CEDAR FALLS — Tucked away for safekeeping and posterity, Philip Batchelder has several Bancroft’s Flowers catalogs dating from 1917 and 1919 listing every flower and nursery plant the shop sold and shipped around the country.
A vintage store advertisement from the 1890s celebrates the shop’s many funeral arrangements such as a chair composed of flowers and a floral anchor symbolizing “anchored in Christ.” Behind the sales counter at the shop are framed photographs of the founder, Joseph Bancroft, his wife Elizabeth, and other memorabilia.
At 144 years old, Bancroft’s Flowers & Greenhouses is the oldest flower shop in Iowa, according to the Florist’s Review magazine, a trade publication. It is the second oldest florist west of the Mississippi and the 11th oldest in the United States.
The shop was established in 1874 at 416 W. 12th St., in Cedar Falls. That also makes it the oldest business still at the same location in Cedar Falls, says current owner Batchelder. It was owned by three generations of the Bancroft family until 1988.
“It’s an amazing history,” says Batchelder, who has owned the business for 20 years. “It’s impressive to think that in the 1870s, this was really the middle of nowhere for a successful floral business.”
He expressed surprise that only two Iowa flower shops appear on the list of floral companies in business for 100 years or more. Decorah Greenhouses Inc., was founded in 1876.
In the late 19th century, Bancroft’s operated as a wholesale florist, shipping flowers across the country. Flowers were carefully packed into sturdy boxes that were then loaded onto a wagon or carriage for the short trek to the Rock Island train depot at 422 Main St.
Flowers and nursery plants were listed by number making it easier for a florist from the East Coast, for example, to order from Bancroft’s via the telegraph. “You’d order a No. 6, for instance, instead of using the name of the flower or arrangement to keep down the cost of the telegram,” says Batchelder.
Bancroft’s and its multiple greenhouses once occupied a half block of property, making it the “largest and best equipped establishment of its kind in Iowa,” according to a 1890s newspaper clipping. The same article catalogued the shop’s Christmas orders: “More than 6,000 Christmas trees, 18,000 yards of wreathing, 200 dozen Christmas bells, 200 barrels of holly and other items of holiday decorative trade … .”
After Joseph Bancroft died, his son George ran the business until his death in 1953. George’s daughter, Marion, had been involved in the business for 10 years and took over the shop. When she died in 1988, the business went to Irving Sweet, a man who had worked for Bancroft’s for nearly 50 years. When he died in 1994, the business was sold to an owner who changed the name to Second Nature.
Several years later, Batchelder noticed a “for-sale” listing for the shop in the Courier. At the time, he had owned a floral greenhouse business for 19 years in New Hampton. “I remember thinking Bancroft’s was a really old business and knew right away that I wanted to take it over and build it back up,” he says.
He reclaimed the shop’s original name along with its history. In 2006, Batchelder did some remodeling and rebuilt the main greenhouse still attached to the building. He left a portion of the greenhouse’s original limestone foundation as a historical marker.
The florist business has changed dramatically over the years. “It’s a global market. The best carnations and other flowers used to be grown in California, some in Colorado and other states. Little by little, we’ve lost growers in the U.S. until there are hardly any left,” he says.
Flowers are now shipped in from South America, bulbs from Holland, greenery from Israel and Italy, and other global suppliers. Consumers’ taste is different nowadays, too, as traditions and sentiments have changed or been forgotten.
Thanksgiving is no longer the big holiday it once was for table arrangements. Fewer churches are ordering large displays of Easter lilies because the fragrance can be overwhelming for congregations. Christmas remains a busy season, especially for the poinsettias Batchelder and his florists start from cuttings in August. Valentine’s Day is still a huge push requiring the florist to hire additional staff to design and make deliveries.
Earlier this month, geraniums were started from cuttings for late spring and summer sales. Year-round, Bancroft’s sells cut flowers, orchids, house plants, etc., and designs funeral arrangements, including wreaths, casket sprays and casket blankets.
“I think about how many casket sprays I’ve made over the years and would I want what I’m making to be on my mother’s grave? I’m always motivated to put more into it,” he says.
“We quite often get the nicest thank-you notes from customers. That means so much because we have a place in their lives and personal history. As a florist, we are there for people’s happy times and their sad times. Sometimes our tears flow with the customer’s tears.”