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In the back workshop and boiler room of Anton’s Greenhouses & Garden Center in Evanston there are a number of especially narrow metal pipe and plywood carts that Gary Anton’s grandfather designed and built to accommodate the greenhouse’s narrow aisles.
As he walked with a visitor through the almost-empty structure Mr. Anton pointed out the aisles and the concrete planting benches on which his family has grown plants year-round for most of the last 70 years. He said that the carts fit the tight passageways perfectly and have been in use since his grandfather built them more than 50 years ago. “They’ve gotten new wheels now and then, but those are the same ones he built.”
Mr. Anton and his employees have been working on clearing out the Pitner Avenue greenhouses, which will close at the end of the month. He and his brother, Rick, who is also his business partner, have another location in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., which they will continue to operate. They will also continue to supply plants to some longtime customers, such as a few Evanston churches and large institutions like Northwestern.
Decades of relationships across the Evanston community have been at the center of the Antons’ family business. Mr. Anton said he believes their customers have been loyal for three reasons: the majority of their plants are grown on-site, customer service has always been a priority, and the Antons grow certain plants that cannot be found elsewhere.
Many of the customers have been coming in for years, some since Mr. Anton was in high school, and he said he hopes they’ll drive the 30 minutes to the Pleasant Prairie location.
That drive will be Mr. Anton’s daily commute during the busy season, but he said that he will mostly work from home during the down months. He said, “I’ll probably be working on the computer quite a bit. Now, that’s something I never thought I’d say.”
Asked how he feels about closing the Pitner Avenue site, which the Antons have sold to a developer, Mr. Anton said it is time. The deciding factor for the Antons was the increase in challenges with their massive 100-year-old boiler, which Mr. Anton’s father bought from another greenhouse, and that has been heating the Pitner Avenue greenhouses since the business began. Mr. Anton said it is increasingly difficult and expensive to repair, that parts are hard to find and that one of the few repairmen who knows how to work on it had told him that he was “pushing his luck.”
A functioning boiler is the heart of a greenhouse; it requires a great deal of attention, even in the age of high technology. This boiler has been at the center of Mr. Anton’s life since he was a teenager and shared the responsibility of feeding it coal. As they transitioned to gas, the work changed, but not the round-the-clock vigilance during colder weather, when having a non-functioning boiler could kill every plant in the building. To ensure that that never happened Mr. Anton had an alarm system that would automatically call him if the boiler was failing.
During a walk through the greenhouses and workshops, Mr. Anton pointed out many areas of disrepair, like cracking concrete plant benches and walkways and deteriorating framework that holds glass window panes in place. He also stopped where his father and other family members wrote their names when they poured the concrete and recalled the days when they all worked on the buildings.
There is a workshop area where Mr. Anton’s maternal grandfather did blacksmithing work making practical tools as well as ornate metalwork, such as the railings and an arbor that are still in use. “He made that arbor for my wife’s father before she and I were born,” he said. The Antons have recently cleared out the rooms where he and his siblings grew up, above the offices and work areas on the first floor. Most of his parents’ furniture has been brought down and some things have gone with his sister to Arizona, where she now lives. But there is still a simple curtain and an aged welcome decoration on one of the doors leading to the family home upstairs.
Mr. Anton said his mother, Rose, played a big role in building the business and ensuring its success. During planting seasons for a number of years she would recruit women from around town to come work during school days, when their children were out of the house. “She’d drive around town and pick them all up and then make them lunch,” he said with a smile.
At the end of the tour of the greenhouses and offices, in the sales area, Mr. Anton laughed and pointed out a low door frame that he has knocked his head on many times over the years. He leaned forward to show where just the week before he had jabbed his scalp with his glasses while he passed through the doorway.
More of his grandfather’s handcrafted carts, which customers are still using, are lined up near a few remaining benches of plants, which are mostly fall varieties. He said he has not fully realized that this place where he spent almost his entire life will soon be demolished. While he reiterated that the time has come he said, “I think it will really get me when it is completely gone.”