After 54 years, Bill and “Jody” Neumeier will on July 31 retire and close the nursery on the north side of Fort Smith that has provided generations in the region with the plants to make their homes and business more beautiful and welcoming.
The Neumeiers announced their plans on June 1 to retire and close Neumeier Nursery and Greenhouses. Bill, 83, and Jody, 79, decided it was finally time to slow things down a little and make time for things they haven’t been able to do for the past five and a half decades.
“That’s a long time to work. And well, we just decided to retire. Everybody has encouraged us. Our kids have wanted us to retire. And we just finally made the decision to do it. We didn’t want people to think it was because we had to retire. We’re making it a celebration,” Jody said in a recent interview with Talk Business & Politics.
The business began in August 1968 on North O Street in Fort Smith, across the street from where it sits now at 3327 N. O St. In 1976, the couple and their three children moved their home and business to a larger house, which was built in 1904, on five acres they bought from the Gean family in order to expand.
“We had three greenhouses and a cold frame. The main crop that we grew was pansies. That’s the main thing we grew every spring and fall, hundreds and hundreds of pansies. We outgrew our space,” Jody said. “We had been searching for a place to expand. … I kept telling (Bill) what we needed was across the street.”
The problem was the property wasn’t for sale. That didn’t deter Jody. She called the Geans and learned they would be interested in selling. They just did not want to sell it to someone who would destroy it, especially the historic house and the carriage house that sits behind it.
“I said, ‘Oh no. It would be a dream come true for me, and Bill would have his property he needs and room to grow,’” Jody remembered.
And over the years, the business grew to 12 greenhouses and gardens where Bill grows landscape, bedding and container plants, including perennials and annuals best suited for the region. The carriage house, at one time used as a floral department, is now the shop where customers can find bulbs, windchimes, pots and more – and the register to checkout.
The couple’s children – William (Bill or Billy) Neumeier Jr., Joseph (Joe) Neumeier, and Lisa Bobel Hearn – and their bonus son, Chris Cochran, of whom they became guardians, all worked many hours in the nursery over the years. The couple’s four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren have also learned a work ethic and love of plants through the business, Jody said.
Bill first learned the nursery business, working for the family-owned McKee Nursery, formerly on Rogers Avenue, while in high school in Fort Smith. He worked for a floral business while in college, he said. Soon after the couple married, Bill put two greenhouses in their backyard and grew groundcover plants for McKee.
“I learned a lot from Mr. McKee,” Bill said.
Bill also operated a lawn maintenance service with many residential clients in town.
“I would be doing all the yards on a whole block sometimes,” Bill said. “I remember telling a kid once that we had this yard and the next one and the next one, down the block. And he mowed it that way.
“He was just mowing one yard to the next, right over the driveway,” he added laughing.
He said many people don’t realize the maintenance the business still does today, including taking care of the flowers and plants inside Mercy Fort Smith.
“We put in the plants and maintain them at lots of places around town,” Bill said.
Neumeier Nursery supplies spring and fall plants for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. They also decorate the stage for graduation at UAFS and Northside High School.
“We use ivy and poinsettias or caladiums at (the university). It’s always so beautiful,” Jody said. “It’s very rewarding to stand back and look at it all.”
The nursery also provides Easter lilies for many area churches.
“And we do a lot of the poinsettias too. One year, we made a tree out of poinsettias,” Bill said.
In the 80s, Clancy Armstrong started a fresh flower department at Neumeiers, which they ran for 13 years.
“He had suggested we have the florist shop. I said I would open one when a cooler fell out of heaven,” Bill said.
“And then a cooler fell out of heaven,” Jody added.
In fact, the couple came to own a “very good” built-in cooler because a friend found one when emptying out a storage unit that had not been paid for.
“Armstrong not only started the fresh flower department at Neumeiers, he set it on fire with unique designs that became known all around Arkansas,” a post on the nursery’s Facebook page said. After working many years at Neumeier Nursery & Florist, Armstrong opened his own business – Expressions!
Today, the Neumeier floral adventure has been passed on to the next generation. Daughter Lisa Bobel Hearn worked many years in the Neumeier floral department and then at other flower shops while in college. After college and marriage, Hearn worked at Neumeier Nursery in the floral department while raising her children. In 2008, Hearn opened a studio floral design business called L Designs, which she now operates. She also opened The Barn By Two Brothers in 2015, a venue located in a 112-year-old original hay barn in Fort Smith.
“She took over the fall festivals too,” Jody proudly said. “She is doing a really great business out there.”
The Neumiers held a Christmas open house at their home and nursery for a number of years, before deciding to move things just to shop and nursery. To add a little more fun, the family held a Fall Festival for more than 30 years, Jody said. The fall festival day began with guest vendors and local artists and developed into a tradition, their daughter carries on at The Barn By Two Brothers.
“I told (the artist) that I wanted them doing their art, not just selling it. Everyone had to do something,” Jody said.
Vendors whom the Neumiers used were also on hand at the festival discussing bird seed, bulbs from Holland and lots of other products. There were also pony rides for the children and activities for everyone.
“I think the Fall Festivals were some of the best memories,” Jody said.
Of course, Hearn wasn’t the only one of the children to learn business skills from working at the nursery.
“Billy was a true product of his raising. Hard work was instilled in him at an early age and a true entrepreneur was formed,” Neumeiers Facebook post said.
After early education in entrepreneurial innovation provided his years of working for his parents, Bill Neumeier opened Coney Island, then Neumeier’s Rib Room and Papas Pub & Pizzeria. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival and the Peacemaker Festival. After his death in November 2018, Joe Neumeier took over Billy’s restaurants while continuing to help run the nursery, Jody said.
“After college Joseph decided to come back to the nursery to work side by side with his dad in a management position. Joe learned all of the secret ingredients for perfect pansy crops, propagating, spraying, purchasing and the list goes on and on,” a Facebook post said.
Jody said many were wondering what Joe would do once the announcement was made they were retiring. But along with continuing to run his late brother’s business, Joe will open another eatery in downtown Fort Smith. The Whippoorwill will open “sometime soon” at 509 Garrison Ave., the former location of Harry’s Downtown, Bill said.
“There are places to eat downtown. You can get pizza and barbecue and other meals,” Jody said.
“And fine dining. There is fine dining,” Bill added.
“But there really isn’t any place for home-cooked, comfort food,” Jody said. “That’s what The Whippoorwill will be. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but it should be opening sometime soon.”
As far as August first goes for the Neumeiers, the couple intends to stay in their home and keep up at least some of the gardens after retirement. And though they are closing, they won’t keep the public out at all times.
“There are a lot of people who like to come here and take photos. We want them to still be able to enjoy the gardens. We’ll just have to decide how best to do that,” Jody said.
Because the nursery will be closed, anyone wanting to take photos on the grounds after July 31 will have to contact the Neumiers.
After 54 years of making “a good living” running the nursery, Bill Neumeier did offer some advice to those making their start in life.
“We really have been lucky and fortunate over the years. We really have been blessed from day one,” Bill said. “What they say is true: If you enjoy the work you do, it’s really not that tough. And we have enjoyed it.
“Do you love what you are doing?” he added.