Behind the City Seed Store counter, sitting on a shelf behind Kay McCoy for 36 years, are about 100 jars that house heirloom seeds.
It’s an old habit. A March 1946 photo at the same counter shows the jars on the same shelves, as McCoy’s grandfather, Robert Burriss Jr., poured seeds onto the same scales.
The jars might have been put there when the Burriss Milling Co. expanded its farm-related operation to include seed sales in 1936. They might have been used by McCoy’s great-grandfather, who turned wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal to customers who arrived in horse-drawn carriages.
Today, much has changed outside the modest City Seed building at 214 Tribble St. The mill was destroyed by a 1962 fire, one of the largest in Anderson history. Motorized vehicles now dominate the dirt parking lot.
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Inside the City Seed Store time has paused.
Rakes line the back wall, where they’ve been hanging for as long as McCoy or her brother Sam Burriss can remember. The grafting wax, pruning sealer and straw hats remain where customers found them in years past. The scales near the seed potatoes show their age but remain accurate and in the customary location.
Four generations of the Burriss family has served the store, including Herald photographer Andy Burriss. Kay is his sister, Sam and Reid are his brothers. Working at the seed store was expected for the Burriss children, Andy said. They started working there in grammar school and got progressive more involved as they grew older, Andy Burriss said.
Like the four generations of the Burriss clan, the jars and scales have been serving customers six days a week. The original tin ceiling and original hardwood floor whisper that the old ways are sometimes best.
On a warm mid-March morning, McCoy’s husband, Chuck, compared the product in the old jars to the newer, brightly colored packages that more quickly grab attention in the middle of the room.
“When you buy seeds by the pound, it’s a whole lot cheaper than buying it by the packages,” Chuck said, pointing at a typical 20th-century display of packaged seeds. “And it’s heirloom seeds.”
To illustrate the economic point, he poured about 100 tomato seeds onto the scale, just as the Burriss family has been doing for four generations.
“That’s only one-thirty-second of an ounce,” Chuck said with a smile. “That would be a lot of tomatoes.”
About 30 large buckets of seeds rest on a solid floor, reminding of another shopping era. The designed tin ceiling, popular when Kay’s great-grandfather opened the mill in 1914 but no longer mass produced by the time her grandfather added the seed sales in 1936, is also original.
The mill gave farmers a place to turn wheat into flour and corn into cornmeal, and to swap farm and garden information. The latter remains the heart of the business today, 100 years after those doors opened on Tribble Street.
Foster Gambrell, who has gardened in this area about 20 years, pointed to a burlap bag that held his seed potatoes as he left the store Wednesday.
“They seem to germinate a lot better when they’ve been in a burlap bag instead of a plastic one. I’m not sure why,” said Gambrell, who prefers to shop at stores that share such details.
The information exchange is the legacy of Kay’s grandfather, who served as manager of the mill and later the seed store, and of her father, Robert Burriss III. A graduate of the Washington & Lee business school whose face was a fixture at the store from 1948 until his retirement last May, he shared farming know-how with customers and business expertise with his daughter for 65 years.
“He and my grandfather both loved the process of passing along farming knowledge,” Kay said recently.
She grew up amid the excitement of busy spring Saturdays at City Seed, but as a teen wasn’t asked to put in as many workdays as her older brothers. That changed 36 years ago, when she began working full time while gradually taking on management tasks. Somewhere in between planting and harvest seasons, a career as a social worker was put on hold.
“I never thought I’d eventually take it over,” said Kay, a Clemson graduate. “As a sociology major, I took a few horticulture classes. But once I started doing it, I enjoyed it.”
This spring’s enjoyment is tempered by the absence of her father. Bob Burriss, who turns 90 on April 8, is now a resident at an assisted-living home. Kay struggles to adjust.
“It’s hard. He did a lot of the bookwork, even in recent years, and did most of the ordering,” Kay said of her father, who rarely missed a day of work in those 65 years.
His business model remains firmly in place. Sam, who worked at the business part time as a teen and since returning from a tour of duty with the Army in 1979, gives the place another family connection and is quick to offer gardening suggestions. Last week, as Kay rang up a sale of seeds to a relatively new gardener, she explained the need for a companion crop – and the fact that even a seedless watermelon will have some seeds.
“It’s fun when you can help people, especially young people get started on their first garden,” Kay said.
Tips flow in both directions.
“That’s the best part of it,” Kay said. “When you’re here every day, you get a lot of good information from old-time, experienced gardeners. It’s fun to learn from them.”