Memory Lane

MEMORY LANE

CONNETQUOT, NEW YORK

Local Greenhouses

In Chapter 25 of Memory Lane, we explored the area’s once thriving shellfishing industry.  In this chapter, we will take a look at the commercial greenhouse industry that also had a significant impact on our local economy here on the south shore of Long Island.  This stems from a curiosity about why there were so many greenhouses in our area, which has led to identifying some of the more important ones and finding out what became of them.


Through our research and in speaking with Gisbert Auwaerter of the Bayport Flowerhouses, we learned that the area’s local climate, sunlight, and rich soil was very well-suited to growing plants.  It was also relatively close to the New York City flower markets, with a good transportation system leading into the city. During the early part of the 20th Century, property prices and taxes in Suffolk Couny were relatively low, which helped keep operational costs down and allowed for wages that could kept in step with the cost of living on Long Island. By 1964, Suffolk County had the largest acreage under glass in New York State and ranked eighth in the nation. It was also heralded as the “rose capital of the world” with Suffolk’s large commercial greenhouses being concentrated in the Oakdale-East Patchogue area. (1) Looking through job advertisements in the local newspapers up until roughly the 1980s, it was very common to see offerings for greenhouse jobs here on the south shore.


We checked through the newspapers in more detail to identify some of the past growers. The earliest mention in Suffolk County News of a greenhouse in our district was owned by Seymour L. Burr in Oakdale.  His greenhouses were located on Montauk Highway near East Shore Road. In 1888 Suffolk County News reported that Mr. Burr offered a variety of geraniums, fuchsias, cabbage, tomato, and bed plants for sale.  Two decades later, he was shipping large quanties of carnations to New York City florists and was building an additional greenhouse to accommodate his expanding business. (2) After Seymour died in 1930, his sons Warren and Percy carried on the family business until Warren retired in 1960.

 
Other area greenhouse owners in the 1930s–50s were William Behounek on Locust Avenue (Bohemia), L. Hrabak on Locust Avenue (Bohemia), Frank Kroupa on Smithtown Avenue (Bohemia), Adolph Ruzicka on Locust Avenue (Bohemia), Louis Seidl on Smithtown Avenue (Bohemia), Henry Dreyer on Locust Avenue (Bohemia), Alfred Demeusy on Locust Avenue (Oakdale), and Joseph Bartunek on Lincoln Avenue (Sayville). Many of the early growers, such as Frank Kroupa, lived in houses on the same property where their greenhouses had been erected. They each seemed to specialize in growing their own particular varieties of flowers or plants. For example, Louis Hrabak, although he did grow other plants and flowers, clearly specialized primarily in chrysanthemums.  In fact, his earlier ads only stated, “fresh cut chrysanthemums at the greenhouse.”(3)


However, advances in technology and transportation in the 1960s were causing significant changes in the business of growing flowers, such as the mass production of flowers using energy-efficient polyethylene greenhouses, dry-packing techniques, and low-cost freight transportation of flowers from California, Florida, and even foreign countries. Financial strains such as rising fuel costs, taxes, and the level of a living wage also had a significant impact on many producers. All this weakened Long Island’s domination of the New York City cut-flower market.  Between 1970 and 1980, the amount of Long Island growers decreased from more than 300 to only about 125 major growers. (4) To try and save their businesses, many local growers switched from cut flowers to potted plants, because the weight of potted plants made it prohibitively expensive for out-of-state growers to ship them. By 1981, 90 percent of the Long Island flower crop consisted of potted and bedding plants, with only 10 percent being cut flowers. (5)  Those that did not adapt suffered the consequences.  An example of this is the Schneeberg greenhouse on Johnson Avenue in Sayville. Noted for its roses, Schneeberg greenhouse was established in 1929, and was successful for many years, even being able to expand in the 1950s.  However, the influx of foreign roses eventually put too much pressure on the market, and is seen as the cause of them finally closing in 1999.


In our research, we were unable to find anyone in our own district who has been operating a greenhouse for fifty years or more.  For this reason, we reached out to the Bayport Flower Houses in Bayport. Gisbert Auwaerter, whose family has owned and run the Bayport Flowerhouses since 1932, has spoken at Sayville Historical Society meetings on the topic of local history and greenhouses. He agreed not only to talk with us, but also provide us with a tour of the greenhouses. His parents, who were German immigrants, established the business at the time of the Depression. In spite of the bad timing, Paul and Maria Auwaerter, were able by using their combined education and skills, to survive the lean years and build their greenhouses into a succesful business that has continued and been passed on to  the younger generations of the Auwaerter family. Gisbert attributes their business longevity to the philosophy his parents began with and that is to adapt to a changing market and to seek and incorporate the talent of family members and staff into the business.


The overview of the greenhouse business presented in this article is just an introduction to all of the information and stories that Gisbert Auwaerter was able to share with us in our interview with him. We encourage you to watch the interview and enjoy his gifted and enthusiastic storytelling, which we cannot capture in this written article. We learned from him far more than just greenhouse history. We also recived a bit of a lesson on horticulture, where to go on Long Island to see native wildflowers, what’s a good library for researching plants, and touches of philosophy on life and running a business. Maybe too, he will also inspire you as he did us, to go into the backyard and start planting. We hope that by watching the video you will enjoy and learn as much as we did on Gisbert Auwaerter’s tour of the Bayport Flowerhouses.

  1. 1. By, B. P. (1964, Apr 12). ON LONG ISLAND. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/115740221?accountid=6735
  2. The Suffolk County News., April 03, 1908, Page 2, Image 2. Retrieved from http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org
  3. Ths Suffolk County News., November 29, 1963, Page 6, Second Section. Retrieved from http://fultonhistory.com
  4. O'HAIRE, H. (1981, Oct 25). TO STAY ABLOOM, FLOWER GROWERS LOOK OVERSEAS. New York Times Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/424206124?accountid=6735
  5. Ibid.

Gisbert Auwaerter Interview