Tens of thousands of Metro-Detroiters remember Clyde Smith & Sons Nursery and Farm Market as where their family got flowers for their gardens in spring, or pumpkins for Halloween in the fall. I was shocked and somewhat saddened when I saw that the place was closed up and posted for sale while passing by one summer morning in 2007. I have plenty of memories from my own childhood of going here to get the same things, since my ma was always into gardening.
Clyde Smith's stood at 8000 N. Newburgh Road, in the city of Westland...not to be confused with that Ghostface Killah thing.
Out front of the old Smith family house was a Michigan Centennial Farm marker, which was a program that the state government used to do to commemorate older farms. In the budget cuts of the late-2000s the program was discontinued, but the Historical Society of Michigan stepped up to take over the operations of the program.
I wish I would have taken a picture of the old farmhouse too, but oh well. Here is the house, seen on Google Streetview (c. July 2007):
|From Google Streetview|
Walking right into the wide-open front building, I passed through the produce market first:
I found the company offices already pretty well trashed:
I dug up an article from 1999 in the Westland Observer entitled, "Business is Blooming," which celebrated the history of the Clyde Smith business. Stephen Smith came from New York via the Erie Canal in 1834, and set up a homestead here near the Tonquish Creek that grew into a 250-acre farm, prior to becoming the market and nursery that I remember as a kid.
The Tonquish Creek is a tributary of the Rouge River, which flows through a beautiful wooded area directly behind this property that has been designated as William P. Holliday Park—a place that I hiked a lot when I was in Boy Scouts.
This old map of Westland does a fairly good job of showing where the nursery was, as well as how close it sat to the Tonquish Creek, and Holliday Park:
I talked more about exploring Holliday Park in an older post.
This wooden structure was the "original barn" according to the article...I wonder if by "original" they actually mean 1834, or some later date?
I took a peek inside. I'm not sure that it really made me think it was as old as 1834, but my memory of that moment (almost ten years ago) is hazy.
The article also said that Clyde Smith's generally provided employment to 90 people during peak summertime levels. Many employees had been working there for 30 years, or even 50 years, and those who were interviewed said they loved the place. One of them even recalled working here before Newburgh Road was paved.
It was shocking to see the place in such disarray, with some of the greenhouses smashed, and weeds growing so tall already. It seemed like I had just been here not that long ago, and couldn't believe that the place could have fallen apart this much so soon.
Clyde Smith closed its doors earlier in the year; the auction was held in March of 2007. Reportedly the business had trouble staying competitive, although I never knew them to be in financial trouble. Of course, the fact that every local WalMart, Meijer's, Lowes, or Home Depot now has their own built-in garden department at every store location probably had something to do with it.
A reader informs me that the new Randazzo's store at Warren Rd. also had a major impact.
If I recall correctly, this little brown hut was where one of the check-out registers was located if you had filled up a big shopping cart from the greenhouses:
Along the main greenhouse row:
Plastic irrigation lines hanging loose, the metal pipes having been taken for scrap no doubt:
The nurseries had a transplanting machine, affectionately named "Lucy," according to the Observer article.
On the floor of one of the greenhouses, I saw that a couple boxes of brand-new postcards had been busted open and scattered around. Upon looking more closely, I realized that the postcards were of Clyde Smith Nursery itself, and that despite looking brand-new they were probably printed in the 1970s or 1980s...
On the reverse side of the postcards, it had the address and telephone number of the nursery, which was still in the 313 area code back when these were printed. The cards were also marked as having been "Distributed by Northville Photo."
These long central corridors served to connect various greenhouse wings branching out on either side, and shoppers could push their carts to peruse whatever area they wanted.
David Smith, Sr. said in the Observer article that as a kid he found "hundreds" of Indian arrowheads while working in the field, and also recalled watching WPA workers re-dig the channel of the Tonquish Creek during the Great Depression.
The Smiths even had a chestnut orchard on these lands, the article said.
In the old days, the Smiths brought their goods to market at Detroit's Western Market, which was located at Michigan Avenue & 18th, or roughly where the I-75 / I-96 interchange is located now.
It was farmland all the way to Greenfield Road back then, David Sr. recalled about riding the streetcar to the Western Market to sell bags of chestnuts.
I wrote more about Detroit's various farmers' markets in a different post.
There were several of these small white houses lining one "street" behind the greenhouses.
The sign on the door says "STOP, PESTICIDE STORAGE AREA":
There were no pesticides found within however, only the lingering essence of suburban angst:
I have to wonder if these structures were originally built as seasonal homes for farm hands back in the old days? During the Great Depression, local children also worked the Smith farm to help provide for their families.
Clearly some people had already started taking advantage of the vacant property as a spot for illegal dumping:
Sort of bizarre looking...
Although I'm having a hard time digging up any reference to it, I thought I remembered hearing once that Clyde Smith was somehow implicated in toxic contamination of the Tonquish Creek and Holliday Park in the 1980s or 1990s, possibly by using their back acreage to dispose of fertilizer or pesticides, or that they improperly stored such chemicals, resulting in groundwater leaching.
In any case, I know that a section of Holliday Park in this area was cordoned off as containing "hazardous materials" in the late 1990s when I occasionally hiked through there. The only article I can find seems to indicate that the contaminated site was indeed in this area, but that it was a municipal waste site, and no mention of Clyde Smith was made.
Today this historic former nursery has been completely demolished, and apparently replaced by 146 new luxury homes called "Clyde Smith Farms," which follows in the uniquely American tradition of sentimentally naming new things after the old thing that was destroyed to put it there, and selling them to people who don't care about what used to be there. "Oh honey let's buy our new house at Clyde Smith Farms, it sounds so quaint and cozy and historic!"
Meanwhile, it looks just like every other cookie-cutter McMansion-Land plopped into a sterilized setting that has been totally scrubbed of any of the character that the place it's named after would have even had, because the formula every developer uses is to rip out every single old tree and plant all new sickly-looking bargain-bin saplings of non-native species, then totally bulldoze the natural topography of the land and either make it totally flat, or re-sculpt it to form silly fake hills that were never there (and unsightly retention ponds), so that residents can "feel" like they live in an "interesting" terrain.
Then they put a bunch of winding streets that curve around everywhere for no apparent reason, other than to help bolster the illusion that the neighborhood actually developed from a pre-existing historical context, as opposed to having been created in a test tube with no connection to its surroundings at all. Viz.: mcmansionhell.com
But that's the American way—throwing out actual culture so that developers can create a contrived culture they can sell, designed to bestow a certain desired image of affluence or sophistication upon a shallow-minded, pretentious consumer. I am convinced that you could demolish anything—even Auschwitz—put a yuppy housing development there and sell them to American baby boomers, just so long you gave it a quaint-enough or pretentious-enough sounding name.
The new "gorgeous, craftsman-style homes" of Clyde Smith Farms are described as being for the needs of diverse, multi-generational families, and designed to meet the needs of today’s "most discriminating buyers." Sorry, but slapping a couple tapered pillars onto a McMansion does not turn it into a Craftsman. Oh, am I being too *discriminating* there?
I'm not arguing that these greenhouses were some crucial historic landmark that needed to be preserved, I'm just always bummed out when I see crappy sprawl developments being wedged into areas that could be let go back to nature. You know, nature—that thing that replenishes the air, soil, and water we need to stay alive, remember?
"Business is Blooming," Westland Observer, April 22, 1999, p. A1
"Hearing Examines Plant to Cover Westland Landfill," Westland Observer, April 15, 1999, p. A7