The childhoods of Joe and Mary (Nelson) Thompson could hardly have been more different. Joe ‘s family was constantly on the move, while Mary’s was rooted in Mercer and was never transplanted.
Joe was born in 1921 in Kellettville, PA, , a small town near Tidioute. His father, grandfather, and uncle were all Methodist ministers.
“In those days Methodist ministers were transferred every year or two,” Joe said. “They moved on the first of October, after school had already started. I went to three schools before I finished first grade. I started first grade in Cooperstown, and a month later we moved to Springboro. After we were there just a short time, I got meningitis and missed the rest of the school year. Then we moved to Knox, where I started first grade all over again.”
The family’s four-year stay in Knox was marred by the death of Joe’s mother, Alta Thompson.
“She had tuberculosis,” Joe said, “and was in and out of sanitariums for years. She died of pneumonia in 1931.”
After his tenure in Knox, Rev. Earl Thompson was transferred to Volant, where he ministered in the White Chapel Church and the Volant Methodist Church. Next, in Stoneboro, he served four churches: Stoneboro, Jackson Center, Mill Creek, and Deer Creek.
“We always did a lot of canning,” Joe said. “Every time we moved, my job was to wrap each jar in newspaper and put them into about half a dozen very heavy wooden barrels.”
Joe completed his first two years of high school in Stoneboro and his last two in Jamestown. Then he completed two years studying music at Westminster College before going into the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“I spent three years in the service,” he said, “two of them in India as a chaplain’s assistant.” Unfortunately, he came back from India with amoebic dysentery. Instead of going back to college, he got a job at Volant Mill.
While working there, he directed the choir at Bethany Church in Mercer where a pretty girl in the soprano section caught his eye.
Mary Elizabeth Nelson was born at home on December 30, 1929, in the house right next door to where she lives now. The sentence above about her family being rooted in Mercer is apropos for in two senses.
First, her great-great-great grandparents, Henry and Martha McCleary Hosack, came to Mercer from Perth, Scotland. They are buried in Old Mercer Cemetery. Five of their sons fought in the War of 1812.
Second, Mary’s parents, Joe and Ethyl Nelson, were in the business of rooting and growing plants and flowers.
That wasn’t their original plan in 1919 when they moved from the family farm in Findley Township onto seven acres of land in Mercer, even though their new land included a greenhouse and barn that housed a florist and market garden business founded by S. P. Smith around 1890.
Joe Nelson worked at Carnegie Steel in Farrell, and planned on using the greenhouse to raise garden plants as a sideline. But when flowers were needed for a funeral in Mercer, he was asked to provide them. That led to more floral orders, and before long, Joe gave up his job at Carnegie Steel to work his greenhouse business full time. After just a couple of years, business was so good that he had to replace the greenhouse with a new one. In 1930, he added two more greenhouses.
“My dad was born and raised on a farm,” she said, “and he never got farming out of his blood. I had a great life, with the florist business and the farm. There were a couple of farmers, if their sheep would have twins, and the mother wouldn’t take care of one of them, they would give one of them to me and I would raise it with a bottle and nipple. That was great as a kid. I learned to drive truck and tractor down in the field. With just one sister and five brothers, I was a real tomboy.
But she was a very pretty and charming tomboy who was not afraid to accommodate her feminine side. She was a cheerleader in Mercer High School, and its first homecoming queen.
And, fortunately, she sang soprano in the Bethany Church choir. In 1948, not long after graduating from high school, she married the choir director.
About that time Joe started directing the choir at Tower Church in Grove City and got a job at the Wilson Company in Grove City, which sold farm machinery, hardware, and lumber.
“Just before we got married,” Mary said, “my father had a heart attack. He couldn’t even come to the wedding.”
The heart attack seriously limited Joe Nelson’s ability to run the greenhouse business, so about 1950, his son-in-law Joe Thompson started working in the greenhouse with him. In 1957, Joe Nelson passed away, leaving his wife to run the business. A year later, Joe and Mary Thompson bought the business from her.
“The business changed a lot through the years,” Joe said. “When I came here, we grew long-stem mums, carnations, stuff like that – cut flowers. We did retail sales in the back of the greenhouse because we had no floral shop.”
Joe was a forward thinker who adapted to the changing market. In the late 1950s he joined the FTD, Floral Telegraph Delivery, which required him to build a floral shop. It opened on the day in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected president.
Through the next quarter of a century, both the floral shop and greenhouses continued to thrive, despite major changes in the industry.
“Years ago we thought we had to have all the greenhouses going all year round,” Joe said, “but we found out that this wasn’t economical anymore. We had a big boiler to heat all the greenhouses. Then we switched to gas because it was cheaper to heat each singly with a separate heater. About the same time we found that growers in Central and South America could raise flowers and fly them to markets in the United States more cheaply than we could grow them here. Most cut flowers in this area come from wholesale distributors around Youngstown, who get them from all over the world.”
Joe’s and Mary’s five sons grew up in the business. In 1984, when Joe and Mary decided to retire, they sold Nelson’s Flowers to their oldest son Randy and his wife Debbie. As business continued to grow, three of Randy’s brothers worked in the greenhouse and flower shop. Joe and Mary also continued to help out during busy times.
In 1999, Randy’s youngest brother Steve bought the greenhouse part of the business. To distinguish it from Nelson’s Flowers, he named it Nelson’s Garden Outlet. In 2000, Steve bought Kehlbeck’s Greenhouse on Greenville Road in Mercer, transformed it into a production/retail business, and renamed it Nelson’s Heirloom Gardens. They still use the greenhouses on East Venango Street in Mercer for growing both garden plants and potted flowers.
Joe’s and Mary’s son Dennis, who lives next door in the house where Mary was born, has a lawn care and snow removal business.
Joe still keeps his hands in the soil, both in the greenhouses and arranging flowers in the shop.
‘”Today we’re just using two greenhouses,” Joe said, and they’re about filled up. We’re about to expand into the others. We grow all sorts of bedding plants and such for spring. Just the other day we got in 8,000 geranium cuttings. We put those into trays of soil, and in two weeks they’ll have roots. In another two weeks we’ll put them into the four inch pots, and they’ll be beautiful by the middle of May.”
“Steve and God do a beautiful job,” Mary said. “People come from far away to buy hanging baskets and other plants. “
While running their business, Joe and Mary didn’t have much time for family vacations and travel, but they loved to spend time as a family during the summer at Westminster Highlands, the Presbyterian camp near Emlenton.
They have been active in Bethany Church, with Joe serving as elder, deacon, usher, and of course choir director. He also used to perform as a soloist at events such as weddings and funerals, and loved to sing with barbershop quartets. He was a member of the Mercer County chorus of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.
For the past fifteen years, Joe and Mary have been active in the Christian Coalition. They are proud to be involved in the organization of last year’s Tea Parties, and are working on two more scheduled for the Mercer Courthouse Lawn on April 24 and July 3, 2010.
Joe and Mary are blessed by the fact that almost all of their family members live nearby. They enjoy family celebrations with their sons Randy, Dennis, Jay, and Steve. Another son, Kirk, has passed away. They have seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, with another one on the way. Those great grandchildren represent the ninth generation of the Hosack family to live in Mercer.
Talk about deep roots!
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010