The recent closing of Linder’s Garden Center not only represented the loss of a longtime local business, but also marked a poignant end to the “greenhouse era” along Larpenteur Avenue.
For more than a century, growers on or near the avenue sold plants and shrubs, some on both a retail and wholesale basis, to adorn many homes and gardens in this area and beyond.
Names like Gibbs, Rosacker, Hermes, Lebens, Lindig and Linder were associated with businesses that thrived as St. Paul expanded northward and the suburbs bloomed. Their predecessors were farmers, people like Heman Gibbs and Lorenzo Hoyt, who began working the land in Rose Township in about 1850. (Rather than its floral future, the name Rose referred to the man who conducted the original land survey.)
According to a University of Minnesota study, the pioneers initially planted wheat and other large-scale production crops. But as the soil gradually became depleted over the ensuing 50 years, they and those who followed gradually moved into dairy farming and market gardening.
The early years
And in the 1870s, Lorenzo Hoyt began developing what eventually became the 10-acre Hoyt Nursery at Hamline and Hoyt avenues. By the early 1900s the nursery was known for its award-winning iris, peonies and roses, all field grown.
The first greenhouses in the area may have been those of Albert Linder, which he began building in 1901 on Wheelock Parkway. Initially, he grew celery and other vegetables, gradually shifting to cut flowers and flowering plants.
Similarly, Peter Hermes established a truck farm on Larpenteur north of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus in 1906 and soon began adding greenhouses. That operation, too, evolved into the raising of floral crops, roses in particular.
Frank Gibbs, one of Heman’s sons, opened for business on the south side of Larpenteur near Cleveland Avenue in 1912, later taking on an in-law as a partner in Gibbs-Nelson Florists.
In 1920, Nic Lebens began operating on Larpenteur, just east of Lexington Avenue. (Like Lorenzo Hoyt before him, Lebens was a long-serving justice of the peace for Rose Township, sometimes holding court in his dining room.) And there were many, many others.
Time of transition
According to Neil Anderson, professor of floriculture in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science, a big change occurred after World War II.
“It became possible to ship in vegetables from California and elsewhere, and, at that point, many of the early truck gardeners switched over entirely to cut flowers and container-grown plants,” he said.
At first, cut flowers accounted for 80 percent of local production, but when blooms from Florida and California, and later Latin America, entered the market, there was a dramatic shift to bedding plants.
A new generation of growers brought both innovation and creativity. With partners, Nic Lebens Jr. operated flower farms in Guatemala and Florida. In the 1970s, the Hermes family produced cut flowers at their greenhouses in Becker, Minn., using warm wastewater from the Northern States Power plant for heat. Dave and Lil Linder continually expanded and opened the new garden center on the Larpenteur end of their property in 1984.
While all this was going on, the land was becoming more valuable and sought after by developers. Competition from supermarkets and other sellers, both domestic and abroad, intensified. The growers’ ranks began to thin.
The Lebens were hit hard, first by the sudden death of Nic III in 1985, and then his father a year later. Pat Lebens, Nic Jr.’s widow, daughter Jody and son Philip scaled back the operation and kept it going until 2003. Today Pat lives in the Greenhouse Village Cooperative that was erected on the former Leben’s site.
The others faded away, too, and the only remaining link to the past is the Hermes Floral store at 1639 W. Larpenteur Avenue.
Does this trend mean that consumers will eventually rely entirely on big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot for their gardening needs?
“Those stores offer some interesting things, but I hope not,” said the university’s Anderson. “I’d say the take-home lesson is that you constantly need to innovate and be nimble. We have many successful independent retailers who, in addition to offering specialty items and high-quality materials, are very savvy in keeping up with changing consumer tastes with new crops and new varieties.”
Roger Bergerson is longtime Como Park resident who enjoys writing about local history and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.
A shattering experience
On the afternoon of June 23, 1962, a narrow band of tulip-bulb-sized hail pummeled what was then the northern edge of the Twin Cities. Up to 90 percent of the glass in the greenhouses on Larpenteur Avenue, as well as on the university’s St. Paul campus and at the Como Park Conservatory, was broken. Similar incidents over the years encouraged growers to switch to synthetic glazing.
This article has been made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.