By Sue Moore
“You’ve got to really love this business to stay with it,” advised Charlie Krill’s father, Fred, when he turned over the reins of Prudential Nursery to his son in 1978. This month, the business will celebrate its 100th anniversary in Vicksburg, and Krill reports that the years of hard work have not diminished that love.
The Vicksburg Historical Society will help celebrate this accomplishment with its monthly history program on Tuesday, August 19, in the beautiful barn built in 1914 by Krill’s grandfather, on property just outside the village of Vicksburg. The program starts at 7 p.m., with Charlie’s wife Cindy’s display of photographs. Cindy will present her research on the family tree and how the nursery came to be built near Sunset Lake. The Historical Society will denote this milestone by unveiling a bronze plaque that will be placed outside this unique building. The public is encouraged to come and enjoy a tour of the buildings and grounds.
“There are very few buildings like this one,” Cindy proudly pointed out. “It has a cupola for natural light, running the entire length of the 200-foot long roof, with windows that open to let air circulate through the nursery stock below. There are two catwalks and two decks to walk on to open the windows. The building had 12-inch thick interlocking clay tile block walls, post and beam construction, and an insulated roof. It also had three rail car shipping docks and three truck docks, and employed up to 50 people during the peak season. In the early days, bare root plants were stored below in the winter, along with fruit trees, which was one of the nursery’s specialties.”
The company got its start in Kalamazoo in 1906, when Charles Arthur Krill incorporated Prudential Nursery. He had been employed in the 1890s at Central Nursery, which was part owned by W.E. Upjohn and located on land which now houses Waldo Stadium. Arthur, as he preferred to be called, came to Kalamazoo in 1878 from Rochester, N.Y. He served many years on the Kalamazoo School Board, was active in the Kiwanis Club and the Republican Party, and founded the Michigan Nurserymen’s Association.
Down through the years, his affiliation with Upjohn became an important link, the younger Krill revealed. During the depression, when the bank attempted to foreclose on the Vicksburg property, Upjohn helped by purchasing the loan from Farmers’ State Bank, which Krill later fully repaid. During the lean years, Upjohn also sent landscaping business Krill’s way, helping to keep the business, which was headquartered in Kalamazoo, afloat.
The Vicksburg location was chosen because of its capabilities for shipping trees and shrubs via the two railroads that crisscrossed Vicksburg. The land on North Richardson Street was sandy loam, with water from Sunset Lake frontage on the 100-acre Spade farm they purchased. The plan was to bring in stock from their Kalamazoo properties, then grade and pack them for shipment by rail throughout the Midwest. At the time, they sold over 1,000 varieties of trees, including woody ornamental shade trees and evergreens.
Arthur’s two sons, Louis and Fred, were active in the business, along with his brother Burton. Burton lived in the farmhouse that was already on the property that Cindy and Charlie inhabit today. Louis had two daughters and lived in the farmhouse while the girls were growing up. He retired in 1972. Fred had six sons and two daughters, with Charlie the middle of the bunch. Charlie studied forestry at Michigan State University, but decided to join the business soon after he and Cindy were married. Cindy, from Kalamazoo, was already a budding artist.
The business has seen lots of changes since he took over, Krill explained. In the field in front of the packing building, they used to raise mum plants. His dad would work seven days a week and in the fall, one of the big sellers were the hundreds of mums that graced local homes. Now there is a flower garden in front of the nursery sign that is part of the new Quilt Trail that Kitch Rinehart developed in the last two years in the Vicksburg area.
The future looks good, Krill proclaimed. He has adopted a niche business, growing bigger trees with a big selection, so as not to compete with the big box stores and local nurseries. Their success comes from offering sound advice about selection, light, growing conditions, space, and the right spot for plantings. Their trees are sold to residential customers, usually within a 30 mile radius, and to the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage for replacement, or when they have a major road building project.
“Trees truly change the atmosphere and the feel of a community,” Krill proudly stated. “They give curb appeal and are environmentally important for all of us.”