Courtesy of Alexandria/Pineville Area CVB
Forest Hill sits almost directly at the center of Louisiana, a small village with a barbershop, bank, elementary school, and town hall. Only about eight hundred people call Forest Hill home. So do upwards of two hundred plant nurseries.
Yes, that’s two hundred nurseries.
Technically, the nurseries are scattered throughout the area, even outside the town’s city limits. But the nursery industry began in this small central Louisiana town, and Forest Hill claims it as its own. Visitors can pick up a map to the many nurseries at the Forest Hill Town Hall and area grocery stores; and most of the largest nurseries exist along Highway 112 and 165, the main outlets to and from the town.
Every spring Forest Hill throws a festival in honor of its massive industry, the annual Louisiana Nursery Festival, which is March 13 through 16 this year . The festival originated as a fundraiser for the private Forest Hill Academy with help from the Central Louisiana Nursery Association (CLNA). When the school closed after the turn of the twenty-first century, funds raised from the festival were donated to the Forest Hill Volunteer Fire Department.
Now in its twenty-ninth year, the Louisiana Nursery Festival attracts thousands, raising from $50,000 to $60,000 a year for the fire department.
“That’s why it’s lasted so long,” said Ann Jeter, festival chairwoman and president of CLNA. “It benefits everyone.”
The spring festival serves many purposes, Jeter explained, offering carnival rides, food booths, entertainment, and plant sales by area nurseries in addition to sales of items from other vendors. The nurseries, most of which sell wholesale throughout the year, open their doors to the general public that weekend so visitors may get a sneak peek inside and purchase a variety of plants grown here, from trees and shrubs to blueberries and vegetables.
“Most of the nurseries are wholesale in this area, but if you come that weekend they will sell to you, if they are open,” Jeter said.
Sam Stokes Nursery is one of the few who sell to the public. It’s also the oldest nursery in Forest Hill and the one that started it all. Samuel Stokes began selling plants in 1902 in an area known as “Midway,” along Highway 112 halfway between Lecompte and Forest Hill. Today his grandson and family carry on the tradition, selling thousands of plants from a roadside building.
“The festival weekend is nuts,” said the fourth-generation Sam Stokes. “We have to hire someone to flag traffic. But it’s a good day for the retail folks.”
ORIGINS OF AN INDUSTRY
Many people wonder if there’s something in the water that brought so many nurseries to Forest Hill. A unique soil makeup perhaps.
To the east of Forest Hill lies the alluvial plain of the Red River, where cotton plantations prospered in the nineteenth century. The area surrounding present-day Forest Hill was once rich in forests of towering pine trees on rolling hills, but the ground wasn’t as conducive to farming, its pH levels too acidic, explained longtime nursery owner George Johnson. At the turn of the twentieth century, timber companies arrived, employing area residents in numerous mills. But those jobs disappeared with the trees.
When Sam Stokes started selling seedlings from the forests, making a good living, other residents took up the business. Soon came the Poole Brothers, the Taylors, Williams, and Chamberlains.
“[The acidic soil] was good for azaleas,” said Johnson, originator of George Johnson Nursery. “You could grow camellias, hollies; they are acid-loving plants. Mr. Stokes used to go in the woods and pick up seedings—magnolias and dogwoods, yaupon, American holly. These were all seedlings. He started doing this, selecting this stuff out in the woods. Some of it he planted and some of it he’d sell bare root.”
Stokes’ son Nathanial joined the business, grafting camellias and dogwoods.
“In the old landscapes that was the big thing—camellias,” Sam Stokes said.
The big seller for Stokes was pansies, started by seed then pulled from the fields in bundles to ship all over the country.
“We didn’t have hot houses, we had latch sheds with slats of wood on it to keep the shade on them,” said Vera Poole Johnson, George’s wife, who was raised in an early Forest Hill nursery family. “And you had a great cistern on top of that.”
During World War II, the town prospered when Camp Claiborne was erected nearby; half a million troops came through within four years. After the war, another generation joined the nursery business, including the Jeters, Richard Palokovich of Richard’s Nursery, and Doug Young Nursery.
The business experienced a surge in the 1970s, largely due to new generations and advanced technologies. Plastic containers, for instance, revolutionized the industry, allowing plants to be easily grown and transported.
“Plastic buckets were the lifesavers—and PVC pipe,” said J.J. Jeter, who runs Jeter’s Liners with his wife, Ann. “When they came up with the PVC pipe, they saved the nursery industry a ton of money.”
Today, Mexican workers make up most of the labor force, and many of these workers who began arriving in the 1980s have gone on to open their own nurseries. Most of the nurseries are small- and average-sized while a few, like Doug Young Nursery, sell to companies who service the big box stores such as Lowe’s and Walmart.
Because of their unique proximity to one another, the nurseries are able to share services and products. Forest Hill nurseries primarily sell trees and shrubs wholesale to landscapers and contractors, but owners such as Stokes sell spring favorites such as bougainvilleas, begonias, petunias, impatiens, and marigolds, to name only a few.
And, of course, the Stokes still offer pansies.
The long-running nursery festival remains a family-friendly event, with no alcohol sales, said Clyde Holloway, a Forest Hill native, nurseryman, and Louisiana pubic service commissioner. Holloway ran both Forest Hill Academy and the festival in its early years.
“It’s a good clean festival,” he said. “It’s a nice festival. It has a dual purpose.”
Because Forest Hill is so small, the festival must occupy a small section in the center of town. Getting to and from the free festival can be daunting because Highway 112 and 165 are the main thoroughfares in and out of Forest Hill, and both become clogged with traffic.
“Forest Hill is really bulging that weekend with people,” Jeter said. “Either highway you take, there’s going to be traffic.”
Jeter admits it’s all about waiting it out with parking along the highways and in some nurseries’ parking lots.
“We try to accommodate everyone,” she said. “People here don’t get upset about people parking in their driveways.”
Golf carts are available to give lifts to folks from their cars to the festival grounds. For those who purchase plants from nurseries at the festival, drivers will be on hand to transport plants back to visitors’ cars.
One thing’s for certain: you’re bound to leave town with something green in the back of your car.
Details. Details. Details.
Most of the two-hundred-plus nurseries in Forest Hill and the surrounding area will sell product to the public this weekend.
If coming from the south, exit No. 66 off I-49 and head west on Highway 112. From the north, exit No. 66 off I-49 and go west on Highway 112 or head south on Highway 165 to where it intersects with Highway 112.