For 90 years, Roxbury Farm & Garden Center has been the place where locals go to buy grass seed for their lawns, plants to perk up their landscape, and feed for their livestock, pets and the birds that flock to their feeders.
But the popular independent business at the corner of Lafayette Boulevard and Jackson Street in Fredericksburg has seen sales slowly decline ever since the recession hit in 2008. It will be stocked for spring, but will close once everything is sold.
"This is really heartbreaking for me," said Bill Crawley, a longtime customer and University of Mary Washington professor emeritus. "If you're a gardener, that's where you go. Seriously, if they don't have it, you don't need it. They have so many specialty products that you simply can't get anywhere else. I don't know what gardeners in this area are going to do without Roxbury."
Andy Lynn, Roxbury's gregarious general manager, said that a number of factors convinced the owners that they needed to wind down the business. For starters, the farm and garden center is facing more competition than ever at a time when fewer people have big lawns and backyard gardens. Big developers have largely replaced the small local developers who'd buy grass seed and other supplies at Roxbury. And last year's unseasonably cold spring weather and record rainfalls also took a toll.
"I think our sales for September were 60 percent of what they'd normally be," Lynn said. "It's just the perfect storm. Time to go. Time to go."
Roxbury Farm & Garden Center got its start as Roxbury Mills in 1929 when A. L. Brulle moved his business from the Roxbury mill at Thornburg, where the Brulles had been milling flour and making chairs since the 1890s, to the 400 block of Lafayette Boulevard in 1929. He opened Roxbury Mills there as a feed store, and it became one of the largest grain purveyors in the region by the mid-1900s.
"You could buy everything for farm use," said Price "Rudy" Jett of Stafford County, who started going there more than 50 years ago to buy seed corn, orchard grass seed and mash for his laying hens. Back then, he said, mash cost $2 for 100 pounds.
A fire destroyed the original building in 1968, and the company moved into a smaller space at 632 Kenmore Ave. A group of local business people got together to buy the business in 1973 from the Brulle family.
Henry Lynn, who'd been a feed salesman, and wife Sunny Lynn managed the store. Andy Lynn remembers how they competed with Fredericksburg Hardware and Southern States by staying open longer. All three were closing at noon Wednesdays and Saturdays because staffers had farm chores. His father decided to stay open until 1 p.m.
"They all said, 'Are you crazy?' but nobody changed their hours," Andy Lynn said.
What really put the business "on the road map," his said, was the fortuitous purchase of 25 tractor-trailer loads of fertilizer in 1973. Members of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries or the OAPEC, started an oil embargo that March and didn't lift it for a year. Oil is one of the ingredients in fertilizer, and Roxbury became the only place locals could get the soil supplement.
"Who knows? We might not have made it without that," he said.
Roxbury bought the building that now houses the retail end of the business and the brick warehouse behind it in 1977. Both had belonged to the Edgar M. Young Lumber Company, which closed in 1967. The business expanded in 1986 with the purchase of the vacant field Wilson Brothers had used as a lumberyard and the old Fredericksburg Spoke Works warehouse next door. The warehouse, which was built in 1903, now houses pallets of seed and the machine Roxbury uses to grind corn for feed.
Lynn said that his father realized that Roxbury needed to diversify and add a greenhouse because the business wasn't going to make it selling feed. Henry Lynn located a greenhouse in Tappahannock in 1987, and sent his son and another employee down there to disassemble it and bring it back. Everything was going well, Andy Lynn recalled, until they pulled up one of the supports and disturbed some hornets.
"We got away with our lives," he said, a grin lighting up his face. "I doubt we could run that fast today."
As the farms that once surrounded Fredericksburg began sprouting subdivisions, Roxbury diversified and started doing business as Roxbury Farm & Garden Center. Customers could still find feed and seed, but they could also buy such things as bedding plants, gardening tools and supplies to make beer and wine.
Sales increased, and the opening of Lowe's in Central Park in 1995 and Home Depot in Gateway Village didn't slow them down, Lynn said. In 2001, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce named the company the Business of the Year in the company with greater than 15 employees category.
"We were rocking along," Lynn said.
They could also turn to Roxbury's employees, many of whom Master Gardeners, for advice about what to plant and what to do if the plants don't thrive. Judy Rowland, who manages the greenhouse, said that it's not uncommon to get phone calls from people who start out by saying they didn't buy a plant from Roxbury, but figured that she'd know the solution to whatever problem it had.
That's one of the many ways the company has given back to the community over the years, Lynn said. It used to lend the the city straw bales to line William Street for the annual Soap Box Derby before the event moved to Dominion Raceway in Thornburg last year, and didn't charge if they were returned undamaged. It's offered the same deal on plants to a number of organizations, and let them hold special events on its grounds.
"They've been wonderful community partners," said Jane Shelhorse, the Fredericksburg Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department's director.
She said that she'll be sorry to see Roxbury close because Lynn and his staff also always have offered the department good advice and helped the city get good deals.
"That's where I go, too," Shelhorse said.
Lynn said that most of his 14-member staff had realized that Roxbury's days were numbered, but a few were still shocked when he let them know recently that the business would be closing.
Rowland, who's worked for the company for 20 years, said that she'd hoped to retire from the company in 2022. She said that she'll miss the camaraderie among the staff, who've been known to engage in water fights and play practical jokes on Lynn, as well as the customers and vendors that she's gotten to know well over the years.
"So many memories," she said, trying hard not to cry.
Lynn said that Roxbury's buildings and property will probably be sold once the business shutters.
"This is going to be heartbreaking for lots and lots of people," said Bill Micks, co-owner of the Virginia Outdoor Center off Fall Hill Avenue.
He said that he can't remember a time when he didn't go to Roxbury to buy bird seed or pick out a Christmas tree.
"I think Roxbury is one of those places that the community needs to save," he said. "It's a magical place."