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Today We Celebrated

by Meg on 09/27/2011
Apples-In-Basket

Today you may have noticed that our call center was a bit quieter than normal. You might have noted a lag in our tweeting and Facebook responses. If you had visited our office today, you would have found it quiet, and nearly deserted. For on this beautiful September afternoon, in what is considered one of the busiest times of our season, Stark Bro’s employees gathered together to celebrate 10 years under new ownership as the oldest American nursery still in operation.

And celebrate, we did! Because the fact that Stark Bro’s is an almost-200-year-old company is not a trivial thing at all. 10 years ago, Stark Bro’s almost died.

10 Years Ago

We all remember September 11, 2001 for the horrific events brought upon our countrymen and women. Our nation lost thousands of American lives, and two pillars of our freedom and prosperity, in the terrorist attacks in New York City. We’ve cried over this; we’ve been angry, confused and afraid. September 11th was a historical tragedy that will live on in both our minds and the history books. But America was not all dark that day.

As a predominant first world power, the United States has had reason to boast of its American Dream and financial prosperity through the years. Settlers of this land were encouraged to break out of the limitations of status-by-birth, to seize every opportunity and make their way in the world. One of the oldest businesses in the United States was started in just such a way.

195 Years Ago

1816 found a man by the name of James Stark moving from Kentucky to a plot of land in the Louisiana Purchase. On his new land, Stark planted apple scions from his family orchard and started his very own business: Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. At the time, his spot of the Louisiana Territory was sectioned off in the “Missouri Territory”– and Missouri wouldn’t receive statehood until 1821. To this day, the headquarters of Stark’s business resides in what is now Louisiana, Missouri.

The company remained in the Stark family for 178 years, while generation after generation refined the craft of fruit tree and small fruit propagation. Stark Bro’s Nurseries saw such cultural changes as the Civil War, the westward expansion, the creations of the automobile and airplane, the Great Depression, and the technological explosion of the 20th century.

Bankruptcy

Then, in 1994, the company was sold to Foster & Gallagher, a large mail order business. Merely 7 years later (summer 2001), F&G declared bankruptcy, putting most of Stark Bro’s dedicated employees out of work. Now, anyone who has lost a job knows the frustration, pain and fear that can follow. I’m sure that many employees who had been loyal to Stark Bro’s for 20, 30+ years, experienced feelings near betrayal and heartache that summer. Plans were to put the company up for auction in late summer.

Faith & Hope

In a sheer act of faith and hope, many of the recently-laid-off employees of Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. took to budding trees in the fields. They received no pay, as there was no source of income. These folks labored for hours upon hours in the hot summer sun, grafting and budding every rootstock left in the company. See, Stark Bro’s is not just any ol’ company; it’s a people. It’s a fierce loyalty, a family. And they did not want to leave their legacy desolate. Stark Bro’s is a pillar of the American Dream, of the fruit of — not just one family’s hard work, but the sweat and tears of a multitude of families, brought together under the pride of quality and kindness.

The auction for this historical company was held in Chicago the morning of September 11, 2001… a date that may ring an alarming bell in your mind. As the unfolding terrorist attacks that morning put the nation on edge, Chicago itself was seen as a potential target of terrorist operations. The auction almost didn’t take place, nearly sealing to bankruptcy the fate of this age-old American company.

Today

Thankfully (what a beautiful word that is), the auction was moved to a safe location and the sale went through. And this, my friends, was the focal point of our celebration today, a celebration that culminated in a short work day, a few tears and many smiling faces. :)

Today we celebrated the men and women who labored that hot summer in 2001, budding a tree crop that enabled this age-old American company to continue its existence. Today we celebrated the last 10 years under our owners Tim Abair and Cameron Brown. Today we celebrated as Elmer Kidd (a 40-year veteran of the company, now Stark Bro’s Chief Production Officer) indulged us with a generous fish fry. Today we celebrated as Cameron and Tim publicly honored the men and women who continued the crop budding during the summer of 2001– most of them are still with the company!

Again in family-owned hands (as such a company should be), I am proud to say that Stark Bro’s remains one of the oldest businesses in the United States of America. Today we celebrated a tribute to American resilience.

Topics → Stories

20 Comments

  1. Karen Griffey permalink

    Though I am not great at all the Internet communication, I do know quality when I see it. I haven’t ordered that long from here, but the fantastic plants only show me what a dedicated bunch this company has. From the ones in the field, to the ones in the office, even to those who just are there to clean and repair, show how much love and care goes into each and every plant. Just keep up the great work.

    • We strive to present quality products and service for our customers, so it is immensely gratifying when people like you share your appreciation with us. Thank you for such kind words, Karen. :)

  2. Dennis Cunningham permalink

    I have purchased multiple fruit, berry and grape trees and vines for my gardens on Cape Cod from other Companies and have been disappointed. Started buying from Stark Brothers a few years ago and have never BEEN disappointed! Always great products at reasonable prices!

    • That’s fantastic, Dennis! It delights us to hear when our customers are growing their own fruit with great success. If you ever want to share photos of what you have growing, please always feel welcome to on our Facebook Page. Thank you! :)

  3. There’s some great customer support @ starkbros and the web page has a lot of information about caring for your trees and plants. There is also this great social rep there who makes calls on a zucchini.

  4. Lori Jo permalink

    What an inspiring story. I also love your quality plants. I have been buying from Stark Bros. for over 10 years and plan on being a lifelong customer. Cheers!

    • It just goes to show perseverance pays off in everything you do — including growing your own plants and trees! We are pleased to be here growing along side you all the way, Lori Jo! Thank you :)

  5. Carrol permalink

    What an amazing story! I had no idea that Stark Bros had been so close to utter disaster. And for those employees to go about their work with no promise of pay….that’s dedication and faith. My Stark Bros trees that I planted late last fall are thriving, as are the raspberries. I have pre-ordered for this year, and intend to do so for a few years more, until we have all our space filled with Stark Bros products…..because they are reliable.

    • Thank you SO much Carrol. It’s the dedication of our employees and people like you that keeps us going strong. We are grateful to be here growing with you! :)

  6. Nan permalink

    Your story makes me even more proud to have a young orchard full of beautiful Stark Bros apple trees!

    • We’re grateful to be able to share our growing legacy with you, Nan! Here’s to many happy healthy trees and harvests :)

  7. Brian permalink

    I have been buying trees from Stark for more than 20 years, great quality great service. I am still growing my orchard vineyard and every year there is something new to try and something learned. So glad you pulled through those tough times, and I hope that you thrive and persevere. Beautiful story, and nice to know there are people dedicated to their craft and their passion is lived out even in tough times. Stay true.

    • Thank you so much Brian. You just have to take the good with the bad — like how it is out in the orchard. We’re honored to still be here, growing all these years with folks like you!

  8. Chad permalink

    My grandpa was raised on a Stark Orchard! His father ran a Orchard for Paul. When my grandpa was born he was named after Paul Stark. Paul Grover of SC.

    • Chad permalink

      I would love to learn a little more about the company’s history. Maybe some pictures or information about my Great Grandfathers farm he ran for Paul Stark.

    • That’s remarkable, Chad! Do you happen to know where the orchard your grandfather worked was located? I wonder if it’s still around.

      Paul Stark sounds like an incredible man. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him, but a few of the folks still working here at Stark Bro’s worked with him and I hear stories from time to time. He really knew his stuff! :)

  9. Chuck Pifer permalink

    My greatgrandfather bought fruit trees from Stark Bro’s in 1911. The year my dad was born. It was such a large order that a representative was sent by train with the order to insure that they were planted properly. They found that our sub soil was too hard to grow good apple trees, so each tree that was planted they took a bar and made a hole through the sub soil and set off a 1/4 stick of dynamite to losen the sub soil for every tree. I live on the homestead here in PA and about a dozen of these apple trees are still here and producing apples ( mostly northern spys and Baldwins) every year.

    • Chuck, I enjoyed your story very much! I will have to share this with the folks here who will also appreciate it. :) Somehow, I am reminded of that “Good Timber” poem by Douglas Malloch:

      (excerpt)
      The tree that never had to fight
      For sun and sky and air and light,
      But stood out in the open plain
      And always got its share of rain,
      Never became a forest king
      But lived and died a scrubby thing.

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