Eleanor Toyne


First woman hort grad still growing strong at 87


Eleanor Toyne was born and raised on a farm and wanted to be a farmer. But in the 1940s, that just wasn’t done.

In 1946, Eleanor Toyne became the first woman at State to graduate with a horticulture degree.

“In those days, women didn’t farm,” Toyne explains. “So I thought I’d go with horticulture.”

Toyne grew accustomed to being the only woman in her classes and in 1946 became the first woman at State to graduate with a horticulture degree.

Before enrolling at State, Toyne attended Southern College in her hometown of Springfield for a year and delayed transferring to State to help her father with the farm work.

“I stayed out a quarter and helped my dad farm,” she says. “My oldest brother was farming on his own and my other two brothers were off serving in the war. My younger sister was in the WAVES.”

Home duties satisfied, she was off to Brookings in 1943.

“I was scared at first because I hadn’t been away from home,” she recalls. “I didn’t get homesick until I got a letter from home. But then I got over that.”

Toyne rented a room from an elderly couple about a block from campus.

“This was during the second world war,” she explains. “We’d have some servicemen as students. They occupied the dorms so we had to find private housing.

“Meals weren’t included in the rent. We ate at the Union, usually. We didn’t go downtown much. I didn’t have a car and there was gas rationing, even if you did.”

35 cents an hour

As a student, Toyne worked ten hours a week for thirty-five cents an hour.

She cooked breakfast at the Union. “I still make scrambled eggs the way I learned there,” she laughs. “I’d chop up bacon and fry it and add eggs that were beaten up—more like an omelet.”

And she grew chrysanthemums at the greenhouse supervised by S.A. McCrory, a professor of horticulture for whom the gardens are named.

Amidst study and work, Toyne found time for fun.

“They had quite a few activities for students back then,” she says. “I went to the Methodist Church and belonged to their youth group. I was in co-ed band. They had no military band those years, so they formed a co-ed band. We had our own jackets.”

When she earned her diploma, it was with less than the usual fanfare, due to her late start.

“A few of us graduated in the president’s office in July, but since it wasn’t a formal graduation, they classed us as 1947. But it was 1946.”

After graduation, Toyne sold the b-flat clarinet her parents had given her as a high school graduation present and, responding to an ad in the American Nurserymen magazine, moved to Waterloo, Iowa, to work at Platt’s Nursery.

“My job was in the office part of the time and supervising the men part of the time” in the nursery plots, she says.

At a square dance at the Waterloo YWCA, she met her husband, Merle, a vo-ag teacher who taught night classes for veterans at the vocational school in neighboring Dunkerton.

They married in November 1955 and, the following February, moved back to Springfield.

Home country

“We wanted to farm and back then you had to inherit the land or be married to someone with land,” Toyne says. “My younger brother had a friend with a farm he rented out. We visited him, looked the place over, and rented it. We were there four years.”

That was the first of five Springfield area farm homes for the Toynes. Their last was actually located at Perkins, a tiny town that is no longer. When Merle decided to retire, they moved to their current place in 2000.

Besides farming, Toyne worked for ten years in the Horticulture Department of Customer Service for Gurney Seed & Nursery before it closed in Yankton. She and Merle raised two children they adopted from Korea. Elizabeth Eleanor Schneider of Huron and James Merle Toyne of Yankton have given their parents three grandsons.

And she’s let her green thumb and her horticultural know-how run free.

Every year, she and Merle plant and tend their nearly 3,000-square-foot garden, raising enough fruits and vegetables to amply share with family, friends, and community. To discourage weeds, they unroll strips of carpet between the rows. But there’s still plenty of hand weeding to be done and Toyne spends many an hour on the working end of a hoe.

Basking in the sun at the front of her house is a peony bush that blooms white with red edges. It originated from her folks’ place.

“I remember it blooming in their yard eighty years ago,” says Toyne, who has sown new gardens, planted young trees, and babied baby bushes along wherever she calls home and in whatever conditions she finds there.

“This place has such good soil,” she says. “And a multitude of creeping jenny.”

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