History of the Dominion Seed House

dsh2-bwThe history of the Dominion Seed House is as much a part of Canadian garden history as it is with the history of the town itself. During its tenure in Georgetown, the Dominion Seed House introduced commercial and home gardeners to new varieties of plants and seeds and developed into one of the largest mail order suppliers in Canada. The business was based out of an iconic mock-tudor building which appeared on the cover of all of its catalogues and was a tourist attraction in its own right.

Cedar Vale Farm

James Bradley, a native of Ireland, emigrated to Canada and settled in Glen Williams. In the 1870’s Bradley purchased 80 hectares of land on the southeast limits of the village of Georgetown and called it Cedar Vale Farm. The Armenian Relief Association of Canada purchased a large portion of the property in 1923 for Armenian orphaned boys. That area was later purchased by the Town of Georgetown as a centennial project and is now known as Cedarvale Park.

William Bradley

William was the youngest child of James and Isabelle Bradley and was born in 1886. His first job was as as a teller at the Bank of Hamilton (now the Old Bank on Main Street in Georgetown). William quit the bank in order to help on the family farm; the Bradleys operated a market garden until 1923.

In 1922, at the age of 36, Bradley established the Bradley-Edwards Electric Company that was located at the end of the Georgetown train station parking lot in a building later owned by McNally Construction. Bradley’s company sold the Campbell’s Automatic Rapid Electrical Fireless Cooker Ranges and a variety of smaller electrical appliances.

Dominion Seed House beginnings

During a slow period in the appliance business, Bradley started a mail order seed business in order to keep his staff busy. By 1928 Dominion Seed House was established. Over the next decade the work force grew to about 20 full time employees with a large number of part-time staff. During the busy season, the number of employees shot up to 125.

Iconic mock-tudor building

In 1936 the Bradleys relocated the business  to a portion of the family farm along Guelph Street and built the distinctive mock-tudor building that came to symbolize the Dominion Seed House. It was not unusual for visitors from across the country to make the trip to Georgetown to see the building where their seeds came from. One section of this building was painted every summer and it took 5 years to complete the job.

Mail order seed business

For most of its history Dominion Seed House was strictly a mail order business. Although the business was situated on a 60 acre site, almost all of the products sold were imported from growers located all over the world. Dominion Seed House introduced Canadian gardeners from coast-to-coast to a vast and reliable variety of quality seeds, bulbs and plants from around the world.

Product quality was constantly monitored; Bradley made it his practice to personally visit all of his suppliers regardless of where they were located in the world and seed germination rates were regularly tested at Dominion Seed House.

On average, 3000 orders arrived each day during the season and all had to be manually filled. The biggest mail to arrive in one day was over 4000 orders. The operation was large enough that it had it’s own postal station and customers in every postal station in the country. A good relationship also existed with the CNR for express delivery. A railroad car would be left on a siding on Fridays, waiting for the Dominion Seed House order to be shipped.

Dominion Seed House catalogue

The catalogue was the sole sales force for the business. It was published in a black and white digest format until 1980 when colour was introduced; sales shot up dramatically.

Bill Bradley personally wrote the descriptions of the products until this task was taken over by the general managers. The team seemed to have a flair for writing truthful yet interesting copy that gardeners found hard to resist. During the 1970’s and 80’s an average of 200,000 catalogues were distributed annually, peaking at 259,000. There was also an additional fall bulb catalogue.

End of an era

In 1952 Bill Bradley died at the age of 66 and left the business to his wife, Alexandrina Bradley and their daughter Margaret Harding. The business continued to thrive under successive managers, Pharis Vannatter, Bill Kay and Doug Peck. In 1980, Dominion Seed House was chosen Business of the Year by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce.

In 1981 a garden center was added in response to public demand. Margaret Harding insisted that the new addition be as attractive as the original building and commissioned flagstone facades for the new entrance.

In 1988 DSH celebrated 60 years in business with a garden party complete with a live band and horse drawn wagon rides.

Changing of the guard

In 1993 Margaret Harding sold the Dominion Seed House business to Perron, a Quebec firm that continues the DSH business at a new location to this day. In a nod to tradition, the postal address remains in Georgetown. The landmark mock-Tudor building remained on the Harding property and was leased to a nursery operator until 1998, when the property was sold for redevelopment. In 1999 the DSH building was demolished. Now the stone walls of the sunken garden are all that remains of this once famous symbol in Canadian gardening history.

Next: The Old Seed House Garden
Sources: Halton Sketches Revisited by John McDonald, Moulin Publishing Ltd. 1996
Conversations with Norma Thompson, Office Administrator and Doug Peck, General Manager both 45 year employees of DSH; and Duncan McFarlane, Property Manager and 20 year DSH employee.

Copyright © 2013 The Friends of the Old Seed House Garden