The Pursell family’s roots run deep in Sylacauga, Alabama. David’s great grandfather, DeWitt Alexander Parker, was the first general manager of the family company (then known as the Sylacauga Fertilizer Company), which began 102 years ago in 1914. Through the leadership of David’s grandfather, Howard A. Parker, and his father, Jimmy Pursell, the company has grown significantly and changed its focus from serving local cotton farmers to providing high-tech fertilizers for a world market, and to creating FarmLinks, the world’s first and only research and demonstration golf course.
DeWitt Alexander Parker (1866-1930)
DeWitt Alexander Parker was born July 5, 1866, in Mocksville, NC. Orphaned at a young age, he was adopted into the family of U.S. Congressman Archibald Hunter Arrington Williams.
DeWitt worked as a telegrapher for the Southern Railway at Tallapoosa, Georgia, and Anniston, Alabama, before relocating to Sylacauga as the station agent of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Other changes were taking place in DeWitt’s life as well. He first met Letitia Maud Oden when she alighted from a train arriving in Sylacauga from Oxford, Alabama, where she was a student at Oxford College. They were married on October 27, 1891, at “Odena,” the plantation of her parents near Sylacauga.
DeWitt, Letitia and their four children lived in Luverne, Alabama, for a brief time, where he continued to work for the railroad company, but they returned to Sylacauga in the early 1900s. In 1911, DeWitt built a large two-story house for the family on Norton Avenue and named it “Oaklawn.” In 1905, he went into partnership with John Brown, a local banker, and formed a fertilizer manufacturing company, of which DeWitt Parker was the manager. The first plant, located on Second Street, burned to the ground in 1912, and was built again at the corner of Fourth and Norton Streets. Sylacauga Fertilizer Company furnished a product that was in high demand throughout Sylacauga and surrounding areas at the turn of the century. Later, a cotton warehouse company was added. The Parker Gin Company across from the Warehouse, however, was owned solely by DeWitt. DeWitt was a kind and philanthropic man. Included in his generosity was the First Methodist Church in Sylacauga, where he gave the large bell for the tower.
Howard Arrington Parker (1896-1964)
Howard Arrington Parker was born in Sylacauga, Alabama, on December 19, 1896. Howard grew up with a love for agriculture and the farming community. His love of farming grew into his enthusiasm for the fertilizer business, and he became involved in the industry at many levels.
When World War I began, he was a student at the University of Alabama, and a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity. Howard left college to take officer training at Marion Military Institute. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and later was promoted to first lieutenant. Howard Parker saw active duty in France in the Muse Argonne Offensive, serving in the 51st Infantry, 6th Division from July 6, 1918, to June 12, 1919, and was honorably discharged on July 8, 1919, at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Howard married Ola David of Talladega in 1922. They had three children: Julia Glenn, Mary Christine and Howard Arrington, Jr.
He was a shrewd but kind businessman. When a farmer bought fertilizer in the early years of the company, it was put on the books; virtually no one paid cash for fertilizer in those times. Instead, a promissory crop note was taken, payable after the farmer’s cotton had been ginned. If a farmer’s crop failed and he was unable to pay his debt, Sylacauga Fertilizer “carried him over” for another year. Howard would also furnish mules, equipment and even pay for labor. Then at the end of the season, he bought and ginned these farmers’ cotton.
Under Howard Parker’s management, the family’s three businesses—Sylacauga Fertilizer Company, Sylacauga Bonded Warehouse and Parker Gin Company—all continued to grow. Howard also bought three more ginning operations to help serve farmers on a broader scale. The Union Gin Company, located in Fayetteville, was acquired in the 1930s. The Harpersville Gin was bought in 1937, and the Old Southern Cotton Oil Company was purchased in 1948. A milestone for Howard occurred in August of 1945 when he purchased all stock, not held by Parker descendants, in the three companies. However, it was not until 1959 that the name was changed from Sylacauga Fertilizer Company to Parker Fertilizer Company. As always, the business relied on agricultural products, especially cotton, but in the mid-1950s, the company made its first move into the lawn and garden market with a product called Sta-Green plant Food.
But it was not only the addition of Sta-Green that put the company on a different course. The addition of Jimmy Pursell, Howard Parker’s new son-in-law, provided the key ingredient for getting the new product line off the ground.
Jimmy Pursell (1930)
James Taylor Pursell was born on July 3, 1930, to Howard and Eunice Pursell of Talladega, Alabama. Jimmy, or “Purcy” Pursell as he was known then, went to Talladega High School where he was the halfback on the football team. During high school, Jimmy held various jobs in several stores as well as with the county engineering department, building roads and bridges. He also worked with the city helping to pave streets.
After graduating from high school in 1948, Jimmy went to Auburn University, which was then called Alabama Polytechnical Institute. In 1952, he graduated from Auburn with a BS degree in business administration, but he soon joined the aviation cadet program to become a bombardier and obtain an officer’s commission. He was stationed in Sacramento until he finished training in 1953. Soon after, in the same year, Jimmy and Chris Parker married in the base chapel at Mather Field Air Force Base. Pursell had orders to ship out to Korea in six weeks, but ten days after the wedding, the Korean War was over. He ended up serving as an instructor before being discharged and seriously considered making his career in the military. But things changed when Howard Parker offered Jimmy a job with his company. Howard Parker taught Jimmy the business and educated him thoroughly about fertilizer and agriculture. In 1956, Jimmy’s first year with the business, the company began to sell lawn and garden fertilizer. One of Jimmy’s jobs was to market their new Sta-Green products, so Jimmy traveled to several cities in Alabama selling the fertilizer to garden centers. This soon expanded to hardware and nurseries all over the southeastern Unites States, and the lawn and garden portion of the company began to grow rapidly, while the agricultural business was declining.
When the Sta-Green trademark was federally registered in 1959, Parker Fertilizer continued to increase its market share in the specialty fertilizer business and eventually overtook the farm products in the 1970s. As Jimmy became more and more involved with the company, Sta-Green continued to gain market share. The company built more warehouses and plants and hired salespeople to cover the southeastern United States. Soon they began to expand beyond the region into other parts of the country as well. The key to Sta-Green’s success was the relationships that the company formed with customers, distributors and their families. They became involved in trade associations, and Jimmy was honored with some of the highest awards given by such organizations as the Southern Nurseryman’s Association. They also continued to cultivate positive relationships with farmers and citizens of Sylacauga.
Jimmy and Chris Pursell had two sons and a daughter. Taylor was born in 1954, Chris in 1956, and David in 1959, and they all got involved in the business at an early age. Taylor began shoveling cottonseed at age 12 and was promoted to a supervisor position three years later. David also shoveled cottonseed at the plant when he was 12 and worked with the company throughout high school. Chris chipped in as a part-time receptionist while she was in high school. As the business grew, more new products and markets were explored. One of the milestones that set them apart from their competition was the development of slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers. With that in mind, the company worked closely with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the introduction of high-quality, sulfur-coated urea in 1973. Pursell eventually built its own sulfur-coated urea plant, which thrust the company into the international arena and identified them as a leader in fertilizer technology.
Another breakthrough was the early use of Reactive Layers Coating (RLC) starting in 1987. It took several years to perfect the technology and make it practical, but the company eventually earned patents for it. Using the RLC process exclusively, Pursell soon became the largest producer of coated fertilizers in the world. Over the years, Jimmy has created several operating divisions in the organization to better serve the varied needs and demands of customers. The company became Pursell industries and split into two separate entities in the late 1990s, but their goals and mission stayed the same.
David Pursell (1959)
David Pursell, the third child and second son of Jimmy and Chris Pursell, was born on April 2, 1959, in Sylacauga. David’s childhood centered on school and sports and, of course, on the Parker Fertilizer Company. David officially started working for the company when he was 12 years old, shoveling cottonseed in the warehouse. He was later given a job in the small-package department, packing boxes of fertilizer after school and on Saturdays.
In his senior year at Sylacauga High School, already growing into a popular and likable young man, David was elected president of the student council. After graduating from high school, David went on to study commercial art at Auburn University. It was there that he met his future wife, Ellen Shipman. David and Ellen were married in August of 1981. Using his creative skills and commercial art training, he soon started an in-house advertising agency at the fertilizer company. Later David advanced to become Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Pursell Industries, and by the time the company split in 1997, David was ready to assume the top job as President and CEO of Pursell Technologies, which sold to Agrium Inc. in July 2006.
In 2001, David initiated construction of his long-time vision, FarmLinks Golf Club, a research and demonstration course intended to improve the entire golf industry through its ability to serve as a living laboratory and ongoing focus group for industry leaders. On June 4, 2003, the vision came to fruition as 550 guests, including family friend, Jim Nabors, and Governor Bob Riley, made their way to Sylacauga to celebrate the official opening of the 7,444-yard, par-72 Hurdzan-Fry design course.
David currently serves as CEO of Pursell Farms, and is heavily involved on the local, state and national levels in a variety of organizations. He is also an accomplished artist and well-known for his pencil portraits of distinguished golfers.
David and Ellen Pursell have six children: Peggy (1983), Vaughan (1984), Chrissy (1987), Ramsey (1988) and twins Martin and Parker (1990). The family lives in Fayetteville on property that is part of Pursell Farms.