History Matters: Farmer Lundy Dirr turned flowers into a blooming success

Gladiolus workers are shown in the Dirr quonset hut, where trimming and packing took place.
Gladiolus workers are shown in the Dirr quonset hut, where trimming and packing took place.

In late 1924 and early 1925, a family from Oskaloosa, Iowa, settled on Terra Ceia. The man of the house, Lundy Dirr, was a successful Iowan marketing and advertising businessman. Tampa magazine Suniland interviewed Dirr after his move to Florida and asked him why he relocated here. He responded, “I came to Florida to make money. I’m staying because my hunch was right.”

Dirr came here with his wife, Maud, and his two daughters, Joan and Ellen. He made a living through farming. Their primary crop was citrus along with some vegetables. A tidal wave surge swept over Terra Ceia in the early 1930s. The saltwater killed most of the crops, including the citrus groves. Dirr cleared his land and decided to try his hand at farming once again. Despite the high salt content in the soil as well as the discouraging advice he received from colleagues, Dirr planted peppers, tomatoes, squash and cabbage. Against all odds, the crops not only survived but they thrived. He was back in the farming business, making an even better living than before.

As a homemaker, Maud Dirr did the family laundry, and she used Octagon soap. At the time, Octagon offered premium coupons to their customers. Maud collected and sent off her coupons. In return, she received a sack of gladiolus bulbs. She planted the bulbs and thus began an extremely successful branch of the family farming business. The Dirrs became the first commercial growers and shippers of gladiolus from Manatee County as well as Florida. Initially the railroads were reluctant to ship the flowers, as they were packed in bean hampers. The hampers needed to be returned to the grower to be used again. But finally the railroad agreed, and the Dirrs’ business went screaming down the tracks.

Eventually, Dirr found a container company in Tampa that helped him design a better package for shipping the flowers. It was made out of cardboard, and returning the container to the grower was no longer necessary. Besides being transported by rail, the glads were also transported five days a week to Tampa by Fogarty Brothers Transfer, which later became Fogarty Van Lines. Wholesale and retail florists sold the flowers as well as S & H Kress department stores. In 1949, rail and truck transport were joined by airfreight, which allowed glads to be delivered to Australia and Cuba.

Other flowers grown by the Dirrs included snap dragons, violets, sweet peas, calendula, asters, statice, baby’s breath and carnations. They established an early agritourism site with “The Dirr Sweet Pea Gardens,” which were a popular tourist stop in the 1930s and 1940s. The family stayed in the flower business as growers until 1963, when Lundy Dirr passed away. The flower brokerage portion of the family business continued until 1977.

Lundy Dirr, inducted into the Manatee County Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1990, was known as the father of the commercial gladiolus industry in Florida. He organized the Florida Gladiolus Growers Association in 1939 and served as the group’s first president. Thanks to the business contacts he made while living in Iowa, Dirr was able to expand shipping of the glads to New York, Philadelphia and other northern cities. By 1949, the gladiolus business in Florida supported a $50 million payroll. And one third of the flowers were grown and shipped from Manatee County. Glads had indeed become a bloomin’ business for Manatee County agriculture!

Diane Ingram is museum supervisor of the Manatee County Agricultural Museum Inc. Contact her at diane.ingram@manateeclerk.com and 941-721-2034.