90 Years of Growth

By Jesse Eastman

This year Fort Collins Nursery celebrates its 90th birthday, and as I look back at our history, I am equally awed by what we’ve accomplished and thrilled for the future. The changes this company has undergone since its humble beginnings in 1932 tell a story of a business that has been defined by the changing community around it. This adaptability runs in our veins, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us. 

Left to right – Abbie Ellen Kimball Kinghorn, Ira Cornelius Kimball, Ruth Elizabeth Kinghorn Oakes, Ira Glenn Kinghorn. circa 1915

The business you know as Fort Collins Nursery began under the guidance of I. Glenn Kinghorn, born in McCook, Nebraska in 1894. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was working his way up in the world of newspaper reporting and publishing, and by his early 30s he was the Editor of Publication at the Colorado Agricultural College, now known as Colorado State University.

Kinghorn’s first print advertisement, 4/13/1932

Soon he would be organizing county-wide plant exchange events, and on April 13, 1932, we find the earliest evidence of him selling plants commercially in a classifieds ad run in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, and thus, Kinghorn’s Nursery was born.

Kinghorn would remain a staple in both journalism and horticulture, including service as president of the newly formed Colorado Nurserymen’s Association (now known as the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association). He was also well known for his weekly gardening article called “Outdoor Gardening” which appeared in the Fort Collins Coloradoan from 1966 until his death in 1971.

Following the death of his father in 1939, I. Glenn Kinghorn sold his business to Clayton Watkins of Nebraska. The business was renamed Fort Collins Nursery and continued to expand as both a retail and wholesale grower of trees, shrubs, perennials, and more.

Clayton Watkins

Watkins, who served in the US Army during the First World War, quickly made himself known throughout the community, giving frequent talks on a variety of horticultural topics, serving in a multitude of civic organizations including the Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the School Board. Much like Kinghorn before him, Watkins used his experience as a nurseryman to contribute to the nursery industry in Colorado by serving as president of the Colorado Nurserymen’s Association. As the Second World War pressed on, Watkins assisted in seeding airstrips for the US Army. Closer to home, he led the local chapter of an organization whose goal was to support and facilitate the planting of Victory Gardens in Fort Collins. 

Al Ekblad and Cecil Martin
Fort Collins Coloradoan. 6/6/1946

In May of 1946, Watkins sold his business to two nurserymen from Minnesota, Alvoy Ekblad and Cecil Martin. Under their ownership, the business offered many new services to meet the needs of the rapidly growing community, including local delivery, Christmas shopping, and landscape maintenance.

Fort Collins Coloradoan. 10/2/1955

In 1955, Ekblad and Martin sold the land where the nursery was located for housing development and the business was moved from its original location on W. Laporte Ave to its current location on East Mulberry St. (known then as the Ault Highway). This move allowed more space to grow plants, trees, and shrubs, and gave us the location we call home today!

Fort Collins Coloradoan. 1959

In 1958, Martin stepped away from the business and Marvin Wood joined Ekblad as a co-owner. Their influence on the shape of the City of Fort Collins can be seen through their participation in the design of major sections of City Park, their regular talks given at local gardening groups, work with local 4-H chapters, and even a Men’s Garden Club hosted at the nursery.

Gary Eastman

In the early 1970s, two Fort Collins Nursery employees, Gary Eastman and Gary Epstein (the two “Garys”) met while working at Fort Collins Nursery.

Gary Eastman, whose family raised apples in Hotchkiss, Colorado, moved to the front range following work in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps and serving in the U.S. Airforce. He worked for the Weld County Planning Department before finding his way into Fort Collins Nursery.

Gary Epstein

Prior to working at Fort Collins Nursery, Gary Epstein graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Landscape Design. He and his wife, Anne, lived in Cheyenne where Gary worked at a small garden center before taking an opportunity to work at Fort Collins Nursery.

In 1976 the Garys decided to take the reins when Wood and Ekblad were ready to retire, and immediately began looking for new and innovative ways to expand the business. Eventually they purchased and developed land on N. Shields St. where a wholesale nursery operation was developed, operated by Epstein. At the same time, Eastman pushed for an overhaul of the retail customer experience, placing a focus on attentiveness to customer needs and offering a broad range of educational resources. The old greenhouse was demolished and a new store and greenhouse were built to accommodate the growing business.

The tradition continues to this day!

The Garys also felt a deep obligation to support the community that kept Fort Collins Nursery in business, and they placed an emphasis on helping the surrounding community grow. The business began to support a variety of nonprofit organizations with a focus on community health and wellbeing. A Giant Sunflower and Pumpkin contest was established as a way to help kids see fun in growing plants.

Epstein worked tirelessly on improving the nursery industry, serving as president of the Colorado Nurserymen’s Association and participating in many other industry organizations including Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC) and the Colorado Horticultural Research and Education Foundation.

From left to right: Dan Wise; Rick Miller; Gary Epstein; Anne Epstein. 2016

In 2005, as both Garys had their sights set on retirement, they agreed to split the retail and wholesale operations into separate businesses so that each could focus on preparing their portion of the business for succession. Gary Epstein continued operating Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery until 2016 when he sold it to his son-in-law, Rick Miller, and long-time employee Dan Wise.

Gary Eastman and Jesse Eastman planting trees at Gary’s home in Fort Collins. 4/21/2022

Meanwhile, Gary Eastman ran Fort Collins Nursery, the retail business, until 2010, when he sold it to me, his son, Jesse. Prior to taking over Fort Collins Nursery, I spent many years landscaping, never drifting too far from the family trade.

Since then, I’ve worked hard at taking the lessons of the past to see this business through good times and bad. As the community around us has grown, so too has Fort Collins Nursery. Our staff has nearly doubled in size over the last 12 years. We’ve expanded our building. We’ve sold more plants to more customers than could have ever been imagined 90 years ago. I’ve served on the Board of Directors for The Gardens on Spring Creek, and served as President of the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association. Simultaneously, we’ve increased our efforts to ensure our community remains a vibrant place to live by partnering with a multitude of non-profit organizations through sponsorships, donations, and even benefit concerts hosted here on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River.

Rock Garden Concert

I can’t imagine what it took to start a business with little more than a piece of land, a shovel, and a dream, but I am beyond grateful for the incredible road map laid down for me by my predecessors. Through the Great Depression, a World War, droughts, recessions, and more, this company’s dedication to excellence in business and its commitment to civic pride have allowed it to thrive. I hope to one day pass these lessons on to another generation who can continue adapting to an ever changing world, always keeping their compass tuned to the importance of plants and community. Perhaps there is a child shopping with her family today who will be here at Fort Collins Nursery picking out a plant when we celebrate our next 90 years.

Originally published on April 29th, 2022. Updated on May 4th, 2022.