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September 13, 2013

Walnut Ridge: 100 years and still growing

Community staple to celebrate a century in business Saturday

JEFFERSONVILLE — Symbols can be found in many places and things, including the humble carnation.

In 1937, the Ohio River flooded, putting river gauge levels at 57 feet in the Louisville area and setting a record that stands to this day. The flood destroyed homes and businesses alike, including the J. Julius Sons Florist along Maple Street in downtown Jeffersonville. The flood waters even reached the business’s Hamburg Pike nursery. When the Julius family picked through the debris of what was left of their horticultural offerings, it was the store’s carnations that had weathered the flood and survived.

In some ways, Walnut Ridge Nursery & Garden Center — formerly J. Julius Sons Florist — can be likened to the carnation. The family-owned business has demonstrated its hardiness time and again, surviving a century of wars, economic ups and downs, and the rise and fall of competitors both large and small. The Julius family has had to restructure the business, lopping off smaller branches of the company and nurturing those ready to blossom and flourish.

Today’s Juliuses will spend Saturday celebrating the 100th year of their family business by thanking its customers for their success, reflecting on their past and looking to the future.

“In an industry that’s actually struggling a little bit throughout the United States and being in a small town like we are, we feel very, very proud that we made it 100 years,” said David Julius, company president and part-owner.

Walnut Ridge Nursery & Garden Center’s 100th anniversary celebration Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., will feature special prices, door prizes and games as a thank-you to the community that supported it for the last century. Included will be the hardy carnation, which will be sold at prices considered fair in a bygone era.

“We just want all of our customers that have come in over the last 100 years or stretched out over generations to come in and enjoy the day with us,” co-owner and Dennis Julius said.

Walnut Ridge’s business model has changed significantly over the years. In the 50s, Walnut Ridge focused on wholesale to retail locations throughout the area, but began to emphasize retail sales as garden centers came to prominence throughout the country. The shift to focus on retail continued in the 60s when the company built and located two temporary greenhouses in Louisville at locations along Preston and Dixie highways.

But today, the focus is back on wholesale. Although the original Hamburg Pike location still welcomes retail customers, wholesale locations in Louisville and Evansville do business with companies that were once regarded as competitors.

“Every day’s a new challenge, but the people that are surviving adapt, maybe change a few things and keep moving,” David Julius said. “I can tell you that in our industry, everyone that didn’t adapt is gone.”

David and Dennis Julius are part of the fourth generation of family members working for Walnut Ridge, and the fifth generation has already arrived, learning what has worked in the past and offering ideas that will be put to the test in the 21st Century.

“With the next generation in, it’s kind of exciting ... when we got out of college, my brother and I, we were full of ideas and energy, and we still are, but it’s kind of nice to see that younger group come in and say, ‘Hey, let’s try this,’” Dennis Julius said.

Although Walnut Ridge is now regarded as one of the area’s largest companies in the industry, it still faces challenges. The buying power of big-box retailers like  Home Depot, Lowe’s and others have forced the Juliuses to tighten their belts, as has the cost of labor for Walnut Ridge’s 100 or so employees.

The Julius family traces its heritage back to Germany, where the family motto was “immer arbeiten,” which means “always working.” For 100 years, that’s what the Juliuses have done, and there’s no end in sight.

“Walt Bales used to say, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get,’” Dennis Julius said. “We’re kind of like that, as well. Our work is kind of like milking cows. Every day you’ve got to be there.”

 

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Jamie Collins, Scottsburg, works on lesson plans in her classroom at Scribner Middle School on Monday afternoon. Collins was the recipient of a $100 gift card to the Your Educational Supply Store from the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. Education Foundation. All first-time teachers in the school system received a gift card to help them set up their classrooms.

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