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A Glimpse into the History of Cacti Experts Emerald and Minnie Hummel

A family's collection of 20th century personal and business materials provides a glimpse into the past.

How many boxes of mementos do you have? Photos? Documents related to your personal life, like letters, yearbooks, minutes from organizations that you have belonged to, etc.? These are the items that become material found in archives, essentially they are archives. They’re your personal archives. The Carlsbad History Room has about a dozen such archival collections, also known as fonds, from local families. Fonds is a French word used in archives to differentiate an organically created collection by a family, individual or organization from something brought together in a piecemeal way under a specific topic.

The Hummel box collection is a fonds and was donated by Norman Shultz, the Hummel’s son-in-law. The collection, which is contained in two boxes, originated from Emerald and Minnie (Byrne) Hummel, as well as their daughter, Marquetta “Marky” Shultz. Like many early residents, the Hummels were among the Carlsbad residents whose contribution to Carlsbad and the wider society was in horticulture. The box collection for the family contains many interesting original items, which inform us about the family and their extensive contributions to the world of succulents and cacti.

The majority of the collection is made up of letters, photographs, documents, mementos, pamphlets and other writings. They range from Emerald and Minnie’s childhood through their retirement. Some of the items are just fun to look at and some give hints to conflicts dealt with during their years in business.

Emerald was born in Prosperity, Missouri in 1903. He came to California in 1911 with his mother and younger brother after his father was killed in a mine explosion. Initially, they lived with his maternal grandparents in Aberdeen, California. His mother remarried and Emerald gained another brother. He served in the Navy during WWI and worked with a mining company before getting into the horticulture business. He married Minnie Byrne in 1925. As an adult Emerald didn’t like his name, so he went by Edward or E.C. instead. 

Minette Belle “Minnie” Byrne was born in Piedmont, Wyoming in 1904. She came to California with her family in 1908. Very bright, she apparently skipped a grade in school. She attended college for a short while, but did not finish. After marrying Emerald, they had two children: Marquetta “Marky” and Edward. Their cacti and succulent business was started in Inglewood, California. I’ve been told that their nursery was eventually taken over for a freeway. They brought their business, Hummel’s Exotic Gardens, to Carlsbad in 1952. The couple finally retired in 1978. Emerald died in 1979 and Minnie, in 1993.

One of my favorite items from the collection is a 1913 letter from Santa Claus that Minnie Byrne received as a child. I love to share this with children, although the part about Santa’s automobile raises a few eyebrows with an age group that already has doubts. Emerald’s report cards from first grade are also fun to look at for the style, size, and writing in ink. He was a good student who achieved good grades in subjects like numbers and drawing. He also scored high in deportment.

Another letter in the collection that is of interest and is very telling of the character of the man is a 1926 letter that Mr. Hummel received from the law firm of Preston & Braucht:

May we take this opportunity to express to you the sincere appreciation of your good services to our clients. It is a gratification to find a young man whose fidelity can be depended upon so thoroughly, who has the stamina and manhood to resist the lure of gold, but who, on the contrary, holds fast to the highest duties.

The family corresponded with Curt Backeberg and his wife, Emmy. Mr. Backeberg was also a horticulturalist, from Hamburg, Germany. Unfortunately, we only have eight letters dated 1946-48. However, these letters illustrate the hardship faced by their friends for lack of food during the years following WWII. The Hummels sent them care packages, which were greatly appreciated. These letters were opened by an examiner and stamped with “British Censorship Germany”. Their personalized envelopes included the hand-written addition: “Britische Zone Deutschland”. Later letters were light-hearted, sharing family happenings and news. In one of the early letters, Mr. Backeberg handwrites a request as a postscript: “Should like very much to get a new pipe, not too heavy; could I get it?” Doing some research on Curt Backeberg, I noticed that he often had a pipe in photos. I wonder if one of them might be a pipe sent to him by the Hummels.

The photographs in the collection are mainly from Emerald’s family and from his life with Minnie and their children. One of the photographs of the entire family in their cacti and succulent garden was used in an advertisement for Quaker State Motor Oil. The advertisement ran in 1935 in an issue of Country Gentleman magazine.

In 1968, Edward applied for Social Security and based on the documents in the collection was having quite a time getting it because he couldn’t prove his birth date.  He didn’t have a birth certificate. There are even letters to the school district in Prosperity asking for documentation of his school records as proof of his birth date, as well as to the census bureau with requests for census documentation. Unfortunately, the information from the two sources didn’t match as was pointed out by the Social Security Administration. Whether he received Social Security in the end is unknown to me, but I certainly hope so!

Before retirement, the Hummels ran a successful cacti and succulent business, Hummel’s Exotic Gardens. They sold their plants world-wide, hybridized, and wrote about their work. Many of the business-related photographs are of new varieties that Emerald created. Emerald wrote articles for publications, like the American Nature Association’s Nature Magazine. E.C. published a book entitled: Hummel’s Victory Picture Book of Cacti & Succulents

Based on the documents in our collection, their plants can be found at Ohio State University, the Wild Animal Park (they made a “substantial addition” to the African collection), UC Berkeley, California Botanic Garden (in Escondido), Quail Botanical Gardens (277 plants), and Lotusland in Santa Barbara, CA. In addition to plants, they also donated horticultural literature and catalogs. The Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena and the Agriculture Department at UC-Davis received sizable collections of literature and catalogs from the Hummels.

They sent slides to the Bromeliad Society for a lecture, as well as seeds for them to sell to benefit their society. They also donated plants to them for their collection and for sale. Unfortunately, all was not a bed of roses, or bromeliads…In 1974, an article with no byline appeared in the Journal of the Bromeliad Society stating that the Hummel hybrids did not have a “legitimate place in horticulture.” A nursery in Reseda came to the Hummel’s defense with a letter to the editor, suggesting that the article was “vicious and obviously misguided” and that the Journal was irresponsible in printing it. The Plant Shop sent a copy of the letter and the article to Ed Hummel.

The Hummels retired in 1977. They sold their entire stock, with about a third of it going to Mitchell Park in Milwaukee. This letter to the park demonstrates the relationship of E.C. and Minnie, both professional and personal:

All correspondence is signed by me, Mrs. E.C. Hummel, but there is a Mr. Hummel, who is the worker of the partnership, and not always available for signing letters. This has been a ‘joke’ to many of our customers who have visited us. At one time there was a write-up on our gardens somewhere, and the caption under a photo read, “Mr. Hummel Sr. ‘lends a hand with the watering’.”

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America had made Edward Hummel a Fellow May 5, 1969. In a letter dated, February 17, 1993, Larry Mitich of the Society asked in a letter addressed to Marky Shultz if it would be okay to add the fact that Emerald changed his name to Edward as a footnote to the CSSA history of its Fellows. This is what their “History of Fellow Award” currently states in the 1969 section:

Hummel, Emerald [Edward] Charles (1903-1979) USA
Prominent nurseryman & plantsman, & noted horticultural experimenter & succulent hybridizer.

CSSA website: cssainc.org/index.phpItemid=202&id=6&option=com_content&task=view

Accessed June 12, 2012

The family had previously donated family and business materials to other organizations before the Carlsbad History Room opened. The San Dieguito Heritage Museum has the papers of Edward Hummel, as donated by Marky Hummel in 1993 and the Huntington has 162 letters to and from the family with various people. The value of a lifetime of documents, photographs, letters, and other ephemera is truly priceless in our understanding of the past.

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