Back in the mid-1980s, a 3-year-old boy demonstrated his passion for growing fruits and vegetables by planting his first garden. Even then, he told people he wanted to be involved in the seed industry.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles between him and the realization of his dream, he never wavered. In 1998, Wright County resident Jere Gettle printed his first Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog. The rest, as they say, is history.

Gettle’s business has grown to the point that it now includes a bustling online ordering system, and has expanded beyond its original place north of Mansfield to include locations on both coasts – one in Petaluma Calif. (north of the Bay Area), and another in Wethersfield, Conn. (which involved the restoration and preservation of the landmark Comstock, Ferre & Company, the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England). Gettle and his wife Emilee also publish the nationally distributed Heirloom Gardener Magazine and supply free seeds to many of the world’s poorest countries, as well as school gardens and other educational projects in the United States.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Along with Emilee and their daughter Sasha, Gettle still lives in the house where he grew up. Miles off the pavement, the home is right next to Bakersville, an 1800’s style village built around the original Baker Creek Seed Store that features several authentic buildings brought in from far away places. As well as the now immense seed store, Bakersville visitors are treated to a fully operational mercantile store and flour mill bakery, and other historically accurate structures and sights including a sale barn and livery, apothecary, and blacksmith’s shop. There’s even a vegetarian restaurant where patrons are asked to pay for meals by donation rather than set price.

The magnitude of Gettle’s operation can be understood by setting foot in the giant seed store, where customers can choose from close to 1500 varieties from more than 70 countries, all of which are strictly pure, unadulterated heirloom seed (some of which are descended from strains from the 1800s). By design, there’s none of that GMO stuff (genetically modified organism) – not even hybrid seed.

While most of Bakersville’s buildings don’t necessarily host activities on a daily basis, they definitely do on the “town’s” bigger days. If you go there on the first Sunday of each month from March through October, or the annual spring festival in early May, you’ll likely get to see a blacksmith in action, and many other old-timey demonstrations and exhibits.

During a company outing to Bakersville last week, me and some of the other people in the Herald family had the opportunity to speak at length with Gettle, and he struck me as a very amiable, personable individual, without an ounce of arrogance in his being. He was also obviously incredibly knowledgeable about his trade, and his passion for what he does was apparent with every statement he made about an aspect of his diverse business, the best time or way to plant a certain seed, or simply the name or characteristics of a given plant.

At Bakersville, Gettle has surrounded himself with a group of employees who seem to fit the bill, so to speak, from the cook who puts together the restaurant’s veggie-only fare, to the woman in the bakery who delivers up what are arguably some of the world’s most awesome cinnamon rolls.

If you go, make sure to pick the brain of horticulturist Art Davidson if you get a chance. On our company outing, Davidson led us on a tour of the place, and displayed a passion for plants (especially preservation of rare and disappearing strains) equal to Gettle’s.

Ask Davidson a question and he’ll set out on a verbal quest to make sure you’re as educated about the subject of your inquiry as time constraints will allow. Make a comment about Monsanto, GMOs or some other controversial topic and you’ll hear a reply void of any sugar coating.

Also make sure to look up David Kaiser while you’re at Bakersville. He’s the hillbilly-looking guy with the long beard you see on the big Bakersville billboards alongside U.S. Highway 60 as you approach the Highway 5 exit at Mansfield from either direction.

Having spoken with him on both of my visits to his combined work place and home (he lives in an on-site “cabin” that looks like it’s out of a Tim Burton movie), I can safely say that Kaiser is an intelligent and personable individual with a keen sense of history and societal change.

And I’m here to tell you, the stories he tells about knowing Jere when he was a kid are no less than fascinating. He witnessed the young Gettle boy when he was truly serious and determined to beat the odds and become a one-of-a-kind seed man.

“And now I work for him,” Kaiser said.

Going to Bakersville is like a trip back in time. But it’s also about the best place in the area to get the full scoop on gardening, and to browse through an almost unprecedented selection of heirloom seed.

If you haven’t been there, it’s worth considering. And check out Gettle’s website, http://www.rareseeds.com/. There’s a reason why Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has been featured in stories in the New York Times, Oprah Magazine, and most recently the Wall Street Journal. And its headquarters is right in our back yard.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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