sales. In addition to seeds, the company also marketed radios, clothing, automobile tires, house paint, and many household items.
In 1923 the Woodmen of the World, a life insurance company in Omaha, established radio station WOAW, one of the first broadcasting facilities in the Midwest. The technology did not exist to record programs, and so to fill air time groups from around the WOAW listening area were invited to the studio to provide live musical performances and promote their hometowns. The following year, May Seed and Nursery Company performers traveled the 60 miles to Omaha from Shenandoah to present their first entertainment program over WOAW. Earl May offered free iris roots to the first 10,000 listeners to send him a postcard. Thousands responded.
Earl May's local competitor, Henry Field, launched radio station KFNF from his own Shenandoah seedhouse in February 1924. Within a year of going on the air, Field's company had doubled its sales, attributing much of the increase to the power of the new broadcast medium. May responded in 1925 by building radio station KMA, "The Cornbelt Station in the Heart of the Nation."To fill airtime, he aired farm and market reports, discussed the weather, and gave gardening advice. Employees of May's seedhouse and volunteers from the Shenandoah community sang, played musical instruments, and offered recipes, household hints, sermons, talks on agriculture, and discussions of whatever else came to mind. When atmospheric conditions were right, KMA's broadcasts could be heard in all 48 states. A postcard arrived informing Earl May that the KMA signal had been picked up by radio operators in Melbourne, Australia.
Earl May and Henry Field engaged in spirited rivalry, each pushing to outdo the other but also understanding the value of unity in advancing Shenandoah's business climate. In 1925 the readers of Radio Digest magazine voted Field the "World's Most Popular Radio Broadcaster."In 1926 he withdrew his nomination and threw his support to May, who won the award with 452,901 votes. Both KMA and KFNF also began sponsoring autumn jubilees, inviting radio listeners to come to Shenandoah for free food and nonstop radio entertainment. An estimated 25,000 visitors made their way to the seedhouses for the first jubilee, and in the year that followed the Earl May Seed and Nursery Company saw a fourfold increase in business.
In 1927 Henry Field built the KFNF Auditorium, a theater designed with a broadcast- ing studio on the stage. Earl May countered by constructing Mayfair, a $100,000 Moorish-themed radio auditorium with seating for 1,000 people to watch programs being produced on a soundproof stage and aired live. The broadcast auditoriums of KMA and KFNF and the expanding hours of operation of the radio stations brought many professional musicians to Shenandoah. Among the most popular programs was The KMA Country School, with Earl May in the role of a school principal presiding over an unruly cast of vaudeville performers. The skits, music, and assorted foolishness taking place on the May-fair stage made Country School a staple of mid-western broadcasting.
The Earl May Seed and Nursery Company enjoyed healthy growth until 1930, when the effects of the Depression began to take hold. May responded by opening branch stores across Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota to serve customers who did not have the financial means to make the trip to Shenandoah. Some of the stores tried to capture the atmosphere of the flagship store in Shenandoah, while others were seasonal operations.
With financial assistance from E. S. Welch and the Mount Arbor Nurseries, the Earl May Seed and Nursery Company was able to weather the worst of the Depression. The firm continued to sponsor annual jubilees, with an estimated 100,000 people coming to Shenandoah for the events. In 1939 the May Broadcasting Company was incorporated and broken off from the May Seed and Nursery Company. Officers included Earl May, Gertrude May, and E. S. Welch.
Despite his widespread name recognition and popularity, Earl May made only one foray into politics, serving for many years as president of the Shenandoah Park Commission. He died from a heart attack at the age of 58 and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Shenandoah. His son Edward and daughter Frances assumed the reins of the May Broadcasting Company and the Earl May Seed and Nursery Company.
Sources include Robert Birkby, KMA Radio: The First Sixty Years (1985); Robert Birkby and Janice Nahra Friedel, "Henry, Himself," Palimpsest 64 (1983), 150–69; and KMA Guide, selected issues, 1944–1977.
Birkby, Robert. "May, Earl Ernest" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web.
23 March 2017