No one knows whether Mathias Hoffmann liked turnips and radishes.
They do know that at the beginning of the 20th Century, Mathias was supporting a family with those vegetables — raising, picking and hauling them to a downtown market, where he sold them from the back of his truck, says his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Hoffman. He traded his root crops, too, for the varied fruits of his neighbors’ labor.
While Mathias’s preference in food has disappeared, along with the final “n” in his Luxembourger name, his farm has not.
One hundred years after his 1908 purchase of a plot at 3800 Old Glenview Road for his truck garden, his land remains in the family. A fourth generation of Hoffmans tills his ground, operating the family business now known as West End Florist and Garden Center on Mathias Hoffmann’s farm.
Birth order was an important predictor of who would emigrate from Luxembourg a century ago, says Ms. Hoffman. The country adhered to the ancient law of primogeniture, whereby the eldest son inherited the family land. Younger siblings had a choice, she says: Be a slave to a brother, or “start fresh in the United States.”
Many immigrants from Luxembourg who settled in Evanston took on the job they knew best, establishing truck farms and, later, greenhouses, that extended the growing season. At one time, says Ms. Hoffman, the area that is now the far northwest corner of Evanston was thickly populated with them.
Only the Hoffmans’ “farm” still stands on Old Glenview Road, the others lost, Ms. Hoffman speculates, to skyrocketing property values and suburban sprawl.
“Very few businesses survive to the fourth generation,” she says – “and even fewer live to be 100.” She attributes her family’s success to “communication between the generations” and to “love of the industry. Every generation had someone who loved it,” she says.
Another part of their secret must lie in the family’s willingness to adapt and change with the times.
The Hoffmanns expanded their truck garden to include cut flowers when the 1920s and ’30s saw a spike in their popularity, she says. That was when they added “Florist” to the company name – and removed an “n” from theirs. By the 1950s they were accommodating more requests for annual bedding plants fueled by a gardening boom.
With the 1960s and ’70s fad for houseplants (“and macramé,” she notes), West End became “one of the larger producers in the area,” even selling to Jewel, Dominick’s and Kroger stores. In the 1980s gardeners found even less time to plant annuals from seed; they flocked to buy the annual bedding plants grown in West End greenhouses.
Elizabeth Hoffman made her own changes after becoming manager in 1997. A finance and management graduate of Indiana University, she says she is always looking for year-round income to support what she terms “expensive real estate.”
She has expanded the garden center’s selection of furniture, fountains, pots and tools. “Gardening gadgets are huge,” she says. “Everyone is looking for a way to make things easier.” In the fall they sell pumpkins, cornstalks and gourds. And in addition to carrying a huge array of Christmas trees and 25 kinds of greens in winter, they plow snow.
Ms. Hoffman also changed the focus of nursery operations. She now seeks out growers to produce the “newest, coolest” in annual flowers and has turned the West End greenhouses over to raising all the company’s perennials – 13,000 of them in 350 varieties this year, including roses.
West End has signed on to the green movement. Ms. Hoffman says she is “a big fan” of integrated pest management, the minimal use of pesticides. She advises “the right plant in the right place,” because happy plants are less susceptible to disease and insect damage. She advocates mechanical (pick off the bugs by hand) and cultural (for fungus, prune limbs to promote air circulation) control when possible. Only as a last resort does she condone pesticides, and she has suggestions for natural soaps and oils rather than chemicals.
As a perk of the company’s large size, West End is working with one grower to develop a completely organic line of vegetables and herbs. Ms. Hoffman anticipates “a push from people wanting to grow their own food in the next five to ten years.” Recent scares with food contamination would be one motivation, she says.
Another impetus, Ms. Hoffman says, would be a desire to get back to basics. “We have lost the agrarian side of the United States,” she says; she predicts people will want to reclaim it.
Elizabeth Hoffman’s parents, George and Patty, are still active in the company. Her brother heads operations at their nursery and garden center in Lake County. But Elizabeth, the great-granddaughter of a truck farmer who immigrated to America to escape old prototypes, is the first woman to head the family company. Hers is the vision for its second century.