MICHIGAN CITY — A lifetime of opportunities and the opportunities of a lifetime – that’s what stands out the most as Bill (William George) Woodruff looks back over six decades as a business owner in La Porte County.
The Woodruff legacy of area horticulture-based businesses dates back to 1939. And as Bill prepares to close the family businesses, he said his greatest joy has been “going to work” – he would devote six full days of the week to his business.
The decision to end this long chapter of his life is hardest because “it’s difficult to not see the usage of the nursery continued.”
Most of all, Bill is thankful for his profession, which allowed him to be outside in the fresh air, get plenty of exercise, and most of all, “do something that I loved to do.”
Something his entire family loved as well.
In 1939, William John Woodruff's son, Frank, started a garden business in La Porte County. His younger brother Bill – 13 at the time – would start helping with the business a few years later. World War II forced the suspension of Frank’s operations in 1942, and in fact, six of the Woodruff brothers, including Bill, served in the military – three in the Army, two in the Navy and one in the Air Force.
After the war, Frank and his brother, Glen, revitalized Frank’s business into a landscaping firm with a small nursery. The same year, brothers Roy and Lewis, along with their father, started Woodruff & Sons Inc. Today, the construction company has offices in Michigan City as well as Tampa and Bradenton, Florida.
Bill worked for the family landscaping business while earning his degree in horticulture, agronomy and landscape design from Purdue University in 1955. Then, in 1958, after finishing military service, he became a partner in the landscaping business run by his brothers.
In 1962, Frank left to start his own business, Woodruff Gardens, in Rolling Prairie. Meanwhile, Bill and Glen continued to grow the garden center until 1974 when they split into two companies. Glen opened Woodruff Garden Center on Michigan Boulevard, and Bill continued the landscaping business as La Porte County Landscaping Services.
With the purchase of an additional 120 acres on CR-350S in La Porte, Bill started La Porte County Nursery. By that time, La Porte County Landscaping Services had grown into a large commercial landscaping company.
When Brian Bunge, a 1977 Purdue horticultural graduate, became the nursery manager, La Porte County Landscaping Services expanded into the wholesale nursery business.
In 1978, Bill bought the property at 7657 W. State Road 2 in La Porte. The nursery office was converted from an old building – originally designed as an interim train station for a scam railroad that allegedly traveled from south of La Porte to Valparaiso, Bill explained.
Ahead of his time, in true “green” fashion, Bill reused lumber, bricks, metal siding and windows from other local buildings, completing the construction using hand-hewed posts and pegged wooden beams. Interestingly, one of the wholesale nursery property buildings on CR-350S was designed in 1836 as a way station and tavern on the stagecoach line between South Bend and Joliet, Illinois.
At one point, up to 300 acres of land were used at the landscaping site, which over its 60-plus years, supplied trees and shrubs for its own business as well as for landscapers, nurseries and contractors in Indiana and surrounding states.
Locally, La Porte County Landscaping’s services were utilized in the construction Rogers High School and Purdue North Central (now Purdue Northwest), as well as updates to Purdue Calumet (now Purdue Northwest - Hammond).
His handiwork could also be seen at the former Kingwood Hospital in Michigan City, La Porte Hospital and the original Saint Anthony Hospital. Bill’s horticulture expertise was utilized in the creation of Briar Leaf Golf Course in La Porte, updates to Michigan City Municipal Golf Course, and the expansion of Pottawatomie Golf Course.
At the LaPorte County Landscaping site on SR 2, several large propagation polyhouses were constructed, where small plants would be started from a cutting and grown into trees.
“One year we shipped 99 semi loads of trees. We made new plants by the thousands. We even sold the rooted cuttings to other companies,” Bill said. “I always like to say that the trees and plants were cleaning the air for my grandchildren.”
With the history of his business, it’s no surprise that family played a big role over the years.
“The measure of success is family,” Bill said. “The business has had the entire family involved.”
His wife of 63 years, Karin, “has been very supportive and part of the management of the company,” Bill said.
“His passion was landscaping,” Karin said. “He loved his work. He was lucky. It was his profession, but also his hobby.”
Bill and Karin’s three daughters, Debra Weisman, Heidi Bash and Connie Sager, all worked in the family business. During Bill’s “heart episode,” Weisman, who holds a horticulture degree from Purdue, ran the business and today manages the grounds for the St. Joseph County Library system. Carrying on the family tradition, another daughter, four grandchildren, and one son-in-law also graduated from Purdue.
At one point in time, La Porte County Nursery and La Porte County Landscaping employed 60-70 people and ran two to three crews.
“A lot of relationships were built here,” said Bill.
Vice president and nursery manager Judy Bunge worked as office manager for more than 30 years; and Tina West served as a bookkeeper for 15. Bill also fondly recalled his lifelong friendship with 40-year mechanic Chester Schlegel, who passed away in May at age 85.
The two Woodruff properties, which include 6 acres on SR 2 and the 78-acre tree farm, are now for sale; and purchae of smaller portions is negotiable. While landscaping services stopped on Jan. 1, the nursery is open until Aug. 15.