Business

Meet the family that has been landscaping Lexington for 175 years

Stephen Hillenmeyer, center, with sons Seth, left, and Chase, outside the family's former nursery warehouse, which originally was an early 1800s cotton mill. Hillenmeyer’s no longer owns the property, but the company is now headquartered across Sandersville Road from it.
Stephen Hillenmeyer, center, with sons Seth, left, and Chase, outside the family's former nursery warehouse, which originally was an early 1800s cotton mill. Hillenmeyer’s no longer owns the property, but the company is now headquartered across Sandersville Road from it. teblen@herald-leader.com

In the spring of 1841, an immigrant nurseryman from Alsace-Lorraine set up shop off Georgetown Road to sell fruit trees. One hundred and seventy-five years later, his descendants are still landscaping Lexington.

Francis Xavier Hillenmeyer’s progeny have been doing business in this city longer than any family except the Milwards, whose ancestor started making furniture in 1825 and quickly branched out into coffins and funerals.

There are now two branches of Hillenmeyer landscapers, and those fifth-generation brothers are passing things on to their sons as the businesses keep evolving.

Stephen has begun handing over leadership of his landscape services company to sons Chase, 31, and Seth, 27. Meanwhile, brother Louis has leased his Flower Power garden shops to others and turned over his Lansdowne space at the holidays to son Joseph, 38, who has a blossoming career as a high-end garden designer.

“There is something that seems to draw us to it,” Joseph said of the family’s passion for landscaping, which he has traced back three more generations in France and Germany. “I don’t know what it is.”

Francis Hillenmeyer was born in 1814 and apprenticed as a nurseryman in Europe. After arriving in Philadelphia as a young man, he went to the Republic of Texas and served in its Army under Sam Houston. He then went to Savannah and designed and built a city park. According to family lore, he moved to Lexington in 1840 because he couldn’t tolerate south Georgia’s sand flies and mosquitoes.

After returning to France to marry, he brought his bride to Lexington and began selling fruit trees at Georgetown and Spurr roads next to what is now the Linlee school.

Francis moved his nursery in 1846 to 20 acres on nearby Sandersville Road that had been part of a popular private park called Sanders Garden. For the next 47 years, he expanded his business and trained other horticulturalists.

Over the next three generations, Hillenmeyer sons expanded the business from fruit trees to ornamentals and became national leaders in their profession. The family bought and leased more than 1,000 acres for plant production.

Changing with the times

In 1915, the Hillenmeyers bought a 100-foot by 300-foot former cotton factory and distillery built in the early 1800s and adapted it as a nursery warehouse. The company’s offices were housed for decades in an adjacent cottage used by Mary Todd Lincoln’s father and brother-in-law when they ran the cotton factory. Abraham Lincoln is said to have visited there several times.

Hillenmeyer Nurseries did a huge mail-order business in the mid-20th century, including filling orders for Sears, Roebuck & Co. For many years, Hillenmeyers was the Lexington Post Office’s largest customer.

Each generation adapted the business to changing needs and economics. The company added landscape design and maintenance services in the 1950s, caring for the properties of IBM, Trane and other new industries.

Hillenmeyers opened one of the region’s first retail garden centers in 1951 beside the warehouse. Each Christmas season for decades, thousands of people drove there to see its living nativity scene.

By the time three brothers of the fifth generation took over the business in the 1990s, big-box retailers had become serious competitors and the brothers had different visions for the their business’ future.

In 1992, Louis, the longtime host of a popular gardening show on WVLK radio, sold his share to brothers Stephen and Chris but continued operating his own plant shops. Chris sold his interest to Stephen in 2000 but kept Hillenmeyer Garden Center open until 2005.

The garden center, warehouse and office cottage were then sold to Doug and Kerry Cauthen, brothers of jockey Steve Cauthen. They wanted to convert the warehouse into condos, but that plan has been on hold since the economic crisis of 2008.

Family land was divided and sold over the years, including property on Georgetown Road now occupied by Imani Baptist Church. Stephen’s company is now based on 16 acres across from the warehouse that, ironically, was never part of the earlier family business.

Growing business, not plants

Stephen has grown and transformed the company since 2000. He stopped growing and selling plants and refocused the company on landscape design and maintenance.

He oversees a huge commercial landscape maintenance business, with clients including St. Joseph Hospital, Trane and 25 horse farms. He also owns Weed Man franchises in Lexington and Nashville, which do residential seeding, fertilizing and weed control, and the Mosquito Authority pest control franchise in Lexington.

Stephen said his company has 100 full-time and 150 part-time employees, who will be invited to a 175th anniversary celebration Aug. 12.

Although he has a horticulture degree from the University of Kentucky, Stephen said he is more interested in growing businesses than plants.

With the nursery business, he said, “The margins were getting smaller and smaller and it was just hard to compete. So the service model was making more sense to me. It was scalable and replicable.”

Much of Stephen’s focus has been on developing his company’s talent. That includes his sons, who studied business, entrepreneurship and finance at Miami University in Ohio. Chase is now the company’s general manager and Seth, who worked for a time after college in commercial banking in Chicago, oversees the franchises.

“What’s really going to grow our business is their leadership skills,” Stephen said of his sons. “I’ve been slowly trying to step aside to let them take over. I realize how lucky I am to have that dynamic working.”

The brothers say their long-term vision includes adding more Weed Man and Mosquito Authority franchises in Southern and Midwestern cities.

“Neither of us were born with a lot of landscape talent,” Seth said. “But we are good business people who can hire good people who do have that talent.”

A talented designer

Joseph did inherit his ancestors’ green thumb, and he is gaining a national reputation as a garden designer. He is among several Southern gardeners profiled in the current issue of the lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun.

As Hillenmeyers have for generations, Joseph began working in the business as a child. He polished his horticulture skills in New Zealand and Istanbul before returning to Lexington in 2001 to work with his father.

Joseph started his own landscaping company in 2004 and soon realized garden design was the perfect outlet for his creativity. He spends most of his time on big design projects for clients in Kentucky and as far away as New York. During the holidays, he and his wife, Shannon, run Hillenmeyer Christmas Shop in his father’s Lansdowne space.

“I did everything Mom and Dad told me not to do, but it’s working,” he said. “One beautifully finished project always seems to lead to another.”

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