By BRICE STUMP
The Daily Times of Salisbury
SALISBURY, Md. (AP) — A landmark business is closing, marking the end of the oldest floral business in town.
Benedict The Florist closes its doors for good Friday to make way for the building of a CVS Pharmacy on the lot at the corner of South Salisbury Boulevard and College Avenue.
Though the brick shop has been there since 1957, the business goes back more than 130 years when it was formed in New York state. Brothers George and Steve Benedict, with their cousin, Glenn, are the fourth generation of Benedicts to own and operate the company.
All three have worked in the business since they were children, but it was their late fathers, twins George and Glenn Benedict seniors who were the face of the business since 1947.
“Our great-grandfather, George H. Benedict, started near Ithaca in 1881 when he was 17,” said George. “He came here in 1906 with his son Herman G. Benedict. His greenhouses and home was along the Wicomico River along Pemberton Drive, known as Riverview Farm with 80 acres, still the home of family members,” said George.
“His son supervised the retail end of business, and the father ran the greenhouses and farm. At the same time they had two greenhouses and a shop that fronted Church and Broad streets, a location chosen because of its convenience to the railroad station to allow shipping of wholesale flowers. George H. was growing calla lilies in New York and continued growing them when he came here. He was known as the Calla Lilly King of the East Coast,” said Steve.
“Then Herman G. got the business,” said Steve. Eventually it was owned by the twin brothers.
“It was not handed over to them,” Glenn said. “Their father abandoned them high and dry. They began as dirt-poor people. They had one pair of shoes for school, football and church. My grandmother, who was living out on the farm, took care of them and their two sisters on her own. They even got handouts from local farmers who brought them bushels of fruit and vegetables.
“No, this business was not handed down to our fathers. They had to buy it. Their father came to my father and uncle, when they were working at a department store flower shop in Wilmington, and told them he was selling the business. If they wanted it they had 48 hours to come up with the money,” Glenn said.
“My other grandfather on my mother’s side, lent them the money. They went to Atlantic City to pick it up, $65,000 in a paper bag. They got the farm and the downtown store in 1947. By then, wild trees were growing through the broken glass holes in the greenhouses.
“They worked seven days a week and paid all the money back before the three-year agreement was up,” Glenn said.
Ten years later, the twins saw an opportunity to buy the present business location, a site then in the country. Their in-town location was condemned by the state to make way for the building of Route 50.
“The only thing out here was a Dairy Queen, college and gas station and Barr International, all the rest was open land. George and Glenn felt that the state wasn’t given them enough money for their Church Street area property, but they knew they couldn’t afford an attorney. They went to a lawyer for one hour, asked him what they had to do to fight in court, and they represented themselves and beat the state and got what they wanted. That’s how they could afford to but this land and build the shop,” said Glenn.
By 1957 George’s wife, Barbara, and Glenn’s wife, Rose, were full-time employees. The shop was everything to the twin brothers.
“It became their life. On holidays, I remember our dads would work here in the flower shop all day until 8 or 9 at night, then go home and load trucks with wholesale flowers for local delivery until 2 a.m. and get back here in here at 6 a.m.,” George said.
As the years went by, there were signs the industry would soon face hard times. For Benedict’s, it came when folks includes the sentence “Donations may be made in lieu of flowers to …” in obituaries. “Funeral work,” said Steve, “probably made up 75 percent of our business.”
Then came high gas prices.
“When we first started putting delivery charges on orders, maybe $2.50, people went nuts. They said they weren’t paying for delivery. When gas got up to near $4 a gallon, we had to increase the delivery charge to almost $8,” Steve said.
Soon convenience stores, large box stores and even grocery stores, hospitals and funeral directors were selling flowers.
Benedict’s and other floral businesses were in trouble.
“People wanted $50 worth of `custom’ flowers but only wanted to pay $25 for them. And with society values were changing, people didn’t give flowers as often as they once did,” Steve said.
“When I got out of college in 1972, the florist end wasn’t my cup of tea and I started a garden center here,” Glenn said. “My dad and uncle had dabbled in it a little bit over the years. I remember, as a kid, they would sell a few shrubs along with chickens and rabbits at Easter and May Day festivals.”
The firm opened a satellite shop in Cambridge for about 15 years, closing it in 2007. The Pots and Pedals branch in the former Salisbury Mall closed because of increased rent there in the 1980.
At one time, the Benedicts had about 30 employees.
“When the recession started three years ago, it hit all the florists, wholesalers and growers. We just had one of our three main wholesalers call and tell us the bank has shut them down,” said George.
The three men will close the shop doors Friday at 5 p.m. ending a business that sprouted in New York state 130 years ago. Like several other former landmark businesses in Salisbury, it may take 75 years or more before the name finally fades into history.
Benedict The Florist has been there for the most important moments in life; births and deaths, graduations and anniversaries, sickness, friendship and love. Benedict The Florist was a business, but also a friend to so many customers over the years.
“I can’t tell you exactly, but I know this company has made millions of arrangements,” Steve said. “And we got to know a lot of people.”
Customers have included actress Linda Hamilton and John Glover, tennis great Jimmy Connors, local basketball star Tia Jackson and the famous poet Ogden Nash. Well-known local names included longtime customer Frank Perdue and Avery Hall.
And there is one account that has been with the Benedicts forecades and remains dear to in their hearts.
“Years ago, we had a black woman call and thank us because our fathers had extended credit to her. That was at a time when very few businesses in Salisbury allowed blacks to have credit. She still deals with us and she and her family are special to us,” Steve said.
Remarkably, on behalf of one bank trust account, the Benedicts have been placing wreathes and flowers on 23 graves in one family lot in Salisbury for the holidays every year, for at least 50 years — until the recession ended the tradition two years ago.
With bad economic news on all fronts, the owners seriously considered an offer to the buy the shop and land.
“I got a letter in 2005 that a real estate agent had a client that wanted to purchase our corner. At that time Steve George and I were still meeting to discuss how we could change to still remain No. 1. That offer fell through, but then I got a call from an agent in Towson who said he represented a large pharmaceutical company that wanted to buy our location and building a drug store,” Glenn said. “The company made an offer. We started negotiating over a year and a half and accepted their offer. We all agreed to do this together. We don’t have our fathers here now, and it was a very difficult decision for us to make, Glenn said.
“Even our father’s, as much as they loved this business, said if someone offered them enough money they’d take it and go elsewhere,” said Glenn.
All three are a bit uncomfortable knowing that they equally shared in the decision to end a family legacy during their watch.
Like the business property, the family home place, Riverview Farm, is also in final stages of settlement the new place to be called Patrick’s Landing.
The past decade or so has been filled with business and personal crises for the Benedict family. The burning of their greenhouses –45,000 square feet — in 1996 marked the beginning of the end.
“My dad’s last day was they day the farm greenhouses burned down. It devastated him. He was all bent over and frail. He went home and never came back in. He had Parkinson’s disease and died in 2001,” Glenn said. His father was 77.
George continued to come to the shop, but he also was havingo problems related to Alzheimer’s.
“Unfortunately, Uncle George had to relive dad’s death every day for the rest of his life because he couldn’t remember he died. He always called my dad his `little buddy,’ and he asked me every day `Where’s my little buddy?’ We would tell him and each time he was filled with grief. It was terrible, so sad because every day he had to go through learning that his brother died,” Glenn recalled.
“We had to take my dad out to the cemetery two or three times a day to show him my uncle’s grave,” Steve said. George Benedict Sr. died in 2007. He was 83.
The closing of the store has come at a point in their lives that it offered a natural transition. “I’m going to retire,” Glenn said, 61.
“I’ll get a part-time job somewhere, just have to wait for the dust to settle,” Steve said, 57.
George, 61, said he, too, plans to retire.
“I want to do volunteer work, got a lot of other interests and, hopefully, be able to do environmental work dealing with plants.”
As for the future of their employees, Glenn said, most are young enough to pursue other careers.
“They have been very loyal to us, and one has been with us for 35 years,” George said.
There are six employees left, and Goldsborough Lawrence is still working for us and has been with us almost 60 years ago.
“We’ve kept on because he is family,” Steve said.
“Our accountant said we have held together a lot longer than most people think you should have,” Glenn said. “Unfortunately, there is no good ending for the workers, some are angry with us because they thought we were going to be here forever. At one point in our lives, we did too. We have no new set of Benedicts coming online who wanted to take over the business. It’s like my mom said, ‘Son, it had to end sometime.’ “
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)