The American Dream
The story of Behnke Nurseries is the epitome of the American Dream. A young man from Germany immigrated to the United States to seek a better life for himself while carrying on the family tradition. Now a local landmark, Behnke Nurseries began over 75 years ago in Beltsville, Maryland through the hard work and determination of that young man, Albert Behnke, and his wife Rose.
Albert Behnke grew up in the garden. His father, Wilhelm Behnke, owned a nursery in the northern town of Kellinghusen, Germany, where he grew roses, perennials and other flowers. Wilhelm sold his flowers all over Europe and England. In 1911, Wilhelm won a medal from the Horticultural Guild in Germany for developing a new variety of apple, the `Stina Lohman’ variety.
Albert was born in 1904 in Kellinghusen. He grew into a strong-minded man determined to strike out on his own and create a new life for himself in America. Deciding that there was more that he could accomplish in the United States than he could in strictly-regulated Germany, Albert sailed to the States and continued working at what he knew, roses and cut flowers.
Before settling down in Beltsville, he worked at several jobs on the East coast, including working in the rose gardens of Bobbink and Atkins in New Jersey. It was with this company that Albert made a deal to receive a car in exchange for grafting nursery stock. Bobbink and Atkins agreed to this deal, never for a minute believing that Albert could possibly produce enough grafts to equal the worth of the car, but Albert worked long and hard and succeeded in earning his Model A Ford.
In 1930, Albert started his nursery in Beltsville. In July of 1931 he married a young German girl by the name of Rose Hausner. During the time of the Great Depression when love was sometimes overshadowed by the struggle to survive, their first meeting was as romantic as a fairy tale. According to their daughter, Sonja Behnke Festerling, Albert and Rose were both returning by ship to Germany to be married. The two met and it was fate.
Drought, Sweat, Tears… and Roses
By Sabrina Martin
Behnke Nurseries faced rough times in the early years. Albert Behnke opened the nursery in 1930. Not only was this during the Depression, but Maryland was also suffering from a prolonged drought. Business was very slow so he and his wife, Rose, took extra jobs to provide for themselves and their growing family.
The Behnke’s first son, Roland, was born in 1932, followed by Sonja in 1933 and William in 1934. In 1948, Albert H. was born. With a loan from his father, Albert was able to purchase the one acre of land upon which the original office and Behnke home stood.
He bought the land from the Simms-Jones family who developed Beltsville and owned a general store near the nursery. The rest of the land that the nursery occupied was rented. Horses were rented from a farmer to plow and cultivate the fields that grew the first crop of roses. The original sign was erected along Route 1 and the Behnkes were ready for business.
The Post War Years: Prosperity at Last!
By Roland Behnke
After World War II, Behnke Nurseries, like many other nurseries and garden centers in the Washington, D.C. area, experienced phenomenal growth. Besides their popular African violets, Behnke’s greatly expanded their selection of annuals, perennials, roses, shrubs and trees.
Before the War, the greenhouse was a homemade affair attached to the side of the family house. In 1946, Albert and Rose Behnke contracted with the Lord and Burnham Company to provide a modern steel and glass greenhouse with redwood trim, cypress benches and a hot water, coal-fired boiler for heating.
This was the first modern greenhouse constructed in the Washington area after the War. Thereafter, other greenhouses and a propagating house were built until, by 1951, there were three along Washington-Baltimore Boulevard (US Rte. 1), another double Orlyt wooden greenhouse in front of the family home, and a larger L & B greenhouse where the main retail area is today.
Separate buildings and sheds were built for transplanting seedlings and cuttings – many of which were set out in heated cold frames covered with glass sash.
This is a photo of Albert Behnke Nurseries as it was called in the beginning. In the distance you can see the Lewis Family home, which is still there on Wicomico Ave. Behnke Nurseries is still located on this property in Beltsville, Maryland on US 1.