Family Floral Business
Thanks for venturing into my Living Room!
Make yourself at home and have a seat close to the fire.
I did not intend to make this a history lesson at the time I first added this topic as one of my occupations on my early web site. At that time it only included my involvement with the business. However, I had so many requests about how the business got started back then, that I felt perhaps I should include a little Early History about the florist first this time around.
Although it is an interesting part of my childhood, I will not be covering anything associated with the farming activities, chores or other things not considered an actual part of My Occupation in the floral industry. Some day I may add it to my biography area for those interested, but not right away.
Those born and raised in the Floral business will understand why the duties involved appear so sketchy! In this business, one basically does what needs to be done at the time it needs to be done, regardless of what the job would entail.
When a fellow calls near closing time after remembering he had better not go home without something since it's their wedding anniversary or his wife's birthday, it's always the Florist that must hop into action and save his neck!
The history of our families floral business truly could be considered a rags to riches (then back to rags again) saga, but based solely on the long hours and hard work of my ancestors, then killed in the last generation by a new crooked government.
After my Great-great Grandfather George turned 21, he sailed here from Strasbourg (Dieffenbach) Germany in 1849, it took some time in those days to wind his way Westward to eventually arrive and settle in the small French community located along the Des Peres River Valley in 1850. His learned trade was as a Wagon-Maker but it would take quite a bit of money to establish that trade here, so to achieve that first goal, he cracked rock by hand for road building until he could establish his business. His ultimate goal was to buy a farm and get settled in, raising both produce and his favorite flowering plants.
Similar to today's automobile and large appliance business, the sale of wagons to poor immigrant farmers, no matter how well constructed, was often a one-time and in many cases a once in a lifetime purchase for them, so he relied heavily on the barrel making business for a short time until his wagons became a demand item as the city grew rapidly.
It wasn't until after his wagon business was a success that he met and married his wife Catherine H.
George and his new wife Catherine purchased a 17 acre farm in 1857 on what is now known as Manchester Road, at that time it was named Market Street because it led to the French Market and to the downtown St. Louis area markets. Truck Farming was a way of life, how you sustained yourself and your family, but that did not hinder him from later producing the many Flowering Plants he had his heart set on raising.
This 1862 plat map from the Missouri Historical Society clearly shows the initial 17 acre farm they had purchased together, along with the 48 acre tract he acquired over time immediately to the North of his first purchase. Also shown is how the new Market Street/Manchester Road had cut through the corners of the various farms that were already established in the area.
Of the two 1878 plat maps studied, the official plat map shows the initial 17 acre farm as 16.34 acres with a new 8+- acre section to the left and an additional 19.27 acres of the upper 48 acre tract he eventually purchased in its entirety. Thus within only 10 years they had expanded their family farm considerably.
Another 1878 Postal Map shows a different owner, but old deeds show that Great-great Grandfather divided that 8 acres first lengthwise into two 4 acre tracts and then later divided and sold the South East quadrant, abutting his farm, to the Mertz family. The 1878 Postal Map shows the entire 48 acres to the North as belonging to George and Catherine, so it is possible one map is from early in the year and the Postal Area map was from the latter part of the year.
George and Catherine had only one son they named George Jr. who worked diligently on the family farm from a very young age. Like his father, he loved the Flowing Plants the best of all.
My Great Grandfather, George Jr., had met Antonia B. when he was 24 years old and they were soon married. His father expanded the family homestead so that George Jr. and his family would have their own separate quarters. He expanded the home even further so Antonia's mother could be cared for during her old age.
Antonia's father was a widower who married Catherine R. also a widow and together they purchased a 15 acre farm further out along Manchester Road where Antonia was born. He was in what today would be called the Real Estate business. Antonia's father Franz died when she was only 9-1/2 years old, after his death, her mother purchased a home and land in the Des Peres area where she met George Jr.
George Jr. and his wife Antonia raised Vegetables, Flowering Plants and added Cut Flowers to the products they sold at the French Market. They also provided many of the display Plants and Cut Flowers to the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair.
George and Antonia had 8 children (the first only lived for 9 days), who were most helpful on the family farm.
Although they did raise vegetables and had started a couple of orchards, Plants and Cut Flowers proved to be their most profitable crops. As more exotic flowers and seasonal plants came into demand and with the Worlds Fair coming up, George purchased 5 acres from I. F. Wellhaller in which to build 3 greenhouses to insure enough production for the Fair.
Some family records state that he built the 3 greenhouses for his son George F. but they actually went to his oldest brother Joseph, as George was still to young at the time. Later George built new modern greenhouses on the section of land his father gave to him, which was the original 17 acre farm.
George Jr. purchased many parcels of land during his lifetime, most of which adjoined the initial farm of his father, which had now grown quite large as well. One 9 acre tract of a 23.8 acre tract he purchased on the East of Bopp Road was donated (sold for $1.00) to St. Clement Church! The remainder of that tract was sold to the developer of Bayberry Hills subdivision. The official plat map (shown above from 1934 when the town was incorporated) shows that the land was already subdivided for his surviving children.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words! It's easy to see from this 1940 aerial photograph that not only did my Grandfather George F. have numerous greenhouses, but at that time they were also still a working farm with chickens, livestock and personal use vegetable gardens. He and his wife Anna B. built a lavish all brick home, state of the art 100 foot Weiderholt Chimney for the then modern stoker boilers and a few other homes and buildings as well.
Anna's father owned a 30 acre farm further east along Manchester Road near Woodlawn Avenue.
Not shown in this picture, but can be deduced from the 1878 plat map and preceding stories, my Grandfathers brothers each had greenhouses, as mentioned, Joseph received 3 greenhouses to which he added several more to his range. I don't know if Uncle Otto built greenhouses as he maintained the orchards, but Uncle John had several. My Grandfather purchased back from his brothers their greenhouses and orchards and added them back to the family farm. By combining his greenhouses with his brothers greenhouses, the family was well on the way to becoming one of the largest glass covered farms (greenhouse complexes) in the area.
Although Great Grandfather was truly the first to build glass greenhouses in the area, William A. Meier was the first to be recognized as a Florist. He is often credited with building the first greenhouses in Des Peres in 1904. This is primarily because the Des Peres Postal division was along the West edge of our families farm and thus our farm was considered at the time the historical records were written, to be in the Kirkwood Postal division and was not included in the early Des Peres history. As Des Peres grew and before Kirkwood could annex more of the area, the City of Des Peres was founded and incorporated, by my Grandfather and others, which placed our farm very near the center of the new City of Des Peres, "The City of Flowers".
An interesting little tidbit about glass greenhouses and the rapid expansion of the greenhouse industry in the Des Peres area. In 1860 there were only 178 commercial greenhouses in the entire United States. By 1909 there were 105 million square feet under glass, mostly in coastal and southern areas. A whopping 315 thousand square feet of these glasshouses were condensed in the Des Peres area and within the tiny City Limits of Des Peres after it's incorporation.
I doubt if my father Vincent (like most other farming families) ever had an actual starting date in the floral business. After school chores and the work that needed to be done on the farm was just a matter of fact part of everyday life. Most of dad's Uncles that Grandfather pulled back up again were working there in various departments, most often in their own original greenhouses or land areas as before.
As dad was growing up, he was required to work for one or more years for each Uncle, and in each department of the business, so he had a complete knowledge of the entire operation when his time came to take over the department he would finally be settled into. Grandfather was a sharp cookie and knew which of his children would do best in which department, even years before the kids probably even knew themselves and had let them know the department he wanted them to take over for him. Each did take over their respective departments, one after the war and the rest after finishing college.
Dad's father, my Grandfather, died fairly early thrusting his children headlong into the business. Although my dad was 34 at the time of his fathers death, none of the children had yet worked under him directly as was intended to learn some of his unique business prowess. My dad was slightly more fortunate than his brothers as the department he was assigned was Cut Flowers, the same department that Grandfather normally worked in, so a lot of Grandpa rubbed off on my Father!
Just as my father grew up in the business, I did likewise, so technically do not have an actual bonafide starting date. I worked in the Cut Flower Shop and often in the Greenhouses since I was knee high to a grasshopper and throughout most of my grade school and high school years. However, during my latter Senior High School years, it was a real job with a set starting and quitting time and I punched the clock just like everyone else.
I loved working in the Cut Flower Shop, but this Real Job on the clock also started my apprenticeship. I had to walk in my father's and Uncles shoes so to speak and learn each and every department in the company from the ground up, literally. Although I was eldest child of my father, my dad's oldest brother had three boys older than myself, who more or less set the pace for the rest of us. In other words, we all had to learn to till the open air soil (farming) long before being allowed inside one of the glasshouses. For each of us, the department our fathers headed up was the last department we would be working in and we were all expected to take Business Administration in college to round out our overall knowledge.
After completing phase one of my apprenticeship I was moved into the Field Growing division of the company, which was both outdoors and in Saran Houses. Saran houses are simply screened in outdoor growing areas, still open to all the elements, the Saran only protected against larger insects and birds. Much of what we raised in the Saran houses were seed bearing crops and fall harvest cut flowers often pompon's. As winter was approaching and the outdoor areas being closed down, I was moved into the glasshouses to the Bed Raised Cut Flower division. We had different names for each division that wouldn't make sense to most folks. EG: Down at Joe's, Back at Otto's, in the Louie Louie, down in the Dog Houses or above the Bulb Cellar, etc. We finally placed names on each of the greenhouses for the benefit of new employee's who were totally lost when told where they should appear by our pet names for each area. There was also a map above each time clock showing these silly little names we used as well. I had started my Junior year in high school shortly after starting in the glasshouses.
Within the company we had both Wholesale and Retail divisions, besides what we raised for our own consumption. I started in the Bed Raised Cut Flowers for in-house use first and after handling that for over half the winter was moved into the same Bed Raised Cut Flowers but the Wholesale Cut Flowers division. Sometimes these two areas overlap each other also if we have a shortfall or windfall on certain crops. Supply and Demand often dictated what we sent to market and what we kept for ourselves to use. I worked in this department until after the spring thaw and outdoor work was ready to commence again.
The majority of our glasshouses are used for both Wholesale and Retail potted plants. It takes time for things to grow so plants got moved from one area to another quite often. So working in the greenhouses is not really, look at all the pretty flowers, it's more like, slimy clay pots of dirt with a hybrid weed sticking out the top, that need to be placed in heavy trays and toted around from hither to yon. Seasonal crops usually stay put but get spaced out as they grow, so it's still moving slime covered heavy pots around to make more growing room. As plants reach maturity, the choicest plants are relocated to our Retail sales area, or moved back to the Retail inventory greenhouses where wholesale buyers will not see them, although they can see what are in our retail areas with no problems. Most buyers just headed straight to our Wholesale Division bypassing the Retail greenhouses completely. Plants seem to always be on the move, either to make growing room, to get relocated to other areas, loaded onto trucks or packaged for shipping. Not to mention all the painstaking care they must be given to insure as little loss as possible. There is a whole lot more to raising plants than meets the eye!
During the end of my Junior year in High School year I was moved into Retail Plant Sales for a short time before FINALLY getting back into the Cut Flower Shop where I belonged and where I like to be as well. But suddenly, my old cushy and menial jobs I was accustomed to doing were no longer a part of my agenda. Although, through osmosis, I was fairly adept at the larger floral design, it turns out, there really was only a couple of things I really could do. I knew nothing about making nosegays, corsages, wedding arrangements or how to select the types of flowers nor how to handle or treat them so they would hold up longer than anyone else's ever could. Put simply, I had a LOT to learn, much more than I ever realized went on in there and dad wanted to make sure I became an expert on doing each phase of his department. In all honesty, working for dad was the hardest lesson I ever had to learn, he truly did have the hardest department to head up of them all! The Cut Flower Shop was also the accounting end of the business, for the whole place, so that increased what I had to learn tenfold.
I spent my entire Senior year learning every phase of the Cut Flower business! I think inventory control was probably the second hardest part to learn, with accounting taking first place, simply due to the size of our company and the ever changing laws for employers and concerning taxes. Flowers are a short lived perishable, so overbuying can kill you just as fast as under-buying and not being able to supply your customers demands, either way, you lose money. Although there was a lot to learn concerning the proper arranging of flowers, that aspect almost came naturally to me, except for a few things here and there that were slightly harder for me to learn. In the end, I did meet my dad's expectations and could outshine any designer on the place and in some cases in the whole town for that matter. Once I completed all of my required phases, dad more or less let me take a breather. Graduation was coming up and I was already enrolled in evening college classes to learn accounting for the last quarter of my high school days. After graduation, I did take a nice long breather and worked in other occupations for a time, but still worked every holiday and times they were overloaded with work at the Cut Flower Shop and sometimes even in the Greenhouses, basically where ever help was needed most and I had time to help out.
Within about 6 years or in 1973 to be exact, I was back full-time at the Florist handling both maintenance duties as well as floral arranging. I had designed, developed and constructed several new and innovative plus started a couple more sideline businesses associated with the industry. One of these was Colonial Ribbon Gilding Company, where I printed on Florist Ribbons mostly for funeral banners and the like, but it also included twin ribbons on football game corsages as well. And while speaking of ribbons, the numerous bolts of ribbon in use and all the various colors and sizes of each available often created quite a mess for inventory, storage and usage of same. So one of the items I made was a unique ribbon rack and dispenser to hold all the ribbons in their proper places, and they could not be moved to mix things back up again. Refilling the rack was done simply by pulling two levers to open the case and ribbon holding pegs forward. I also developed a new planting area in the greenhouse were we assembled the small decorative ceramic planters sent as gifts. Some of the items I constructed for use in the flower shop other designers and florists wanted also, so I ended up making like 35 spray tables to sell to them.
I was heavily into hydroponics, so quite often after around 1978, took short leaves of absence to oversee the construction of yet another rooftop greenhouse that I was noted for. Plus start and run other hydroponic and hydroculture facilities which will be mentioned elsewhere. Almost everything I ever did was running concurrent to my employment at the flower shop, and there were so many things, it can sometimes get confusing as to whether or not I was coming and going.
I had mentioned maintenance as one of my duties at the flower shop. During the years I lived right next door in my Grandfathers old home, I had established a woodworking shop, mechanics shop, and a tool sharpening business. This is also where I manufactured many things for the flower shop and greenhouses, kept the fleet of vehicles humming and hired others to do most of the outside work we took in for the sharpening business. So even though I was establishing other businesses both local and at other locations, I was still working at the florist virtually full-time, utilizing extended lunch hours and ducking out early to keep abreast of everything else. Plus taking various classes in horticulture and business in the evenings. I'm surprised I didn't burn myself completely out during those hectic years.
I took another break from the florist in 1980 to establish a couple of other businesses that need my full attention until they were stable, but was back at the florist full-time again within a couple of years. I think it goes without saying that I worked at the florist on every major holiday as usual, regardless of what else I may have been doing at the time. Dad was still the head man in the Cut Flower Shop even though I did have many managerial duties to help lighten his load, essentially I performed most of the same duties as hired employees and then of course the things we handled ourselves that we wouldn't ask an employee to do plus besides working as a designer, I handled most of the inventory and purchasing duties. It was business as usual for quite a long time, until I was asked to help get EPCOT off the ground.
When I did return home from EPCOT where I handled the displays in the Kraft Land Exhibit of hydroponics, I had to tend to many of my businesses first before returning to the florist. But dad had a serious heart attack and I had to step in instantly to fill his shoes. I finally had a taste of what it was like to run the whole place on my own. During my time at the helm we were able to handle more orders with less overtime than in any prior year! Simply because I did not do things the way Grandpa or Dad did them, I had my own ideas of efficiency and they paid of handsomely too. The employees were quite pleased they didn't have to sleep at their tables and virtually live their during the holidays. A few grumbled about not getting the overtime they were accustomed to, but a fat little bonus for everyone stopped that in it's tracks.
The City of Des Peres was virtually taken over by outside politicians in later years. Their greed for money dictated they wipe out all the remaining farms and force the greenhouse industry out of existence in order to build massive shopping malls and office buildings to line their own pockets. As most of the other greenhouses in the area, we too were hit with restrictions that prohibited most of our lifelong operations from continuing. The new politicians had made running anything of a horticultural nature virtually impossible. It didn't matter that my Grandfather had founded the city, nor was the first and long time Mayor, they wanted the industry completely shut down. The City of Flowers was to quickly become the City of Unbearable Dictated Taxes and Laws.
Combined with the above and due to the ever increasing fuel costs and 12+ acres under glass to heat, despite installing new higher efficiency heating plants a couple of times, the Florist and Greenhouses were sold in 1984 to make way for a new shopping center. My cousin George built new modern insulated greenhouses to carry on the business and I had a massive hydroculture business established downtown. So thus ended our 71 years as "The Wayside Florist"........ Yes our history above shows we were in the Plant and Cut Flower business for well over a century, however, it was in 1913 when my Grandfather incorporated the business as a highly recognized Florist. One would be hard pressed to try and locate anyone that was not fully pleased with our service and prices. There were no middlemen to cause higher prices, "From Greenhouse To You" was our byline! Always a Fair Price was our Motto!