Businessman, plant breeder, philanthropist. The second son of James Lide Coker and Susan Stout, David Coker was born in Hartsville on November 20, 1870. His father was a successful merchant and owned large agricultural holdings, enterprises in which David became actively involved following his 1891 graduation from the University of South Carolina. Coker married Jessie Ruth Richardson on September 10, 1894. The couple had five children. Following the death of his first wife in 1913, Coker married Margaret May Roper in 1915. His second marriage produced three children.
An illness in 1897 led Coker to withdraw temporarily from management of J. L. Coker and Company, the family store, and to focus on his first experiments with plant breeding. His business experience with farmers at the store made him conscious of the difficult conditions under which postbellum southern farmers survived. He saw a need not only for better seed to provide more productive crops but also for a change in attitude from traditional to more modern methods of farming. This dual focus remained at the forefront of Coker’s efforts in plant breeding and the subsequent development of the Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company.
Coker became noted for his development of improved strains of cotton, especially significant in the cotton-raising Pee Dee region where he lived. Through his younger brother William, a botany professor, Coker began an association with Herbert J. Webber of the United States Department of Agriculture, which was to have an important influence in bringing greater scientific method to Coker’s experimental work. Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company was formally organized in 1913 to manage these plant-breeding operations, with David Coker as president. The company, which became a major regional seed house, developed improved types of cotton, corn, oats, tobacco, melons, and other crops that helped revitalize and change twentieth-century southern agriculture. Its informative seed catalog became both an important promotional tool for the company and a boon to farmers throughout the South. The company’s trademark red heart with the words “Blood Will Tell” emphasized quality seed. From the World War I era until his death, Coker became an agricultural evangelist, promoting diversification, improved farming methods, and his seeds through numerous speeches, articles, and personal visits. To expand the market for short-fiber cotton, he developed relationships with Carolina textile mill owners to successfully test and promote its use, thus expanding the market for the farmers who bought his seed.
Coker had an equally active civic career. He was mayor of Hartsville (1902–1904); newspaper editor; bank president; an original member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va.; chairman of the South Carolina Council of Defense and state food administrator during World War I; and an active leader in the state Democratic Party. He continued the family tradition of philanthropic work, being a trustee and major benefactor of Coker College and of his alma mater. Coker died on November 28, 1938, at his Hartsville residence and was buried in First Baptist churchyard, Hartsville.
Coclanis, Peter A. “Seeds of Reform: David R. Coker, Premium Cotton, and the Campaign to Modernize the Rural South.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 102 (July 2001): 202–18.
Coker, David R. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Rogers, James A., with Larry E. Nelson. Mr. D. R.: A Biography of David R. Coker. Hartsville, S.C.: Coker College Press, 1994.
Simpson, George Lee, Jr. The Cokers of Carolina: A Social Biography of a Family. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.