In 1816, James Hart Stark and a small band of pioneers migrated by covered wagon from Bourbon County, Kentucky to settle on the fertile western banks of the Mississippi. Little did James know that the apple-tree scions he carried in his saddlebags would one day launch an international nursery dynasty.
James Stark was skilled at the art of grafting to produce better fruit varieties, and demand grew quickly for superior trees he grew. The railroads opened the door to nationwide shipping, and soon, Stark Bro's was a household name.
By the time the third generation of Starks was at the helm, business was booming. In 1893 the brothers held the first International New Fruit Fair, which encouraged growers to send samples of new varieties for judging. The first winner was a strange-looking elongated apple with five bumps on the blossom end, but no one knew who sent the apples. The same grower, Jesse Hiatt, sent his apples again for the following year's event. That odd-shaped fruit, which was the Delicious apple, won the contest. Clarence Stark immediately bought the rights and changed the industry forever.
In 1914, A. H. Mullins sent a similar sample package of apples to the Stark Brothers, only these were yellow. Their flavor and keeping ability were far beyond any other known yellow apple; this sample became 'Golden Delicious,' probably the world's most famous apple. Nearly 60% of the world's apples are descended from Red and Golden Delicious.
Luther Burbank, the famous "The Wizard of Horticulture," was fascinated upon hearing of this new "Delicious" variety, and so began a long and productive association between he and the Stark brothers. Just before Luther's passing in 1926, he selected Stark Bro's to carry on his important work with more than 750 of his varieties. In 1986, Clay Stark Logan, the last of the Starks to run the company, had the great honor of inducting Luther Burbank into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Setting the Standard
For all of his ingenuity and time spent developing new varieties, Luther barely made enough money to survive. The reason: because anyone could propagate his trees and essentially "steal" the variety, making it impossible for him to profit on his inventions. Thanks to the work of Luther and Paul Stark Sr. (along with the help of Thomas Edison), legislation was passed in 1930 that allowed growers to patent distinctly different fruit tree varieties. Stark Bro's was the first to get a patent in 1932, when it applied for protection of the Stark® Hal-Berta™ Giant peach. Over the years, Stark Bro's has secured many dozens of fruit tree and plant patents.
A New Century
In 1994, the Stark family decided to sell the company to a large mail-order corporation that owned a group of horticultural catalog companies. Less than a decade later, during the summer of 2001, that conglomerate went out of business. The bankruptcy left most of Stark Bro's dedicated employees without a job. The few who remained knew that in order to save Stark Bro's, they would have to save the current crop. A small but dedicated group, known as "The Budders," took to the fields, grafting and budding every rootstock, without pay. But for this extraordinary group of people, Stark Bro's might have perished.
On the now-historic morning of September 11, 2001, a bankruptcy auction determined a new path for this great company, then 185 years old. Stark Bro's was purchased by Cameron Brown and Tim Abair, and was once again under family ownership. It remains one of the oldest businesses in the country.
In 2013, Stark Bro's and Miller Nurseries out of Canandaigua, New York, joined forces. The merger created a whole new line of desirable cold-hardy trees and plants for our customers, and allowed to us expand our reach and capabilities.
Two hundred years later, Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards Co. is the world's oldest continuously-operating nursery, and happily remains a business driven by family legacy and honored tradition.
As we have for the last 200 years, Stark Bro's intends to be at the forefront of the industry in innovation, productivity and outstanding customer service. And while there are no longer any Stark family members employed at the company, their presence is still felt daily, as is Luther Burbank's. The fervent loyalty to the company's heritage remains; it is apparent from the CEO to the field workers that their mission is not only to work, but to be good protectors of the legacy and remarkable history of the company. It's the "Stark Way."