The sign on Carlsbad Boulevard says simply “Seeds.” Behind that stands a small, Spanish-style place surrounded by a wonderland of flowers. Some new trendy beachwear boutique, you think. Or perhaps a chic vegetarian restaurant. Of course, this piece of oceanfront real estate must be worth a million bucks, maybe more, and the rent has to be fantastic. Could it be the headquarters for some new-age religion? A bed and breakfast place catering to rich adulterers from L.A.? An art gallery backed by drug money? What?
Park on the side street and enter the small patio, stacked with bags of steer manure and sulfate of ammonia. Enter the little shop, not much bigger than a one-car garage, and you immediately smell — not jasmine incense, not buttered croissants, not tropical perfume from the breasts of exotic women, not rich Southern California on the cutting edge of the Pacific rim money. You smell dirt!
“And what have you come for today?” asks the proprietor, Charles Ledgerwood, 84 years old, dressed in dirt-stained gardener’s clothes with mud stuck to his shoes. He’s a small man, still active and spry, and so thin he looks like a scarecrow suddenly come to life. He pulls a piece of broken comb from his pocket and sweeps back his gray hair. And you realize ... this place sells seeds.
At one time every town in America had a bulk seed store The country was made up of small farmers, and nothing was more important to a farmer than that tiny package of genetic information found inside a seed. In this century, seed stores had their glory days during the Great Depression. People may have been out of work during those awful times, but they still had to eat, and nearly every family had a backyard garden. So while most businesses were going bankrupt, seed stores were prospering.
Over the decades, seed stores began to disappear, until sometime in the 1970s the only bulk seed store left in all of Southern California was Charles B. Ledgerwood’s tiny place in Carlsbad. During most of those years he’s said the same thing he’ll tell you now: “Oh, we’re getting by, I suppose. But I don’t know how much longer we can hold out.”
By “we" he means himself, his bedridden wife whom he cares for at their small home in back of the store, and his widowed daughter who helps run the store. And by “holding out” he means something other than paying the bills. Mr. Ledgerwood, you see, is a multimillionaire. Or at least he is on paper. The last offer he got for his two oceanfront lots was $2 million.
Out on the boulevard, things look a bit different than they did back in 1933, when the Ledgerwoods first opened their seed store. Men in BMWs, caught in the morning traffic, talk on their car phones while they peek in their rear-view mirrors and pat their fresh pink La Costa facials. Pairs of 15-year-old girls in string bikinis walk down the sidewalk with their fleshy bottoms jiggling.
Thirty-year-old boys with shoulder-length dreadlocks ride their skateboards suicidally in and out of the traffic. But Charles Ledgerwood ignores all that lunacy. In fact, from inside his store it almost seems as if 1990 doesn't exist. Two walls are taken up by seed bins. Against another wall are shelves filled with gopher traps, ant poison, fish emulsion, and the like. There’s a wooden counter with scales and cash register and a couple of chairs where customers can sit and chat the morning away. The place is frugal and drab except for the west wall, which is all windows looking out over the ocean. The bright fall sunlight streams through the windows, filling the room with…what is it? Innocence? Nostalgia? Perhaps hope?
“Yes. indeed,” Mr. Ledgerwood says, using a precise and formal speech not heard much these days. “When we first came here, we could barely see the top of one house way off to the north. Everything else was all open fields. And 1 farmed all of it. I had a big tractor, and I plowed everything in sight." He laughs now at the audacity of it. “I was just a young guy. I didn’t even bother to ask the owners. One woman over here, one of our neighbors, said, 'No land is safe with Mr. Ledgerwood around. He’ll plow everything that doesn’t have a house on it’ ”
When Ledgerwood brought his young bride here in 1933, he’d already bought and paid for his oceanfront lot. It had cost $1750 — a small fortune during the Depression. But the lot was on Highway 101, the main route between Los Angeles and San Diego, and it was right in the middle of one of the prime winter vegetable-growing regions in the entire country. So he considered the lot a smart choice for somebody who wanted to sell seeds.
Ledgerwood was raised in South Pasadena. His father always assumed Charles would join him in the automobile business when he came of age, but Charles had other ideas. He had this notion to grow things, it’s odd to think now that somebody with farming in his blood would have come out of Los Angeles County. But during the early part of the century,
Los Angeles County was one of the top-producing farm counties in the United States. In fact, agriculture was taught in the high schools there, and it was in just such a class that Ledgerwood first decided on a career in farming.
In 1925, he entered the College of Agriculture at Davis, which at that time was just a small satellite of the U.C. Berkeley campus. He worked his way through college as an assistant to a professor trying to develop disease-resistant tomato varieties. During the Depression he worked as a seed salesman for big seed companies, traveling all over the West. “While I was up in Idaho I met a girl, and she was determined to get married.” he recalls. " Okay,’ I told her, ‘we can get married. But I want you to understand one thing. I want my own business, and to get it I want to save every dime we possibly can.’ So we lived very frugally for many years. She got a job as a sales clerk in a department store, and sometimes she made enough that we were able to bank my entire paycheck."
When they finally moved to Carlsbad, the Ledgerwoods drew a sketch of the Spanish-style house they’d like to build, with the small store in front, and took it to a building contractor. The contractor went to work for 57 1/2 cents an hour. Carpenters were hired for 50 cents an hour and cement masons for 40 cents an hour. Even construction materials were cheap during the Depression, but to save still more money. Ledgerwood pounded nails and sawed boards himself. When they opened up the store, they were debt free. “It was my ambition to never have a debt,” he says, "and I still believe that’s the right way to run a business. Don't buy anything until you have the money to pay for it.”
They also saved money by building their house and store on one lot. “That’s something you can’t really do anymore,” he sighs. “The zoning won’t allow it. But when I was a kid there were many store owners who had their residence above the store. It’s the ideal way to go, yet nobody agrees with me.”
The young Mr. Ledgerwood went to work plowing the fields where the city of Carlsbad now stands, while his wife tended the store His plan was to grow seed to sell to the many prosperous vegetable growers around San Diego County. “They’d plant zucchini in September or October, then go all winter long supplying the Los Angeles and San Francisco market," he says. “They grew peas, tomatoes, celery, carrots. The Mexican farmers here would plant lima beans in August and then harvest all winter long — that’s sort of a forgotten art now; nobody thinks of it anymore.”
He bought a bean thresher and recleaning mills to process the seeds. He bought two more tractors, plus discs, harrows, and other implements to go with them. And he was doing a fine business. Some winters he would sell four or five tons of bean seed. "I had one customer down in the Tia Juana Valley, just this side of the border, who would buy 300 pounds of radish seed every month, the year around. Tom Choy, who owned a string of Chinese restaurants in San Diego, grew ten acres of celery. I would sell him five to ten pounds of celery seed at a time! Celery seed is expensive stuff! And he bought all his seed from me.”
At the same time, Ledgerwood was developing new varieties of vegetables. “I suppose you could say I was very observant," he says modestly. “If I saw a bean plant growing alongside the road, and it looked like it had possibilities, I would propagate it, then give it a market test. If it was well received, I'd continue selling it. I developed one bean I called “Ledger Wonder It had a nice, long pod, beautiful color — just a bit on the tough side. But I sold a ton of that to the Mexican market one time.”
While his seed business was growing. Ledgerwood saved his earnings and began buying more land. He bought the two lots next to the house and store for $1500. Then, in 1935, the W.G. Kerkoff Company, which had subdivided the land in that area, decided they wanted out. With the Depression, they weren’t able to sell the lots, so they announced a big sale. The Ledgerwoods bought two lots on Tamarack Street for $225 apiece.
Next the Ledgerwoods bought two acres of land that had been used as the corrals for the old stagecoach that ran from Los Angeles to San Diego, stopping over at the Twin Inns in Carlsbad. The ground was extremely rich from years and years of manure, and the price was $2500.
Ledgerwood soon traded that 2-acre parcel for a 5-acre parcel, then traded the 5-acres for a 16-acre parcel where Valley Junior High School is now. With each trade he moved his operation a little farther inland, where the land was cheaper than near the coast.
And then, in 1950, disaster struck. “A fellow wanted to trade me that 16 acres for 32 acres back in the hills. The fellow was a realtor, he taught a class in land development at USC, and he was a planning consultant to the City of Carlsbad. So I trusted him.”
The 32 acres was on Buena Vista Creek, which meant a permanent water supply, and the soil was very good. Ledgerwood signed an option to sell his 16 acres, then agreed to meet the realtor a few days later to sign the papers giving him the 32 acres.
But the man never showed up. Ledgerwood had been swindled, and before he could do anything about it the realtor died of a heart attack.
“It was such a stupid mistake!” he says, shaking his head and grieving over the loss even now.
The realtor's heirs followed through with the option to buy his 16 acres, and Ledgerwood was stuck with a seed business, three tractors, and 16 farm implements — but no land to grow seed.
The only thing he could do was buy seed wholesale and continue selling to his old customers. But the real profit in his business had been gutted. To make up for the loss, he went on the road looking for new customers — “campaigning,” he calls it — while his wife tended the store. He would drive the country roads throughout San Diego, selling seeds in the day and sleeping in his truck at night. “In the seed business, it takes a lot of time to establish customer confidence," he explains. “No farmer wants to buy seed from somebody unknown. His whole life depends on the seed he buys. So it took me years to build my business.”
But then by the late '5Os and early ’60s, his customers started disappearing — and not because his seeds weren’t reliable. “Where San Diego Stadium is now was the Guggielmetti Ranch,” he says. “They grew carrots and beets and radishes. On the south side of I-8, where the automobile agencies are now — that was the Frank Tanaka farm. Where the sand plant is, on Sandrock Road — that was the Tom Choy Ranch. Where May Company is — that was the K. Nakagawa farm — 120 acres and one of my best customers. All my customers were forced out by shopping centers, freeways, and subdivisions. That was so discouraging to me.”
The seed business was no longer enough to support his family, so Ledgerwood was forced to take another job. He went to work as the the groundskeeper at Oceanside High School and worked there for 15 years. Then he went to work as grounds foreman at Mira Costa College, and he worked there for 7 more years. During all this time, his wife tended the store while he was at work. When his wife became too ill, his daughter helped out.
Today Ledgerwood is back to tending the store full-time with the help of his daughter. Even though the vegetable farmers have nearly disappeared from the county, there has been a renewed interest in gardening in the last few years — mostly among retirement-age people who have the time. And so, all morning long the customers file in one at a time to buy a little seed and to ask for Mr. Ledgerwood’s advice: “What’s the right time to plant celery?” “What’s the best thing to control whiteflies?" "Which beet is the best for making borscht’” "How do you get rid of gophers too smart to trap?” Some people bring him a diagram of their garden, and he tells them exactly how much seed they will need for each row and exactly when to plant each variety.
Most customers realize it took Ledgerwood a lifetime to learn the answers to all these questions. So when Mr. Ledgerwood carefully weighs out each packet of seed and stamps the variety on each envelope, and the customers realize it only takes a couple of dollars' worth of seed to plant a whole garden, and even if Mr. Ledgerwood had 100 customers a day, there’s no way he could make a living doing this, they stubbornly insist on buying three or four times as much seed as they really need.
Conversations about aphids and citrus scale invariably wander into politics and the daily news. One two-dollar sale for onion starts can easily be stretched into a 30-minute discussion on tax rates. Dan Quayle, and the federal budget. But then, this is precisely the reason people love coming here. Mr. Ledgerwood’s little seed store is a refuge from busy-ness and greed.
What little free time he has Mr. Ledgerwood spends breeding new flower varieties. He points out a beautiful yellow flower growing just outside the window. “That’s a Mexican tulip poppy," he says. “I’d like to try to develop some new colors for that flower. It’s drought tolerant, it’s totally pest resistant, it doesn’t get mildew like the California poppy, yet the big seed companies discontinued carrying it because it’s a perennial. In other words, if a customer buys it once he never has to buy it again. Well, we don’t care if we only sell it once. Maybe we’ll go out of business after a while, but it’s still a good flower”
At some point, Mr. Ledgerwood came to accept the fact that his seed business would never tum out exactly the way he’d planned it nearly 60 years ago. But it didn't matter because he'd spent his life doing what he wanted to do. “Oh, I suppose we don’t earn half as much as most people do,” he says. “But then we don’t have to.”
In the back of his mind, Ledgerwood thinks there is always the possibility that the seed business could experience another growth boom. “The seed business always does well during hard times," he points out. Of course, Ledgerwood is also aware that this country hasn’t known any really hard times since the end of the Great Depression, 50 years ago.
But one can always hope When he looks around at what’s happened to the hills where he used to ride around on his tractor, Ledgerwood is shocked. Not that “progress’’ is so bad. necessarily, but every subdivision meant the end of another farm. He shakes his head with wonder when he mentions that one of the small lots he’d once bought on Tamarack Street for S250 recently sold for $175,000.
“I understand some people nowadays are commuting 50 and 60 miles to work. They pay $1.50 for gas — I guess that’s what it costs now, I haven’t bought any for so long. Their car insurance alone must be more than my entire overhead. Not to mention the cost of the cars themselves. Yet they don’t seem to think anything of it. No, I don’t understand it.”
Not long ago, two representatives of a large corporation came to see Mr. Ledgerwood. They explained to him how they wanted to build a big hotel somewhere along this stretch of the Carlsbad oceanfront, and the block he lived on was the only commercial zoning — "grandfathered in,” as they say, because the Ledgerwoods were in business before Carlsbad was incorporated into a city.
"Well," Mr. Ledgerwood said, “the property certainly has possibilities for a hotel, but I’m not interested in selling.”
The two men pressed. “But don’t you have a price?”
Mr. Ledgerwood just shook his head. “No, I don’t have a price.” Now, as he thinks it over, he says, “I suppose I was foolish for turning them down, but I don't know what more life has to offer than what I have now. If I sold out, I’d have to spend the rest of my life chasing a golf ball.... No, as long as we can make a go of it here with the seed store, then that’s what we want to do. But I don’t know how much longer we can hold out.”