Recorded on April 13, 2012. Length: 29 Minutes.
JH: Today is April 13, 2012. Good morning and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. My name is Judy Hughes and I am pleased to welcome Terri Jones and Cindy Ullrich of Red’s Garden Center. Their family has lived and worked in Northbrook for 45 years and have been an important part of the community. We are so glad to have both of you here. Let’s start out by asking you a little bit about your parents and when they first came to Northbrook.
CU: Okay – our parents are Red and Loretta _______. They are both deceased and we came to Northbrook in 1967 from Des Plaines. We had a roadside stand and farm there where we sold fruits and vegetables which they raised. The property was sold so we looked for a new location. It is kind of funny because at that time Dundee was a two-lane highway. They had the insight, along with my grandparents, to pick out that piece of property at the corner of Dundee and Huehl Road. We started out with a little wagon on a gravel parking lot and a year later, the building that stands now was built. That’s how it began.
JH: And did you live on that property?
CU: We lived there from 1967 until my parents moved to another location in 1977. Was married that year and my husband and I moved into that house and raised our family there. My sister also grew up in that house but when my parents moved, she moved with them.
TJ: I used to get off the school bus when I was very young and there were little piles of firewood in the front yard that I would walk in between until I got to the house. We sold firewood right out of the front yard.
CU: At first the business was run out of our family room which was quite a concept because while the business was in its infancy and growing my father held a night job with Standard Oil. He delivered oil to businesses in Chicago. He would come home and sleep a few hours and then get up and go.
JH: At one time there were two businesses there.
CU: My uncle, my mother’s brother, operated the adjacent business. When they retired we acquired that property and now Red’s operates the entire business.
JH: Tell me a little about a typical day at Red’s.
TJ: Well, it starts very early. We are usually there by 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. We open at 7:00. I make lunch for the employees. Usually in peak season about 25 people. Feed them every day. Cindy does a lot of work in the office with the bookkeeping and the computer. We all pitch in and do whatever needs to be done. The day ends at 6 p.m. when we close the doors and we usually are out of there by 6:45 p.m.
JH: Do you grow the flowers that you sell?
CU: A large portion. There are 14 greenhouses. We customize the hanging baskets. About 3/4ths of our inventory for the annual and perennial sales are grown by us. So in winter, we start that project pretty much right after the first of the year. That is pretty intense. In peak season, we probably employ 50 people at one time.
TJ: We also have a nursery in Johnsburg where we grow trees, shrubs and evergreens.
JH: So a lot of those trees which people come to pick up at your site, you have grown in Johnsburg.
JH: I know you said you grew up in that house. Do you know any history of that property?
CU: Yes, a little bit. The original owners were the Trier family and they farmed the entire property at that time. I am told the house was built around 1868 and it still has the original foundation. It’s funny because it typically, all the years of living there, it is basically a farmhouse. Very small closets because they only had one pair of pants and a shirt. I don’t know much about it, but I do know that when we first moved there Sky Harbor Airport was still down the road to the east so that was kind of fun.
JH: Let me just for a second talk about the house. I imagine that the original house is still part of that but has been added on to several times?
CU: Added onto just once – the family room, but remodeled bathrooms, of course, but still pretty much in its original state with the addition of the family room.
JH: Tell me about growing up there. You mentioned Sky Harbor. What was it like? It was a two-lane road.
CU: When we first moved there Charlemagne was being built but we didn’t really have neighbors. St. Norbert’s Church wasn’t there. There was an open field. Galon Nursery was to the west of us.
TJ: The camp with the horses was to the west.
CU: Sunny Acres Day Camp was there with the horses, but they have moved now. There was a horse farm at Sanders and Dundee owned by Johnny Edwards and we frequently visited him to see the horses. Compared to now the area was very rural.
Dominicks was not on the corner. There was another farmhouse on the corner and I remember going to school with a girl that lived there. Speaking of small, the library at Cherry and Shermer was just a small building.
TJ: Our biggest treat was going to Dairy Queen when that opened and getting an ice cream cone. We used to sit in the window when our Dad would come home and eat dinner and tell him if there was a customer.
JH: You mentioned a church – was that Our Lady of the Brook?
JH: Were there other nurseries in that area? You mentioned one.
CU: Edward Galon. Was there a forest where the church is now? What was there?
JH: Was that Hallen’s Peony Farm?
CU: That’s right and then further west was Horvat’s.
JH: This community has a history of growing flowers including peonies and dahlias.
TJ: Wildebrook was not there.
CU: There was a lot of open space when we first moved.
JH: What about the airport – you said it was still running?
CU: Yes, it was still running when we first moved here but it closed down shortly after. The runways were still there and the small planes would come in over the house. It was kind of awesome to watch.
JH: Tell me about your folks and the business.
TJ: Very hard working, very dedicated.
CU: Let me think about that a moment. My father was very much an entrepreneur, a little bit ahead of his time as far as always wanting to go to the next level whether it be technology or how to grow things.
TJ: He always wanted to try new things.
CU: He always said you had to try it. Moving to Northbrook was quite a risk for them. They were pretty well established in Des Plaines and they didn’t know how the business was going to take off. They were farmers and Red’s implemented into our store a whole different avenue of firewood. We were growing vegetables and then added trees and shrubs.
TJ: And then the planting of trees and shrubs. We have a crew now that does landscaping.
JH: Did they still farm?
CU: Yes there is a portion of the back of the property that was and still is farmed. In Johnsburg we grow vegetables too. That was always his love. And my mother was always very active behind the scenes in the business. She implemented the lunches for the employees which Terri took over. That was something she always loved to do – feed people.
TJ: As Dad got older, his role got a little less. He said: “girls take over. I’m going to the nursery. The plants don’t talk back to me.”
JH: There is just the two of you – do you have other siblings?
TJ: We have a sister who operates her own business in Crystal Lake.
JH: The same kind of business?
TJ: No, she has a gift shop.
JH: You have a gift shop at Red’s. Talk about the transition to the innovations that you have added at Red’s.
CU: I think those have come from our father always telling us to try things. When we first started we said “definitely no gift shop.” We have gone through many phases. We actually had silk flowers at one time. We sold snowmobiles, bikes, chain saws, lawn mowers. At one point I even think we sold milk – milk and eggs. Fresh or cut flowers were sold. And it has just evolved. We never look at anything that hasn’t worked out as a failure but rather as a stepping stone. It is a constant learning process for us.
JH: Do you have any dreams for the business for the future?
CU: Yes, definitely – to maintain the quality products we provide for the customers, to stay involved in the community and to just stay focused on growing and changing – that’s our goal.
TJ: And to survive. This is a very difficult time for any business.
JH: Terri, tell me a little bit about cooking for all of these people every day.
TJ: I really enjoy it and they really appreciate it. I make something different every day. When it is busy season it can be as simple as hotdogs. When it is not so busy, spaghetti Bolognese. Sometimes I get requests. If it is someone’s birthday I’ll make the favorite thing they like. We try to get everyone a birthday cake and treat everyone as family.
JH: So you have 25 employees in the store but overall in peak season you employ about 50 people.
CU: With split shifts they are not all there at once and there are some off at the nursery who do not drive in for lunch but we have about 50 employees in peak season.
JH: So it is not only that you need to survive as a business but you are providing the sustenance for 50 families.
CU: Yes, Terri and I have talked about this. Of course, we need to survive if you want to put it that way but our heart goes out more to our employees and their families. They are our family and we care about them.
TJ: They are our family. Our landscape foreman Rigo Randell has been with us since we started. He is a great guy, like a brother to me. Lots of people in the community know him and love him. He gets a lot of compliments.
JH: That he stayed with the family that long is a testament to the kind of business you run. How has the business changed over the years. Fertilizers and other products. I’ve watched how something has changed so you do this and then you don’t do it any more.
TJ: It changes every year. New products on the market, others removed. It is constant. I can’t keep up with it sometimes. Chemicals, fertilizers.
CU: That is why we send a lot of our staff to seminars. The EPA changes regulations. Recycling – we do encourage our customers to bring their pots back to us and not throw out the plastic containers. We will reuse it. We really are trying to be “green”. Garden centers can take the lead and people will follow that example.
JH: And your customers. Talk about your customers.
TJ: We have great customers. They are our family also. First name basis with a lot of them. Patty who works for us has a following of customers who ask for her because she is so knowledgeable about plant problems and diagnosing them. It is great to be a part of that.
CU: We really try to leave no question unanswered. If there is something they are looking for, Jeff our nursery manager will order the plant. It may not be well suited to this area but we will get it for them and give them that information. They usually end up ordering something else. We love our customers, they are great. When we get new customers, new to the community, it is usually word of mouth that sends them to Red’s. We are very happy about that.
JH: Certainly your wall of flowers in the summer attracts
TJ: The flowers on the roof. We get many comments on that – very popular.
CU: We’ve changed the colors sometimes and then find that people like the more vibrant colors or the color didn’t show up from the road.
JH: I’m assuming that is a change in plants. You use new kinds of petunias up there.
TJ: I looked at them recently – they are ready to go.
JH: When your folks were running the store that type of petunia wasn’t available. That is part of keeping up with the times. Do you also do some of the Heritage plants?
CU: Do you mean like heirloom tomatoes?
JH: Yes, there are also heirloom vegetables of different kinds.
CU: We do the older variety of petunias and others, but it is funny because they have come so far with making them better that people are starting to phase out the older varieties in favor of the new, more disease resistant plants.
JH: I am thinking of someone walking into your store I am seeing varieties of things that other people don’t have such as salvias.
TJ: We try not to rule anything out unless it doesn’t perform well because somebody also comes in and asks for it. There are always the old standbys that people like.
CU: And if we don’t have it we will either definitely try to locate it and we will grow it for the next year.
JH: Red’s has been very involved in the community other than customers going there to buy their own flowers, I know that you have provided silent auction items and all kinds of things for various organizations. Tell me about some of the organizations you have worked with.
CU: Nursery schools, public schools for science projects they all like little seeds and dirt, we strongly support Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for their projects, the Community Garden – we provide the compost, we support Shermerfest, Earth Day, the golf course, flowers for the golf outing, medical fundraisers, support a food pantry in a different community, the Senior Center.
JH: The list is very long.
CU: Anything that we can help the community with, we like to support it. Solomon Schechter near us. Anybody who asks within reason, we try to support them.
JH: Tell me a little about what Northbrook means to you.
CU: I have a very, very special spot in my heart for Northbrook. Not only do we support them but I feel like they support us. To see the changes in Northbrook and the planning that has gone into it is very heart warming.
TJ: I’m very proud to be a part of this community.
CU: It just feels good all the way around. Not only to know a lot of customers but a lot of friends. It is a great place.
TJ: The fire department and the police department are all just great people.
JH: You went to school here. Where did you go to school?
CU: Grade School – Grace Lutheran Church when they had a parochial school, then Glenbrook North High School.
TJ: I also went to the Grace Lutheran Church School but then we moved and I went to Palatine High School.
JH: And that’s when you moved into the house?
CU: Yes, and I raised my family there. Now my son lives there with his son, my grandson.
JH: That’s four generations of your family that have lived in that house. That is really nice. Is there anything about Red’s that you would like to tell people in town about Red’s?
TJ: A lot of our customers say that they never realized this place was so big. They never went back through the various greenhouses, just visited the front section and the store.
JH: How many greenhouses do you have?
CU: Full of plants. Bursting at the seams right now. Full of color. We welcome anyone who wants to see the growing process. We do a lot of tours for the grade schools.
TJ: We have started doing things like container growing seminars.
CU: Steve, the greenhouse manager, does a lot- showing kids how tomato seeds develop. I don’t think people know that we offer that.
TJ: I don’t think people know that we are a family business.
JH: I gather from talking to you that family is really important.
CU: Very, very. That’s how this business was started and what we are trying to continue. As you can tell it makes me emotional talking about it.
JH: Is there another generation?
TJ: Her son.
JH: Your son is working in the business?
CU: He is and I am sure we will have the grandson in the business as soon as he is old enough. Doing something.
TJ: I don’t think many people realize that a lot of our employees have been with us for a long tie. Not just Rego, but Patty has been with us over 30 years.
CU: We try to keep them happy.
JH: Is there anything else about the community or your family that you really want us to know about?
CU: I think that for Terri and I that the background of our mom and dad instilling in us to always be honest and fair and work hard, you will always be okay. You may not think so at the time. My father was always very involved with the church. No matter how busy we were, there was always time for church so I think that it is important for the community to know that we really try to follow in those footsteps.
TJ: And we are both still members of Grace Lutheran Church. We have moved out of the area, but that is still our church.
JH: Where do you live now?
TJ: I live in Wauconda and she lives a mile away from me in Mundelein.
JH: Do you come to work together?
TJ: No, we should but we haven’t gotten that far yet.
JH: Anything else you want us to know?
TJ: Do you want to touch on the transfer station?
CU: We would love the community to know that we trying to be a little greener than we are – we are in process with the Village to have a waste transfer station at Red’s – no garbage, only landscape waste. It would provide a location for the community and landscapers to bring their yard waste. We need some community support on this.
JH: Can you explain what a transfer station is?
TJ: Landscapers or even homeowners could bring in their yard waste, dump it at our transfer station and it would be removed every night and taken away.
CU: It would never sit there more than 24 hours. There is a fee involved. It would be taken out a 5 p.m. every night. Only yard waste – leaves, tree limbs, evergreen branches, no garbage. It goes to a site a few miles away where it would be turned into compost which will be brought back to us and be sold. So it would save a lot on fuel for everyone involved for as they took it away they would be coming with a load of compost. It would be a nice process all the way around for everyone.
JH: So that is in process.
TJ: Community support is vital.
JH: Our time – we are heading towards 30 minutes. It went quickly. Thank you very much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of life in Northbrook and your family and business will add a unique and personal perspective about the history of our Village. Thank you.
TJ & CU: Thank you very much.