John A. Salzer Seed Company Advertisement

Caroline Morris

Sleet and snow notwithstanding, there are irrefutable signs that spring is on its way: brave little bulbs peeking out over the dirt, birds building new nests, and big-box stores setting out pallets of potting soil in their parking lots.  About a hundred years ago, La Crosse used to “export” spring to the world, in small paper packets.  In the 1920s, the John A. Salzer Seed Company, which occupied an entire square block on S. 7th St., claimed to be the largest mail-order seed company in the world.  And even if that were a slight exaggeration, it was certainly the largest in the Upper Midwest.  The company was renowned for its catalogs and advertisements, such as this postcard, for innovative use of imagery.  Elegant, colorful drawings suggested tantalizing possibilities, and sometimes even had a sense of humor.

John A. Salzer, born in Wurttemberg, Germany, arrived in New York City in 1846, ready to make his way in a new country.  Like most immigrants, he had a few bumps in the road -- “when I reached America, I got in with Godless companions,” he lamented in his autobiography – but he overcame both spiritual and financial challenges and ultimately launched a seed company in 1868 that grew into one of La Crosse’s most famous brands by the early 20th century.

Thousands upon thousands of pounds of seeds flowed from the buildings and greenhouses on S. 7th St. to gardeners and farmers all over the U.S. for 90 years, until the company closed its doors in 1958.  During those years, La Crosse sent cheerful nasturtiums, buttery corn cobs, and juicy fat tomatoes to millions of Americans, one packet of seeds at a time.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune March 28, 2015.