At Charlie & Sons, a family legacy can be seen in the trees.
The tallest belong to Charles “Doc” Whitmore and his wife, Eleanor, who co-founded the original Whitmore-Worsley nursery in East Hampton almost 75 years ago, most notably represented by a towering gingko tree that now stretches up and over the shop.
The smallest trees belong to their grandchildren, Matias and Chico, which are slowly playing catch-up to the trees planted decades earlier by their father, Charlie, now just a shade shorter and leaner than those of his parents.
Symbolic as a literal family tree, the arborous visual also speaks to a longstanding tradition of multi-generational landscaping and nursery businesses across the East End — a place where family, community and the countryside rule supreme.
The industry here has lent itself to this business model for nearly a century, explained several longtime landscaping families, each united by a shared history, value system and a vision for their companies, and the challenges that invariably lie ahead.
THE FOUNDING FATHERS
When considering the number of multi-generational landscapers and horticulturalists on the East End, Mariah Whitmore immediately rattled six off the top of her head, not including her own family’s business.
As sales manager, she represents the third generation of leadership at Whitmores, which includes three branches — the tree farm, a landscaping business and a maintenance practice — that splintered off from Whitmore-Worsley in the 1960s.
In the 1930s, Amityville-based Whitmore and his partner, Al Worsley, had started working with local East End farmers by providing treatments for potato fields and dairy farms. Due to their collective and expansive plant knowledge, the business became well known within the community, picking up landscaping work, tree and garden care, and eventually relocating to the East End in the mid-1940s, Whitmore said.
“My grandfather was a graduate of Rutgers University, so people started bringing him onto their properties more to ask tree and plant questions, and they realized there was a real opportunity there,” she said. “The original Amagansett location is where my uncle is now, which is Charlie & Sons, and my grandmother, Eleanor, had a garden business out of that shop, and that’s where they also ran the landscaping.”
When Worsley retired in the 1970s, the Whitmore family became the sole owner of the company, and its patriarch would soon pass the business down to his son, Jack. In 1986, he purchased East Hampton farmland to create Whitmores Tree Farm, which has since expanded to two locations with over 200 acres, and established itself as Whitmores, now an East End institution.
By this time, Jack Whitmore’s brother, Charlie, had already founded C. Whitmore Gardens in 1969, taking over the original Amagansett farm and store. He recently renamed the business Charlie & Sons Landscapes to reflect the incoming leadership — and a passing of the torch to the third generation — while carrying on the family name and reputation.
“I started off with a shovel in my hand on the landscaping crew,” Matias Whitmore said. “Actually, I probably started cutting boxes for my grandmother when she was running the garden center 15 years ago, and she would give us 20 bucks for cutting open boxes and send us on our way. But you know, that was just grandma being nice.”
Similarly, Lou Caracciolo Jr. grew up at Shade Trees Nursery, started by his parents over 50 years ago with the purchase of an overgrown, 20-acre farm field on Herricks Lane in Jamesport. His father worked tirelessly to clear the field with an old Ford 8N tractor, slowly fulfilling his dream to have his own nursery, overflowing with plant materials for his landscaping projects in New York City and across the state.
“As a kid, I was kind of a lackey,” Caracciolo said. “I had my dirt bike and I would cruise around until my father felt I was getting too old for all that fun, and pulled me in and started putting me with the guys, getting a lot of hands-on experience.”
Thirty years earlier — and four generations ago — the Hren landscaping family had landed on the East End in 1939. Joseph Hren was an Austrian immigrant and set in his ways, a horticulturalist through and through. He was also a painter, a family man and a father to eight children when he died unexpectedly at age 50, leaving his burgeoning Hrens Nursery to his eldest son.
And so, at age 18, Joseph Hren Jr. was suddenly responsible for his seven siblings and their mother, and running a business.
“I think, because he was so young, people didn’t take him seriously at first and it was a real struggle — because he knew the business since he was born,” his daughter, Lori Hren, said of her father, who passed away in 2016. “He grew up as a nurseryman as a kid. They had a greenhouse attached to their home and his father was always growing and the kids were always outside working. He definitely knew his stuff and his father had a reputation as being a real artist, but also a true nurseryman.”
THE CURRENT GENERATION
Joseph Hren Jr. wasted no time before bringing his daughter and her three siblings — Kim, Joe and Jason — into the family business. Their earliest memories involve riding their bicycles and motorcycles and horses around the farm, always outside playing or, eventually, working.
“Family business, I think, is a wonderful thing,” Lori Hren said with a laugh, “but anyone who has come from one will tell you that it’s difficult. You put all the issues you have in your family growing up and then, on top of it, working together constantly and any issues there, and put it all in a blender. It can be challenging. But after everything, we’re all still close, and it’s all good.”
The four siblings came away from their childhoods with countless lessons from their father. He was meticulous, organized and artistic — a talent he picked up from his own dad — and trained his children to work hard, Joe Hren III said.
“Growing up here, there wasn’t a lot of other work out here. You really needed a skill and there weren’t that many jobs to be found. And if you went away to college for something, you may have a difficult time finding a job here because it’s such a small community,” he said. “I was actually told by my father, he basically said, ‘You don’t go to college for horticulture, you’re on your own.’ So that’s what my whole family did. Most of us went to the same school for horticulture and we came back and worked.”
Today, Joe Hren runs his own landscaping business, Joe Hren III Landscaping, where he is grooming his 16-year-old son, Joseph Hren IV, to potentially take over someday.
“I’m not sure he’s going to stay in the business; he’s also involved in marine mechanics, so we’ll see,” he said. “It’s a tough business to be in out here. Every year, it gets tougher and tougher.”
Six years ago, Kim Hren — who has co-owned Groundworks Landscaping with her business partners, Linda and Andy Silich since 2002 — acquired the original Hrens Nursery location at 530 Montauk Highway in East Hampton, where she now works alongside her younger brother, Jason.
“You know how many things I do here, every day, where I walk around and I feel like I’m a kid again?” Ms. Hren said. “Like, ‘Oh, I’ve been here before,’ or I think, ‘Wow, we used to ride motorcycles back there,’ or ‘I used to have a tree fort in that tree.’ We’re always changing here and moving stuff around and getting tractor-trailer loads of plants in, but there’s still a lot of history here. There’s a lot of my dad here. My brothers and sisters, there’s a lot of all of us here. And it’s kind of nice.”
A year ago, Lori Hren opened her flower design studio, Anchor & Bloom, at the front of the shop — “I really wasn’t into tractors and trucks and big trees as much,” she said — and sometimes works tangentially with Groundworks, as their clients often overlap.
“I’m a creative person, so I just love being in the moment with the flowers,” she said. “Who doesn’t love flowers? Everything I’ve ever done, they make people happy. Even a huge event and all the stress, it’s still worth it. When you’re in the middle of it, you can just stop for a minute and look at what you’re doing and say, ‘Wow, these flowers are so beautiful.’
“Slowly, everybody had to find their own way and their own life,” she added. “It’s interesting we’ve all come back.”
Following in her own father’s footsteps, Mariah Whitmore also attended Rutgers University before she felt a call toward home — both literally and figuratively.
“I went to the city for a few years and I thought that’s where I would stay, and then I didn’t love my experience there quite as much,” she said. “My father asked me to come back because he was ready for one of the children to start learning the business. I was looking for a change, and I think leaving the community, you don’t quite realize how wonderful it is out here until you have some distance. So it was exciting.”
With learning the business has come endless family fervor — “I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm when you’re passing along a lifetime’s worth of work,” she said of her father — and invaluable advice from her grandmother, Eleanor, who is now 94 years old.
“She comes and walks the farm regularly,” Mariah said, “and we still have meetings where she gives me super useful insight, because I think she was just able to see the business from the start to where it is now, and the landscaping and the changes in economics and the whole thing. She’s still very sharp.”
Over the last three generations, the challenges in running not only a family business, but one in the landscaping industry, have exponentially increased — from seasonal staffing concerns to earning a year’s worth of income in six months. Competing against online retailers has amplified those issues, said Caracciolo, who runs Shade Trees Nursery with his wife, Lisa.
“I certainly could not have done what I’ve been able to accomplish without her. There’s no question,” he said. “She’s been with me and she works a lot harder than I do, I can tell you that much. Thirty some-odd years married, it’s amazing we’ve been able to survive it all, working with each other all day long.”
Together, they are selling plants, but they are also they are selling themselves and a family name. Both the Hrens and the Whitmores agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, they said.
“It’s a great business, it really is,” Caracciolo said. “Don’t forget, I’m looking at it from a perspective of having done this since I was 15 years old. That’s 40 years ago, so maybe some of the energy’s been sucked out of me a little bit. But at the end of the day, I love it at six o’clock when nobody’s here, and I go and I take a walk out in the fields and I look at what we do, I look at what we produce, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s just beautiful.”
He sighed contentedly to himself. “I don’t know how to do anything else but this, and I love what I do — not to mention, we’re providing oxygen, which is a good thing, too.”
In 2015, the Caracciolos’ son, Myles, joined the business full-time to eventually manage the wholesale division. He is up against a far greater learning curve, his father said, as he did not have the same immersive training as a child — though he does offer a greater understanding of tech and marketing.
“In all family businesses, the ability for them to carry on today is extremely difficult,” Caracciolo said. “The mindsets of the kids today is different than what I had, what my generation had. They want a quality of life and I don’t blame them. They deserve it and they should have one.
“So if Shade Trees Nursery can continue on and my son can truly enjoy it, then I think that’s wonderful. But if it gets to the point where it’s just far too stressful for him, and the battle to continue becomes too great, then no, I don’t want it to continue.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
With a new generation of leadership also comes a new generation of client — one that is younger, savvier and more attune to environmental issues, such as overdevelopment, water quality and climate change, according to Kim Hren.
“They’re more artsy, more into their landscape, into organic gardening, which has changed,” she said. “They’re into what’s good for the Earth and what will attract bees, what will be good for their kids to eat. It’s definitely a different way of thinking, but it’s definitely the way we all should be thinking.”
With a shift toward native plants, Matias Whitmore has noticed less chemical use overall and a heightened awareness toward healthy, organic landscapes, he said. While his parents, Charlie and Chini, maintain the leadership of the company, most of his day-to-day operations involve his brother, Chico, which has presented a challenge in itself.
“It can be great, it can be awful, but we work best when we recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and fill the gaps,” he said. “Sometimes you can be making things too personal when they should be just business, and we try to set that aside or discuss that thoroughly. It always comes down to communicating with each other, and the fact that we have had a family taco night every Tuesday for the last three years holds merit to the fact that it holds true.”
Mariah Whitmore feels a special kind of privilege while working in a family business, she said. But with more understanding and patience does come higher expectations — and she has found camaraderie among her fellow multi-generational landscapers.
“There’s really a lot of us,” she said. “I don’t think it’s uncommon, and therefore I don’t feel the pressure. We have a nice little network and it’s been more of a support group, because there’s a lot of us doing it and we all grew up together.”
For the past 10 years, Matias Whitmore has learned how time moves in the industry, catching onto its rhythm and knowing when the breathers are coming. At the height of the summer season, there is rarely such a thing — save for those moments when he notices the three generations of trees on the property and remembers who came before him, and who is destined to come after.
“I’m very proud of how far we’ve come, and proud to be carrying on this legacy,” he said. “I can see the trees that were planted back when Doc and Eleanor purchased the shop. I can see the ones my father planted — at this point, they almost look like 50-year-old trees — and I can see growing next to those are the ones that my brother and me have planted. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
As published in the Express Magazine