Lately I’ve had customers ask: “Why is there a house in the garden center?” I got to thinking about the many memories have been made in that old house and the many people who called it their home over the last 60 some years.
My grandparents, Albert and Rose Behnke, decided to build the house after a trip to Germany in the mid-to-late 1950s. Their original home was falling apart and was in the middle of the retail garden center (where our Garden Shop is now). This would be a better location while still being close to the business. But then two employees (actually apprentices from the Netherlands), Jack Vanderbuilt and his brother, needed a place to stay.
Shortly after, in June of 1959, my Uncle Roland Behnke, his wife Ele and daughter Jeanne moved in the house. Roland completed 6 years in the Air Force and had returned to work for his father while going back to college. He was also driving a school bus. Meanwhile, my mother Sonja returned home that Fall with my brother, John Peter, and I from California, following her divorce. She moved in with her brother and we all lived in that wonderful brick house until around 1961 when Roland and Ele moved to New Jersey. (In 1962 Roland was recalled to service during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He ended up staying in the Air Force until he retired and eventually returned to serve as President of Behnke Nurseries.)
At this point, my grandfather built a bedroom and bathroom in the basement. There was an outside entrance which made it a great apartment. That way, while my mother, brother and I lived upstairs, the basement could be used for the men who came to work for Behnke’s from Germany and the Netherlands. Leo Bicknese (former VP of Behnke’s) along with Helmut Jaehnigen (former Woody Plant Manager/Buyer of Behnke’s) are two I remember well. Helmut always has lots of stories to tell of those good old days.
Later, Joachim Festerling (better known as Joe) came over from Germany for a time and lived in the house. When he returned years later, he married my mother and we moved out of the house to West Friendship. What a time that was for me. I mean really! Moving me away from Beltsville at 14 years old. I did not think I would ever get over that. But I did.
After that, a string of Behnke’s employees moved in and out, including my brother, Hank Doong (our current CFO), Alfred Millard (now President) and Marian and Bill Parsley (our current Annuals Buyer and former CFO, respectively).
The primary requirement for living in the house was that you would be the night watchman. You had to check the heaters in winter, were the first to be called when the alarms went off at night and, of course, had to walk the grounds to make sure everything was locked up nice and tight. Sound easy? Not so much… I think they all learned how to be plumber/electricians during their time there.
Now, Larry Bristow and his family live in the house. Larry has been there longest of all — around 20 years. When he moved in, he was the Assistant Manager of the Garden Shop. Now, he is our Operations Manager.
This old brick house has had so many people call it “Home” over the years and so many memories made in it. If it could talk, I’m sure it would have great stories to tell.
Here is a picture of the Wicomico House today. I tried to get the same angle as Helmut did 50 years ago. You can hardly see the house behind all the foliage but the Magnolia is still there, and is as tall as the phone pole. Below is a another picture that shows the full height of the Magnolia.
by Stephanie Fleming, Vice President – Behnke Nurseries