News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

January 11, 2013

A fading flower: Longtime Terre Haute business closing doors

TERRE HAUTE — One of Terre Haute’s oldest flowers falls this month, taking more than a century of family tradition into history.

Dale Miller waxed nostalgic Wednesday afternoon as his family’s business prepares for closure due to ongoing financial struggles. Miller Floral Co., Inc. was first established in Terre Haute in 1911 by his great-grandfather George Weber, who drew from his own father’s experience selling plants and flowers in Louisville, Ky.

Dale’s great-great-grandfather, George, was a skilled stone carver whose work remains in many of that community’s historic cemeteries, but he operated a business growing and delivering flowers on the side. A picture of the white-bearded man driving a horse-and-buggy full of flowers remains part of the family legacy, featured prominently on the company’s Facebook site.

“A long line of artistic people,” Dale said, describing a family business which has survived many a recession and even the Great Depression in its three-century span.

But even his great-grandfather had to close operations temporarily during the Great Depression, switching gears from flowers to vegetables as people chose between food and decor. But even that dark spot in the country’s history had a light somewhere in the distance, and Dale said that hasn’t been the case in this most recent, lingering recession.

“It’s lasted so long,” he said of America’s economic woes which have included rampant housing foreclosures, bankruptcies and high unemployment. “And it was so deep. It hit a lot of people in the pocket this time.”

Even regular customers are simply choosing less expensive items, and overall business is down 48 percent since 2007, he said.

“We used to grow and sell over 200,000 poinsettias every year. And this year we’re at just 48,” he said. “Four … eight.”

During his great-grandfather’s run, the store took in as an employee then 13-year-old William C. Miller, a move which proved integral to the future generations.

“And he married the boss’ daughter, Iris,” Dale chuckled. “All that side of the family had daughters named after flowers.”

William Miller’s sons, William Jr., and Mike, eventually took over the business with Dale’s cousin, Pamela Miller Kleptz. Both Mike, Dale’s father, and William Jr. live in Florida now, he said, adding Pamela died in 1994 from cancer.

By that point, Edgar’s original business plan of wholesaling flowers to local “five and dimes” had expanded considerably, and the business boasted as many as eight locations at times, as well as greenhouses. The family opened the current location at the corner of South Seventh Street and Davis Avenue in 1975, and in later years bought up the neighboring lots, all of which were sold last year.

Dale, 49, graduated from Terre Haute North Vigo High School and Indiana State University with a degree in graphic design. After school, he worked in Chicago and New York for plant companies and managed interior landscaping inside large commercial properties, coming back to Terre Haute in 1989.

“I came back to help the family,” he said.

And running greenhouses and floral stores is a lot of work.

Dale recalled sleeping in one of the operations’ boiler rooms with his brother on winter nights when they were kids, checking to make sure the temperature remained constant. From his bank of memories, he drew the sum $50,000, which was the company’s heating bill one month in 1979.

The sheer amount of work, coupled with dwindling sales amid a bad economy, led Dale to dissuade his own children from the business. And while the closure set for Jan. 30 is extremely hard on both sides of his family, it’s simply the way things have to be.

“I’m in it. I don’t want them to do it. Too hard,” he said of his children’s future.

The 5,000-square-foot building at 3425 S. Seventh Street has already been sold and Dale said the company has through Jan. 30 to sell off its inventory. All items must go, from existing stock to the shelving and equipment of the business itself. Steep price reductions are in place, upwards of 75 percent on some items.

Becky Moon, an employee of seven years, said workers there were like family, and the closure is hard.

“I’m sad. I love my job, so that makes it hard,” the floral designer said, noting she doesn’t yet know where she’ll be able to find work.

Raymond Long, 71, said he’s been delivering flowers for 12 years, ever since retiring from Indiana State University where he worked 27 years in food service.

“I enjoyed working here. It’s been a real pleasure,” he said. He doesn’t yet know where he’ll be able to find work next month.

Dale said he’s not sure himself of where he might go, but at present, he’s more concerned about wrapping up the closure. About 95 percent of the store’s business is done via the Internet or telephone now, and he might be able to return in another form at some point, albeit without a high-maintenance building and overhead.

“They’re not taking my name. They’re not taking my talent. If things come around, we might open again,” he said. “My great-grandfather did it.”

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

 

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