Holland. 1948. World War Two had ended two years earlier, Holland was recovering from a brutal Nazi occupation and flowers of freedom were blooming in Sarah’s life: she was going steady with Auke Valk!
But Auke had just been asked by a friend to come to a new life in America. When Auke asked Sarah to go with him, she was uncertain. What about her family, what about the things in America about which they had no knowledge including English? What about her future? In her heart, Sarah knew the only way to keep Auke was to go with him, and that was enough!
Even though they made up their minds, they had to wait two years for the visas to be approved by immigration authorities in the United States. Finally, their sponsor in Tennessee, (a Mr. C. P. Edwards who wanted “Dutch” growers for his various properties), pulled enough strings to get the visas approved.
However, all of the boats from Holland to the United States were booked for months in advance, even freighter ships. So Auke and Sarah contacted the Cunard Line in England to book their passage, despite the expense of such a line – an expense that took all of their savings. But they were booked to sail to America!
On August 1st, 1950, Auke and Sarah were married in Holland. Two months later, they left England for the United States and arrived in New York City on October 12th, a day so foggy that they couldn’t see the Statue of Liberty as they arrived.
Taking the train from New York to Washington DC, they stayed overnight and the next morning, Auke got a shave and haircut in preparation for meeting Mr. Edwards. Sarah and Auke had $3, one suitcase of clothing and a few items in a wooden crate that would arrive shortly. They had a meager start in America but with great anticipation and an eagerness to succeed, Sarah and Auke headed to Kingsport. A train would delivered them from Washington to Bristol, Tennessee, where Dutch friends picked them up and drove them to their new home in Kingsport.
A new life in a new country was challenging for both of them, especially learning a new language. While Auke’s daily contacts in business honed his English skills, Sarah’s was slower – after all, she was making a new home for them!
Despite occasional bouts of home-sickness, especially around Christmas, Auke and Sarah settled into their new life. Soon, their own family began to grow as three blond babies arrived in almost as many years!
Auke’s work for Mr. Edwards was somewhat conflicting for him: while Mr. Edwards seemed to think of Auke as his “personal gardener”, Auke’s dream was to start up his own gardening business. In the meantime, the men worked together to create new garden enterprises for Edwards. Several approaches failed until Auke began to grow bedding plants and make them available to homeowners, many of whom had never grown flowers past the marigold-and-petunia stage.
Building on success, Auke built greenhouses for Mr. Edwards so they raise even more plants and expand the offerings. More and more customers began buying plants from the “Dutch grower” down at Mr. Edwards’ place.
Auke and Sarah felt more secure… but the dream to start their own business was stronger than ever.
Independence… and Growing Pains!
When Auke and Sarah Valk came to America, their dream was to start a garden business of their own. However, their sponsor, Mr. Edwards, hired Auke as more of a manager for his own garden enterprises… an arrangement that lasted several years.
Finally, Auke managed to convince Mr. Edwards to open up a retail garden center in downtown Kingsport on Market Street. Sarah admits it was scary but she and Auke had never let anything get them down, and they weren’t about to start now! Ridgefields Plant Growers, the new business, took off! So in 1953, they opened Kingsport’s first garden center on Market Street in Kingsport – the very first “Evergreen Garden Center” – but far from the last!
Sarah was busy at home raising their children, but once Auke asked her to find a baby sitter and come help him manage the store, she found that she really enjoyed it. Her life-long love of flowers and her enthusiastic smile combined with Auke’s business skills made serving the ever-growing numbers of customers a wonderful confirmation of their decision to spend their lives together.
In 1966 Auke asked Mr. Edwards to consider selling this successful garden center venture to him. After a couple of months, Mr. Edwards finally allowed Sarah and Auke’s dream to come true. Ridgefield’s Plant Growers officially became Evergreen Garden Center.
Evergreen continued to grow as Auke and Sarah came to see truth in the idea that when you have your own business, more people will come to support you. And it helped that there was virtually no other business like theirs anywhere in Northeast Tennessee!
After several years, the decision was made to move to a larger location. The old John Deere site on Industry Drive came up for sale. It was oily, somewhat rundown and dirty, but the price was right and the location was perfect. Soon, what had been an old farm equipment lot was covered with flowers, plants – and six little blond-haired kids! The Valk children were now a part of the scenery and customers loved it!
By the early 1970’s, business had expanded so much that Auke and Sarah decided to expand again – this time, to Riverport Road in Kingsport, ironically not too far from where Auke first began to work for Mr. Edwards in the Ridgefields subdivision.
And this time, the two oldest sons, Henere and Lee, were made working partners in the business. Soon, landscape lots were added, more greenhouses were constructed, a free-standing Grow Center was erected a quarter-mile away, a separate landscaping business was formed… and the customer numbers kept growing and growing.
As homeowners kept looking for new and exciting additions to their landscapes, Evergreen kept expanding to meet their desires. Like Auke and Sarah’s marriage, it was a relationship made in heaven.
Growing Business, Growing Kids… But Clouds Appear
Sarah and Auke Valk grew their garden center business for two decades, through three expansions, into a showcase Evergreen Garden Center in Kingsport. Customers grew their gardening and landscaping needs right along with the Valks into the 1980s.
A second Evergreen opened in Johnson City, run by the other two sons, Tony and Michael. By this time, Henere and Lee Valk had assumed most of the operations management of the Kingsport location.
But you couldn’t have pried Auke and Sarah away from their livelihood and love – that Kingsport store! Auke continued to work and manage many of the landscaping jobs, while Sarah helped oversee the greenhouse retail side of operations. To Sarah, as to Auke, keeping their hands dirty with gardening came as naturally as breathing.
A third Evergreen store was built in Colonial Heights, approximately halfway between Kingsport and Johnson City, to serve a large and growing suburban market there. And a fourth Evergreen opened in Bristol to meet gardeners’ needs in that nearby city.
Sadly, it was during this time of success and expansion, that Auke was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A fiercely independent man, Auke was frustrated to experience his many talents declining in strength. But his equally fierce faith in God, and the loving support of his six children (plus grandkids now), kept him active at Evergreen. Only during his final months was he no longer able to dirty his hands in the business he loved.
Auke died late evening on October 11, 2000, with Sarah by his side and all his family present. It was just a few hours away from his 50th anniversary in America – a Dutchman by birth, an American by choice, and an inspiration to everyone who knew him.
Ten years later, in 2010, Sarah remains as active in her “Evergreen life” as ever – spending several days each week at the Kingsport location, helping keep the greenhouses in top shape, planning the seminars she offers each year, and talking gardening with her thousands of friends made over the years.
Will there be a third generation of Valks running the Evergreen businesses? No one knows for sure – grandkids in college are pursuing other degrees. But regardless of the future, Sarah takes her life of 60 years of Evergreen one day at a time.
Listening to customers, staying ahead of the competition, keeping on trying – and ALWAYS saying Thank You.