I felt the presence of the large video camera and mic over my right shoulder as I opened the photo album of Russell’s Garden Center from the 1980s. “There’s the four of us,” I said with a smile to my husband, Tim, who sat next to me. I was referring to a photograph of us with my mom and dad, wearing our teal Russell’s shirts and sitting in front of our new sign on Route 20. The highway connects Wayland with Boston, about sixteen miles to the east.
Our daughter Genevieve, the movie director, encouraged me to continue. “Pretend there’s no camera or mic here, and just tell me about the five generations of Russell’s.”
I began my story, explaining how the business was established in 1876. “My great-grandfather Samuel Lewis Russell was a butcher,” I said, “and his original store was called Russell’s Provisions.” He lived at the farm where Russell’s is today, but his store was located about half a mile away, at the intersection of Route 20 and Pelham Island Road, in Wayland Center. It stood near a grocery store called the Collins Market, along with the library, post office, and several churches. Everything was within walking distance. “There were no cars in 1876, for convenience,” I said.
Tim held up a picture of the Russell’s Provisions storefront for the camera to capture. We were filming a documentary about our family business, aiming to tell the story of how our 144-year-operation—one of the oldest garden centers in the country—tackled the challenges of the pandemic by changing our business dramatically. For us, the family history was a central motivation for maintaining the garden center through the initial closures in March 2020, when we experienced more than a million dollars in losses. We worried that we might have to close the business altogether.
Genevieve asked, “Was your grandfather a butcher too?”
“Not at all” I replied. I explained how my grandfather, Lewis Samuel Russell, was a farmer. Like his father, he grew vegetables and cut flowers on the family farm, and he also raised chickens and sold the eggs. In 1920, he opened Russell’s Market in the space where we now sell garden tools—right next to his house. At that point, cars were becoming more common, which meant that my grandfather could close the original location in town. It wasn’t just my grandfather running the market, I explained. “My Grammy, Ruth Russell, would add up customers’ purchases on a little pad of paper and collect cash and make change out of her apron pocket.”
Genevieve asked me to pause for a moment and instructed the cameraman to zoom in on my face. She then asked, “What was it like growing up on a farm?”
I described how I would visit my grandparents almost every day. I would play in the fields with my sisters and cousins, while my grandfather and great uncle worked nearby planting, weeding, and picking crops. At that point, my parents were involved with the business, so we would often stop to see them in the office, before heading to Grammy’s yellow house, which still stands along Route 20. She’d give us fresh bread and sweets that she’d cooked on the old black coal stove. In the evenings, when my grandparents babysat for us, we’d watch Lawrence Welk and Carol Burnett on the television as they counted the cash from the day at their kitchen table. Family and business were inseparable. “They’d hide the cash in an oatmeal box in the cupboard,” I said. “Once it was full, my grandma would put it in her bra and ride the bus to deposit it in the bank.”
Tim flipped the page of an album from 1965 to reveal a picture of my dad, Lewis Samuel Russell Jr., watering rows of flowers growing in our greenhouses. The cameraman zoomed in with his lens.
My dad joined the business after he returned from the Korean War. By then, a significant part of the business revolved around wholesaling cut flowers to florists in the Boston area. My mom, Charlotte, worked as a bookkeeper and also managed the flower deliveries. Twice a week, she would load my sisters and me into the van and deliver flowers. We loved helping her carry the bunches of fresh flowers into the stores. After the energy crisis of the 1970s, we stopped growing cut flowers and closed our greenhouses every winter to conserve heat and save money. With specialization, airplanes and trucks could bring cut flowers from the southern regions of the United States and overseas, so Russell’s stopped selling wholesale. My uncle had built several greenhouses, and my dad recommissioned them for growing annuals and vegetables. This transition was the start of the garden center as we know it today—and was yet another instance of the business evolving in response to changes in the market and technology.
“Because we were located on Route 20, we had plenty of customers driving by to stop in,” I told the camera. “We added houseplants, cactus, poinsettias, and potted mums and began selling more Christmas trees, wreaths, and fresh floral arrangements.” At that point, my dad hired his best friend, Hugh McKenzie, who started the Garden Shop. Hugh added tools, fertilizers, and insecticides, along with garden statuary and supplies for birds. My mom worked long hours, too, and expanded the offerings to include vases, pots, silk flowers, candles, Christmas ornaments, and décor.
At noon, Genevieve suggested we take a break. During the interview, her plan for structuring the film had shifted, and she wanted to run the idea past me. “Mom,” she said, “I’ve decided to start with the history of Russell’s before we go into the story of everything you all did to overcome the pandemic.” I agreed that this was a great idea. We had already decided that the last thirty minutes of our movie would be about the remarkable response from our community once we were able to reopen the business in the spring of 2020, after more than a month of closure. We found that the community embraced gardening with newfound enthusiasm—and in the end, Russell’s not only survived 2020 but thrived.
With the camera rolling again, Genevieve asked when Tim and I joined the company. Tim told the story of us joining in 1986. “I’m a recovering mechanical engineer,” he joked, “and Elizabeth’s expertise is in marketing and advertising. I quickly learned that this was a lot more fun than sitting in an office all day.”
I explained how, at this point, I’m delighted that our son, Dan Skehan, has joined us full time. He is the fifth generation to work at Russell’s. With a background in accounting, human resources, and financial management, he was instrumental in helping us figure out how to stay in business through 2020. He secured payroll protection loans and helped us furlough and then rehire and train our employees. Moreover, he kept abreast with ever-changing guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and the State of Massachusetts. “He remained calm and added a wealth of knowledge,” I explained. “I’m not sure we’d still be in business if we didn’t know that Dan would be here to continue the legacy of Russell’s Garden Center.”
Elizabeth Russell-Skehan is the president and vice president of marketing at Russell’s Garden Center. They are now editing a full-length feature documentary film called Growing Through Covid-19. To watch a trailer or to donate to the film, visit www.growingthroughcovid19.com.
Citation: Russell-Skehan, E. 2021. Five generations of Russell’s Garden Center. Arnoldia, 78(5-6): 10–12.