Who Were the Buckbees?
Jesse Buckbee was born in Orange County, New York in 1796. He was the son of a Revolutionary soldier who was descended from John Buckbee, an Englishman who settled on Manhattan Island in the 17th century.
In 1845, Jesse Buckbee purchased 300 acres of land in Winnebago County and relocated his family. He died shortly thereafter, but was survived by his wife and children. Among their children was Theodore, who later married Catherine E. Allington. Theodore and Catherine had two sons, Hiram W. and John T., who would later operate H.W. Buckbee Seed Farms and Forest City Greenhouses.
Theodore Buckbee (son of Jesse and father of Hiram) is described as follows in his biography:
“…his life was closely and almost entirely interwoven with the growth and material progress of the city. No man ever lived who had more friends in Winnebago County nor whom more thoroughly deserved them. His advice in business and public affairs was sought eagerly and often, and those who followed it had no regrets…As a member of the board of supervisors (for many years its chairman), he served the public with fidelity and unquestioned integrity. He was chairman when the splendid memorial hall was erected in Rockford to commemorate the valor of the soldiers and sailors of Winnebago County, and at its dedication, June 1893, introduced to the audience Theodore Roosevelt, the orator of the day. As an officer and director of the Winnebago County Fair Association, he paid special attention to the speed department and brought it up to a high standard, serving the society until it finally passed out of existence.”
Hiram Buckbee and Buckbee Seeds
Hiram W. Buckbee, born in 1860, began selling cabbage plants as a boy in 1871. From there he expanded his business into a huge operation that included a 350,000-square-foot warehouse, greenhouse complex, and trial area, along with a 15,000-acre seed farm. An 1892 biography of Jesse Buckbee (Hiram’s grandfather) noted that this “immense seed business conducted…under the name of H. W. BUCKBEE, with its collateral branches, Rockford Seed Farms and Forest City greenhouses, is one of the most important merchandising institutions, not only of Rockford, but of IL, and for that matter, of the U.S.”
In 1921, the year of Hiram’s death, his company mailed out 750,000 catalogues.
In addition to Buckbee, Rockford was home to three other prominent mail order seed and plant wholesalers: Roland H. Shumway, Alneer Brothers, and Condon Brothers. The four businesses would later merge under the name of Condon-Shumway, a company that stayed in business until the 1970s. Clients of the company included Bing Crosby and Perry Como.
Like his father Theodore, Hiram Buckbee was active in his community. He was a cornet player and member of the Forest City band. He was also a member of Rockford Lodge 102, the Chicago Athletic club, in the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, in the Society of American Florists, and in the American Seed Trade association, and was a director the Rockford National Bank.
Hiram Buckbee’s obituary notes that he performed “countless deeds of benevolence, unostentatiously and for the joy of doing good. No project for the advancement of Rockford ever lacked his moral and financial support and he dearly loved the city which was the scene of his successful business career.”
And the Buckbee name lives on. People familiar with heirloom gardening might be interested to know that Buckbee tomato seeds are available as heirloom seeds, from a pre-1930 variety, advertised in the Buckbee catalogue as “the largest fruited, the smoothest, the finest in quality of all early scarlet tomatoes.”