A Fine First Impression: Rochester Sargent’s Garden Center Opens in April 1971
Forrest Sargent was part of a three-generation nursery business. He grew up working on the nursery in Red Wing owned by his father, Maxwell, that had been owned previously by Maxwell’s father, Forrest H. Sargent. Following graduation from the University of Minnesota in 1967, Forrest joined Maxwell in the business (Sargent’s Nursery, Inc.), and as it grew, he became interested in establishing a second location in southern Minnesota.
An expansion opportunity arrived in 1970. Following a lead from Sargent’s primary nursery stock supplier (Bailey Nurseries in Newport, Minnesota), Forrest leased Donaldson’s Garden Center and Floral at the north end of the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Rochester. (Donaldson’s was a small chain of six department stores in Minnesota, and their garden center was one of their lease departments.) He secured the lease in the winter of 1970–1971, and then bought the inventory, an unheated building, and a 21-by-96–foot greenhouse from Mr. Conrad Odegaarden.
A contractor was hired in March 1971 to build a small, 24-by-30–foot building, and Sargent’s Garden Center opened for business a month later. The economy was good, and the new store got off to a fast start. Forrest made several key hires that contributed to the business’s growth. The first was Ted Bartel, followed by Wayne Biers, Mary Wallace, and Lance Sorenson. Ted and Wayne were plant enthusiasts; both had graduated from the Brainerd Vocational Horticulture program. Mary was a natural, ambitious leader and a master gardener type. Lance was the landscape designer and salesman. They all did their share of the physical nursery and landscape work.
At the end of 1972, Forrest’s father was in dire need of help at the Red Wing Nursery because one of his key employees left the business. Thanks to the capable employees at the Rochester store, Forrest felt comfortable responding to that need. He, his wife, Faye, and their two young boys (Dan and Nick) moved to Red Wing, and from late 1972 to the spring of 1979, he worked both businesses, travelling between Red Wing and Rochester several times a week.
In early 1974, Donaldson’s “hinted” that they would be leaving the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in the coming years. To prepare for a relocation, in the summer of 1974, Forrest and Maxwell purchased forty acres of pastureland from Louis and Emma Struck along Eighteenth Avenue Northwest on the southern edge of Oronoco Township. They immediately started building and planned to operate a new nursery division there in the future; Forrest would be able to follow his true passion of growing trees and plants. The Rochester and Red Wing nurseries were separated in 1974 into two businesses; the Rochester business incorporated as Sargent’s Landscape Nursery, Inc.
When Donaldson’s, in 1976, did not renew their store’s lease, Forrest vacated the Donaldson’s Garden Center, and the first crop of landscape plants was planted at the Eighteenth Avenue Northwest location. Forrest would operate the nursery and landscape sides of the business from there, and he would advertise and grow the Garden Center retail department from scratch. The Donaldson’s ventured had served the purpose of getting the Sargent name known to the city, and it served as a launching pad for the business.
There is an old saying, “You only get one chance to make a good impression.” Forest gives much credit to his father for grooming him such that Donaldson’s Sargent’s Garden Center did just that. He says, “My father—a horticultural scientist and an artist with landscape design—was the most important and influential person in my life. He was the hardest working and most honest person I have ever known, and I like to think I got a little of each quality from him. I can never forget my father’s influence and help as he gave me the knowledge, financial backing, and, most importantly, the credibility and respect that came with being part of a third-generation, successful nursery business.