Sherrie Hunstad and her family reflect on the history of The Waukon Greenhouse as she nears retirement and the end of Waukon’s oldest family-owned business

All in the family ... The Waukon Greenhouse has been in the family of Sherrie Hunstad since 1928 but that era is now coming to a close with her retirement as of this Friday, June 26. Pictured above, left to right, are Sherrie’s parents, Jim and Helen Johnson, who took over the business in 1961 and ran it until Sherrie and Gil Hunstad purchased the business from her parents in 2002. Submitted photo.

First generation of family ownership ... Pictured above, left to right, are Knute and Verna Quandahl and Vera Kruger displaying some of their floral bounty in the early years of their ownership of The Waukon Greenhouse. The trio were the first generation of the family of current owner Sherrie Hunstad to own the greenhouse, with Sherrie now retiring to bring The Waukon Greenhouse era to a close. Submitted photo.

Through the years ... Pictured above is a photo from the early 20th century that depicts the early years of The Waukon Greenhouse at its original location on First Avenue NW in Waukon. That location expanded to include a larger house where current owner Sherrie Hunstad grew up (pictured below) before Sherrie and Gil Hunstad moved The Waukon Greenhouse to its current location (pictured in lower photo) on Spring Avenue in Waukon. Submitted photos.

by Brianne Eilers

This Friday, June 26 marks the final day for one of Waukon’s oldest businesses, The Waukon Greenhouse.

Sherrie and Gil Hunstad took over the business from Sherrie’s parents, Jim and Helen Johnson, in 2002. Sherrie was basically born and raised in the industry, and the Waukon Greenhouse business has been in her family since 1928.

The original location of the greenhouse was located on First Avenue NW in Waukon, across from the current East Elementary School campus. In 1928 Vera Kruger and Knute and Verna Quandahl purchased the greenhouse from Mrs. Van Nice, wife of Presbyterian Church minister Pastor Van Nice. This was the first generation of Sherrie’s family to own the business.

The business started out small with a residence and a couple of small greenhouses. Jim explained that in the early days, Knute would have to sleep next to the furnace in order to hand-feed the fire and keep the greenhouses heated. Eventually they were able to move to a stoker box, which augered the coal in, then an oil furnace and then natural gas. Vera, Knute and Verna grew bedding and vegetable plants, cut flowers and poinsettias in the greenhouses. Additionally, there was a four-acre nursery at the location of the present-day West Side Lumber offices with two acres of pasture and two acres of trees for a time.

In 1961, Jim and Helen, the second generation of family to own the greenhouse, took over. They continued growing plants and flowers and expanded their services by planting urns, delivering them to area cemeteries and then picking them back up in the fall. At one point in the business, they were planting and delivering around 500 urns to cemeteries, all over Allamakee County and in surrounding counties.

This year, they estimated that they have 300 or so urns in 30 cemeteries. Sherrie noted that the number has been declining these last few years. “As a certain generation is gone, we lose urns,” she said.

Gil noted that Pop’s Produce will be taking over the urn side of the business. “We didn’t want to let that go and we’re glad that someone local can take that on,” he said.

Jim did a lot of the work with the propagation of some of the plants. “Jim was always very good with the geraniums and poinsettias,” Helen said. Jim explained that for quite some time the majority, if not all, of the geraniums they grew came from a certain plant from 1955.

While her parents owned the greenhouse, Sherrie and her siblings lived, worked and played there. She remembered when the old high school burned down, which had been right across the street from where they lived. She also reminisced about playing in the greenhouses when it was cold outside in the winter.

She has been working in the Waukon Greenhouse in some capacity for 47 years. In 2002, Sherrie and Gil purchased the business from her parents. In 2009 they moved the location of the retail store to its current location on Spring Avenue in downtown Waukon.

The location in the northwest part of town just wasn’t seeing the traffic it once did, so they decided it would be prudent to find a location that was more accessible to the public. “We’re a block off Main Street,” Sherrie said, adding that they felt it was both a benefit for their business and the City of Waukon.

“We always have had someone come in to the store at this location,” Gil noted, saying that there have maybe been two days since they’ve opened the store on Spring Avenue when no one came in, and those days were terrible weather. They built a new retail shop with a small greenhouse attached at that Spring Avenue location.

Eventually, they decided to quit growing bedding plants, due to the cost of maintaining the operations, but continued to do floral arrangements and carry gift items.

Over the years, they have seen many changes to the way things are done in their industry. Sherrie explained that at one time most of the cut flowers used by florists were grown in the United States. Jim made many trips to Prairie du Chien, WI in the middle of the night to meet the train from Chicago to pick up flowers. He also made trips to Decorah to meet the bus and get flowers in. “That was easier than going to Prairie,” he said.

Now, Sherrie estimated that maybe 90% of the flowers used by florists are grown in South America and come to shops through regional distributors on a truck. The number of deliveries the companies do in a week has slowed down and Sherrie has had to really plan ahead with the fresh flowers, as they are a perishable product. Storms and disasters can wipe out a flower crop and delays in shipping can cause shortages on some items that customers may be specifically wanting.

Another change they’ve noted is that the funeral industry has changed a lot over the years. “At one time it was just floral arrangements,” Sherrie explained, but over the years things have moved more towards gifts and mementos that will last longer than a cut flower arrangement.

In general, they say the floral side of the business has been slowly decreasing. For example, at one point they were doing 300 corsages for Mother’s Day, but that number has dwindled to almost nothing. But they’ve adapted to meet the needs of customers through all the changes.

Gil and Sherrie’s children are all grown now, and no one had an interest in taking over the family business. The greenhouse has been for sale for the past five years. The building and lot upon which it sits have been recently purchased by Kwik Trip Properties. Gil and Sherrie don’t know what the plans for the building and lot are after their business and the existence of Waukon Greenhouse come to an end June 26.

After being in the industry for 47 years, Sherrie says there are things that she will miss, the main thing being the people. She’s seen all aspects of life, from the joy of a birth or marriage to the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one. “I’ve been there to support a lot of people, and being from a small town, I know 90% of them,” she said.

One side of the business that people may not realize is that having a greenhouse and floral shop is a 24/7, 365-day commitment. Gil likened it to farming indoors. Plants and flowers still need to be watered and cared for, and during the winter months, when plants are in the greenhouse, growing conditions have to be monitored. They were also on call all the time in the event of a funeral.

Sherrie noted that if they did find time to get away, there had to be someone available to step into her shoes if there was a funeral or to check on things to make sure that plants were being cared for and growing conditions were good in the greenhouses.

Sherrie is looking forward to having more time to spend with her family and friends, especially her grandkids. She’s hoping that she and Gil can do some traveling in the future. A community open house was held at the greenhouse Thursday, June 11 in honor of Sherrie’s retirement.

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