John W. Grier, 79, nurseryman who founded Harford Co. business

August 19, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John W. Grier - a well-known Harford County nurseryman who liked to relax on an island in the Susquehanna River when he wasn't tending his trees, shrubs and plants - died of lung cancer Tuesday at his home in Street. He was 79.

Mr. Grier was born, raised and spent his entire life on Grier Nursery Road, which was named after Grier Nurseries, the business established by his father and an uncle in 1908.

"He never left Deer Creek Valley. He was born in a bungalow and then moved across the street when he founded his own nursery," said his wife of 53 years, the former Louise Hess, who also worked in the business.

Mr. Grier - who described himself as "just a guy who digs ditches around trees"- was a 1941 graduate of Bel Air High School. He was 16 when he began working with his father full time, learning propagation and the nursery business from the ground up.

After his father's death in 1961, he and his wife established the John W. Grier Nursery on 100 acres on the north side of Deer Creek, across the road from the nursery begun by his father and uncle. There, he continued raising and selling his azaleas, barberries, junipers, spruces, maples, pines, shrubs and other plants until his death.

He was also considered an expert in the art of grafting in order to create special varieties, and was especially interested in numerous specimens of rhododendrons and mountain laurels, which he also collected and grew on his farm.

Mr. Grier liked dressing in casual clothes, flannel shirts and khaki-colored billed caps.

"He was a gentle man, and I never, ever saw a frown and not a smile on his face. And when you spoke to him, you always had his full attention," said Todd Holden, a Bel Air writer and photographer. "He endured life in a way that I admired, and was weathered and seasoned like the trees he so treasured."

Merryman Johnson, a lifelong friend who lives in Forest Hill, described him as "not outgoing but rather laid-back and quiet. He was a fine gentleman and that's all there is to it."

In a 1997 interview with The Star, a Delta, Pa., weekly, Mr. Grier explained that his favorite tree was the cut-leaf or laceleaf Japanese maple, which took 12 years of intensive care before it was ready to be sold.

"I like it because it grows slow and has a good design. It has good longevity, it's easy to grow and adds beauty to any location," he said.

"Trees do a lot for me. I've always liked to make 'em grow, and I've made a modest living out of trees. Yes, it's good to grow trees, but no one ever lives long enough to really enjoy the results," Mr. Grier said.

In an unpublished profile of Mr. Grier by writer Eric Edwards, he explained how he got through the lean years when the weather didn't cooperate or sales were less than expected.

"A lot of people have asked how we've survived so long," Mr. Grier said. "I just tell them that at times when your back is against the wall, you just don't eat as much and hope that next year is better. And that's really how we got ahead. We tried to focus on the little things."

While Mr. Grier may have employed the latest scientific knowledge in growing his nursery stock, he eschewed a modern cash register. He preferred to conduct his business affairs from a white ice cream bucket that he filled with sales books, pens and change.

"I think most people like doing business out of a bucket," he told Mr. Edwards. "And it's easier because most of our sales are made out in the middle of a field or in a greenhouse. And when one bucket wears, we just get another one."

When he could leave his nursery chores for a day or so, Mr. Grier liked to escape to Henry Island in the Susquehanna River, which he reached by motorboat. For 50 years, he shared a small cabin with his family. There, he liked to sail, canoe or ride his sailboard.

"I've been crying all day feeling grief and joy at the same time. He was one of my most favorite people in the universe," said Barbara Smith, a longtime neighbor and friend. "John Grier made you take a look at yourself and take measure. He was a very humble man with positive powers."

Mr. Grier was a member of the boards of the Deer Creek Cemetery and the 4-H Camp in Rocks. He had been a member of the Rotary Club.

Mr. Grier was a longtime member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Street, where a memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Grier is survived by a daughter, Carolyn Standiford of Street; and two grandchildren. His son, David J. Grier, was killed in a mountain climbing accident in Colorado in 1973.

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