Lou Wiltse is a fourth-generation owner and operator of the Wayne Greenhouse. The greenhouse was built by her great grandfather, Dervie, in 1921.
Dervie was born in Denmark in 1874. In 1892, Dervie left his family in Denmark to venture to the United States and ended up in Nebraska, and more specifically the Kennard/Blair area.
There he met his wife, Sarah Jane, and together they moved to Wayne after hearing about Wayne State College. Wiltse said her great grandparents decided to move because, “Wayne would be a nice place to grow.”
At the time Wiltse’s grandparents moved to Wayne, the Great Depression had devastated the economy and no one in the Midwest was buying flowers.
To cope with the times, Wiltse said her grandparents rented out the five bedroom “big house,” which is the building attached to the greenhouse, to college professors.
The couple lived in the basement and as part of the rental agreement, Sarah Jane cooked the professors breakfast before they headed to teach their classes.
Once the professors returned from work, Sarah Jane would prepare them supper.
Wiltse said her grandparents were one of the largest employers in Wayne during the Great Depression because they owned about five acres of land, located about where Pizza Hut is currently, and they grew strawberries.
The local people they hired to harvest the strawberries helped pick the produce daily and everyone had a mutual agreement that they would eat as many strawberries as they liked as long as they were employed.
Since there were not many grocery stores during the Depression in Wayne, Wiltse said her great grandparents grew about everything from flowers for the shop to fruits and vegetables to sell to the locals. The couple also sold the strawberries to other grocery stores in the area.
Even though Dervie housed five college professors he never had any formal education and taught himself everything he knew about agriculture and floriculture.
Dervie immigrated into the United States “and he came here with nothing, and in a very short time, they were able to buy ground” and “they were able to build a little cabin on West Lake Okoboji,” Wiltse said.
The property and cabin are no longer in the family’s name but if it was, the small piece of land would be worth well over $1 million because it was shore line property. Wiltse said her great grandpa sold the land and cabin when he was his late 80s.
Dervie and Sarah Jane had three child, two daughters and one son. Their son, Wilbur, was Wiltse’s grandfather. Wilbur married his wife, Hattie, and had two children, one daughter, Nona Jane, and one son, Kent. Kent is Wiltse’s father who operated the greenhouse before passing away in 1988 and soon after his passing, Wiltse started buying the greenhouse from her mother.
Wiltse said it was about 1990 when the greenhouse was fully in her name. So, she has been owner and operator of the Wayne Greenhouse for nearly 30 year.
Wiltse has not always lived in Wayne, after high school she moved to Lincoln because she said she wanted to “go to the ‘big city’ and experience life” and never considered a career as a florist, Wiltse said.
She said once she met her husband, Dave, and they started a family, they moved back to Wayne so their children could be near their grandparents. She has a daughter who is a married with five children and son who all live in Nebraska.
She recalls the conversation she had with her father after moving back to Wayne, she said to him, “I’m just going to work for you for a little bit until I figure out what I want to do,” Wiltse said. “I didn’t think I ever wanted to do this job…never say never.”
In the spring of 1984, the Halls family opened The Plant Market, greenhouses that were located east of Wayne, where John Deere is located now.
The process of deconstructing the old greenhouses and building new ones outside of town, spanned over several years. The Plant Market was where the Wiltse’s family grew all of their produce.
She recalls growing 3,000 Easter lilies, 18,000 poinsettias, 10,000 geraniums, and 15,000 petunias, among other flowers.
One thing Wiltse said she misses from her earlier years of working at The Plant Market was “the smell of dirt during this time of year or to see what’s blooming was always fun in the morning to go out there and say ‘oh, this opened up’ and ‘this is so pretty,’” Wiltse said. The Plant Market was hit by the EF4 tornado in 2013 and was destroyed.
Now Wiltse purchases most of the cut flowers she sells from companies located in abroad like in Holland, South America and Egypt.
She said she does purchase flowers from companies in the United States but each flower variety takes special requirements to grow.
Roses are a fickle flower to grow because they “take a lot of heat to produce a really pretty flower and one of the biggest holidays that roses are popular for happens to be Valentine’s Day and it falls in the smack dab of winter,” Wiltse said.
She said she tends to buy roses from South America because in February it is summer there and if she were to buy in the United States, the greenhouses would take a lot of heat and energy to grow those roses which increase the flower’s price.
The Wayne Greenhouse does grow and sell a small selection of house plants like cacti and succulents.
Wiltse said she uses fertilizers mildly and never uses pesticides but when she operated The Plant Market her family used ladybugs as natural control.
Along with flower arrangements and indoor plants, the Wayne Greenhouse sells décor, services for weddings, birthdays, funerals, proms, graduation, special occasions, etc.
Wiltse just finished the work for the local proms, including work on rental tuxes and making boutonnieres and corsages. Customers can also develop photos with their one-hour photo developer.
Wiltse’s job entails a little of everything. She is in charge of the books, housekeeping and she said she does the smaller maintenance projects, and odds and ends to keep the shop running smoothly.
She also creates the advertisements, decorates the inside of the store and store front with the changing seasons and is in charge of hiring and firing employees. She said she does not recall ever having to fire anyone.
She said her favorite part of being a florist in a small community is knowing the customers, or at least their family or grandkids.
She said she enjoys providing services for funeral the most because “it’s quite an honor to be able to provide those final flowers for someone,” Wiltse said.
According to Wiltse, every day at the greenhouse is different and the work is never boring.
She also said anyone who is creative and/or business oriented would fit right into the business. She currently employees about seven people from farm wives to college students.
Wiltse said to celebrate the greenhouse’s anniversary this year, because 2021 marks the greenhouse’s 100th anniversary, the business will host an open house for a few days in June where people can go into the greenhouse and enjoy refreshments and snacks.
Wiltse said the greenhouse will have a special running during that time. The business will have a parade float during Wayne’s Chicken Days this summer to celebrate as well.
The Wayne Greenhouse delivers in the country, to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, businesses, etc. in the surrounding towns in about a 20-mile radius.
Wiltse said she is getting to retirement age and is looking at some to “pass the torch on to…who can make this their own,” Wiltse said.
The Wayne Greenhouse is located at 215 E. 10th Street, Wayne, NE 68787. You can call the office at (402) 375-1555 or visit their website at www.thewaynegreenhouse.com.