JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Birthdays And Tomatoes

In honor of my friend Clay Jenkinson’s 65th birthday today, I’m going to share a story I wrote five years ago with a little bit of an update.

First, let me say that it is hard to believe that my young friend Clay is 65 years old. I remember his 18th birthday, Feb. 4, 1973. We were both working at The Dickinson Press. I was the sports editor. Clay was a high school senior, working part time, mostly as a photographer, but helping out with sports stories on Tuesday and Friday nights.

I used to send him out to get photos at basketball games and wrestling matches to dress up the sports page other nights. I’d get my page laid out and tell Clay I needed a photo and he’d say, “What size would fit?” I’d give him the shape of the hole on the page (like, three columns by 6 inches) for a photo and he’d bring me back one in that format that would fit.

I recall one night I hadn’t laid out the page yet, and said jokingly that a one column by 16 inches (an impossible task, I thought) would be great. He brought me a photo of a basketball player shooting a free throw, taken from the floor behind the basket, the player’s feet at the bottom of the photo and the ball at the top of its arc above the basket, cropped so that nothing showed on the sides, so all you could see was the player, the ball, the ceiling and the basket. One column by 16 inches. Perfect. I had to scramble the page to get it to fit somewhere, but we used it. I wish I had a copy of that paper today.

Anyway, this is the story involving Clay and tomatoes, two of my favorite things in the world, and our beloved friend Sheila Schafer, written on the occasion of Clay’s 60th birthday, five years ago.


Here’s a story about the best customer service ever. It started last March when Lillian and I attended a presentation by Robert Hanna of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation at the former North Dakota Governor’s Mansion. Robert’s Foundation has taken over the interpretation of the Oscar H. Will Seed Co. and has a display of the company’s early products at their Interpretive Center in Washburn.

That cold March night, Robert spent about an hour telling us about the Will company, complete with displays of seed packets sold by the company more than 100 years ago. (For a brief history of the company, founded here in the 1880s, go here.)

What caught our attention was a handout Robert gave us at the end of the session, listing the various places you could still purchase seeds once sold by the Will Co.. We read that a company in Oregon had preserved one of Will’s heirloom tomato varieties, called Golden Bison. We ordered some of the seeds thispast spring, planted them, and they were our best-producing tomato this past summer. And early. We were eating them Aug. 12. And they kept producing right up until freeze-up.

Here’s a photo Clay took of four of his friends at his mom and dad’s house at his 18th birthday party, I think, or maybe on his high school graduation night. Either way, it was 1973, 47 years ago, for sure. From left, that’s the late, great Bill Douthit, Dickinson Press circulation manager, in profile; me, Dickinson Press reporter Mike Jacobs and his wife, Suezette Bieri. God, we were young.
Here’s a photo Clay took of four of his friends at his mom and dad’s house at his 18th birthday party, I think, or maybe on his high school graduation night. Either way, it was 1973, 47 years ago, for sure. From left, that’s the late, great Bill Douthit, Dickinson Press circulation manager, in profile; me, Dickinson Press reporter Mike Jacobs and his wife, Suezette Bieri. God, we were young.

Fast forward to Jan. 21, 2015. I got a call from my friend, Sheila (pronounced Shy-la), inviting me to a birthday party — a small, intimate dinner she and our friend, Valerie, were hosting Feb. 4 for our friend Clay’s birthday. Clay was going to turn 60 that day, so she said that for a present we should bring 60 of something. That’s Sheila.

We puzzled over it for a bit. Clay likes wine and books, but 60 bottles of wine or six 10-year-old bottles of wine were a bit out of our price range, even if we could find them, and 60 books would be insignificant in that house of his with thousands of books, even if we could find 60 he hadn’t read, which is unlikely, unless there are 57 more books in the “50 Shades of Grey” series.

But almost simultaneously, Lillian and I hit on the perfect solution: Seeds. And not just any seeds. Sixty Golden Bison heirloom tomato seeds. Golden Bison tomatoes were bred in North Dakota in 1932 by horticulturist A. F. Yeager at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University, winner of four straight national football championships — sorry, couldn’t resist; 5-year update — eight of the past nine).

Yeager was a pioneer in developing tomato strains for the northern tier of states, with short growing seasons. He did much of his research in Bottineau County, North Dakota, which is about as “northern” as you can get and still be in the U.S. He is credited with developing 14 varieties of tomatoes. I don’t know what happened to the other 13, but the identity of Golden Bison has been preserved all these 80-plus years, and they are great tomato plants, as I mentioned earlier.

You should know that you can’t just buy any old ordinary seeds for Clay. He is a devout North Dakotan and personifies all things Dakota. The Golden Bison would be perfect for him. The problem was, we didn’t have any, and time was short. We thought we could just write up a card saying they had been ordered and were on their way, and give it to him, which would have been fine, but not great.

So on Saturday, Jan. 24, I went to the website of Adaptive Seeds, pulled up the order form for Golden Bison and ordered three packets, each of which had 30 seeds — two for Clay (60 total) and one for us. When I clicked on “checkout” there was a message that said they were really busy this time of the year and we should allow a few weeks for delivery. That was OK because we were just going to give him the card with the note anyway.

But down at the bottom of the order form was a box that said “Comments welcome.” So I thought, what the heck, I’ll send them a note. I wrote that the seeds were for a birthday present for a friend having a 60th birthday Feb. 4 and that their Golden Bison seeds would be  special for him because they were bred in North Dakota, and he was a true North Dakotan, and if there was any way they could get the seeds to us before Feb. 4, that would be appreciated, but if not, that was OK, too. I pushed “send” about 6 p.m. Saturday evening, Jan. 24.

On Tuesday, Jan. 27, the mailman brought us a manila envelope full of seeds from Adaptive Seeds, postmarked on their end Jan. 25. Sunday. The day after I had ordered them at 6 o’clock in the evening.

Inside were three packets of Golden Bison tomato seeds. Along with most of our other garden seeds for the year — I had liked their website so well; it was so friendly — that I decided to just forget the other 32 or so seed catalogs we had on the shelf and get most of this year’s stuff from them.

So there were carrot seeds, beans, mesclun, basil, lettuce, sugar snap peas, radishes and three other varieties of tomatoes. The whole order, most of what we would need for this summer’s garden, was just a shade over $50.

At the bottom of the receipt, it said the order was processed at 5:13 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. Just 23 hours after I had ordered.

But the best thing was the handwritten note at the bottom of the receipt. It said “Thanks for your order! I hope your friend has a Happy Birthday. Happy sowing. Sarah” Accompanied by a drawing of a happy face.

Seeds ordered from Oregon on Saturday night. Seeds delivered to Bismarck on Tuesday afternoon. That is incredible customer service. Generally, when you buy things online, there is little or no human contact. One computer talking to another. Not with Adaptive Seeds. They have real people there. Real friendly people.

Better yet, to paraphrase, the proof of the tomatoes is in the eating. We ate them last year and they were great. Even better than that, they are North Dakota bred, identity preserved, heirloom tomatoes.

When we gave them to Clay on Wednesday night, we offered to start some for him when we start ours in March because we know he is on the road a lot. We’re going to start a whole bunch anyway. So if you are in Bismarck, or close by, and you want a couple of plants, let me know, and come by May 15 to pick them up. That’s the day we plant outside. We’ll have plenty.

Or, you can just go to the Adaptive Seeds website, order some, along with your other garden seeds and start your own. As Sarah would say, “Happy Sowing.”


(Note:  We’ve been growing Golden Bison tomatoes every year since. And that offer of plants still stands in 2020 if we can find the seeds. Unfortunately Golden Bison tomatoes are not in the Adaptive Seeds catalog this year. I’m still checking with them to see what happened. Luckily, anther seed company, Victory Seeds, has picked them up, so if I can’t get them from Adaptive, I still have a source. But I’m going to keep on ordering the rest of my vegetable seeds from Adaptive Seeds anyway. They are a great company.)

Oh, and Happy Medicare Birthday, Clay! You never have to make another co-pay again.

One thought on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Birthdays And Tomatoes”

  • John Burke February 4, 2020 at 9:22 pm

    Wonderful story Jim–Thanks!


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