Big Beef. Tiny Tim. First Lady. Early Girl. Better Boy.
Kenny Vetting laughs at the notion of "heirloom" tomatoes that are only fifty years old. But then, the seed business that his grandfather started is 87 years young. And sometime in early August, the Rocky Mountain Seed Company will finally pull up stakes from the spot on 15th Street where it's stood since 1920 and put down new roots in a warehouse at 6541 Washington Street.
With that, lower downtown will lose one of its last landmarks, the oldest operating retail store in a neighborhood that was once the heart of the city's small-business district — a historic plaque in this 1300 block of 15th testifies to that. But that the building, and the business, will survive at all is testament to the hardiness of the right kind of seed.
Kenny Vetting watched as the area around 15th and Market streets went from a vibrant, commercial area during World War II — when he collected his first paycheck from the family business — to the city's skid row. One by one, other seed companies along the street moved out and then died off, but the Rocky Mountain Seed Company that F. C. Vetting had founded and then passed on to his son, Ken Vetting, who passed it on to his son, Kenny Vetting, stayed put. "Strong backs and weak minds," Kenny explains. Which meant Kenny was there to see the comeback of the area, too, after the Skyline Urban Renewal project wiped out many of the old buildings along Larimer, replacing them with parking lots and high-rises, and Dana Crawford saved what remained on the 1400 block of Larimer and turned it into Larimer Square, and artists and other urban pioneers (including Westword, whose first office was at 1439 Market Street) moved into what would soon be nicknamed "LoDo" and would earn official historic designation in 1988. And he was there to see the old warehouses rehabbed into lofts and clubs and bars that keep the neighborhood hopping into the early hours. "Before, you'd take your life in your hands if you went down at night," Kenny remembers. "Now you can't find parking."
As LoDo got more and more popular, the visits to 1325 15th Street from would-be buyers got more and more frequent. Speculators were interested not just in the original store — actually two buildings cobbled together, with a second story added to one in 1930 — but in the three-story warehouse around the corner at 1520 Market that the Rocky Mountain Seed Company had acquired in the '40s. But Kenny didn't want to sell the property unless the business lived on.
Finally, he agreed to an offer from two eager entrepreneurs, Steve Angelo and Scott Barraclough. While Steve talked to the press about his big plans — the House of Blues was interested in the space, he said — Scott got on the phone with his parents, Ed and Barbara Barraclough, who had a seed farm in western Oregon, and asked if they'd be interested in seeing their Denver grandchildren more often. Oh, and also running an 85-year-old seed company. They rented a place downtown, and in May 2005, Ed started working alongside Kenny Vetting, learning the business while the deal came together.
And apart. No House of Blues materialized, and the buildings ultimately landed in the hands of longtime developer Jerry Glick.
But in the meantime, Ed concentrated on keeping the seed company going. This past December, he and Barbara sold the farm and bought a house closer to the Portland airport, since Ed was spending most of his time here. And he started hunting up a new home for the Rocky Mountain Seed Company, since it no longer made sense to stay in the LoDo space. "We'll lose some walk-in trade," he acknowledges. But they'll gain an air-conditioner. And a reliable heater, rather than the boiler that was going to cost $3,500 to fix this very cold past winter. And parking, which will benefit both home gardeners and the commercial farmers and greenhouses that account for the company's biggest customer base. And a loading area, so they won't have to unload — and then reload — seed one fifty-pound bag at a time. And while they're at it, they'll put in an up-to-date inventory system: Barb just spent five days cobbling together an inventory with the current software.
Over the next week or so, they'll become intimately familiar with every bit of the Rocky Mountain Seed Company stock, since they'll be moving it all. The original wooden floor-to-ceiling bins in the front, from the Walker Bin Co. of New York. The "germination lab" in the back, along with the reconfigured refrigerator where seeds are tested. The boxes and boxes of documents, including payroll records dating back to 1942, when Kenny was just a kid. The Florsheim shoeboxes filled with old seed packets. And in the dusty warehouse, four floors filled with big bags of seeds. The top floor is where they mix lawn blends, Ed explains, pointing to the "high-tech tools" used in the process: shovels. The seed mix is then shoved through a high-tech hole down a chute to the second floor, where it's sorted in a new machine "dating from maybe 1940." Tucked into every nook and cranny of the warehouse are more seeds. Grass seeds. Grain seeds. Bird seeds. Okra and corn — popcorn and rainbow corn and Silver Queen and Sugar Baby and White Lightning. Most of the coriander and spinach are already gone. "We let our supply run low," Ed explains, since they knew they'd be moving. But they already have plans to order more from the two dozen suppliers that they rely on, and they'll have the new space in shape by fall, in time for bulb season, which is always busy.
Seeds can last for years, depending on conditions. Add together the temperature and the percentage of humidity, Ed explains, and try to stay under a hundred. It works down in the basement of the warehouse, in dungeon-like rooms that once held produce and are insulated with painted cork. One bunker is the bean room — with hand-lettered labels for Romanette, Tenderette, Slenderette and carrots. Lots of carrots.
The business is basic, but it also changes. Kenny Vetting didn't even take credit cards or have a website — and odds are good he would never have stocked the Crocs that are now on sale. But he also understands meeting demand. "Take a carrot," Kenny says. "The first carrots sold in bunches; you bought them on stands. Then they put them in cello bags — and the housewife didn't care what they tasted like, so long as they were big and straight. They were bred for looks and tonnage and had the most godawful taste. Then housewives began complaining when they went to farmers' markets and they could get good-tasting carrots in a bunch again."
LoDo is changing, too. Just up the street from the warehouse at 16th and Market, there are plans to build a fancy W hotel, complete with expensive condos.
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That's good news for Glick, who's working to restore both buildings. He's already peeled back the metal exterior added to the warehouse in the '70s — "We got tired of painting that rotten brink," Kenny says — to reveal a great, if decrepit, Victorian exterior. He's talked to Ed about keeping the original Rocky Mountain Seed Company signage, and will rehab the space on 15th Street to match the vintage look on the cover of the company's catalogue. "I should be able to take those buildings back to what they used to be," Glick says, back a couple of decades even before they became home to the Rocky Mountain Seed Company. "They just need time and attention and a little loving care."
The for-lease signs are already up; Glick is hoping for "office users, maybe retail." But not the kind of retail you can still find for a week or two at the original Rocky Mountain Seed Company — where you can walk in the door and step into the past.
By mid-August, all of this will have moved to the warehouse on Washington, where Ed Barraclough also plans to reinstall all the bins and old typewriters and seed-sorting machines patented in 1902, even the original railing, in a kind of museum. "We'll re-create the same atmosphere at our new place," he promises, "although the museum won't happen on day one." Because first they'll want to get the business moving, follow all the steps now outlined on the dry-erase board and big sheets of paper in the hot mezzanine of the store where he and Barb have their desks. "We need to get volume up," Ed says.
Sometimes you have to go before you can grow.