The Olson Hillview Greenhouse: Growing a Dream
By Cole Nelson, La Crosse Public Library Archives Intern
In the fall of 1987, Joel and Jean Olson fulfilled a dream of owning and running a greenhouse by purchasing the Hillview Greenhouse from the Jones family. Joel quit his job as an electrician to focus on the then 75-year-old greenhouse, while Jean kept her job and continued producing art commissions for the first two years. Joel and Jean did extensive research, reading up on gardening and greenhouses at the library, while Lois Jones taught him to plant and cut flowers.
The greenhouses were exceptionally well-built and strong. The Olsons later increased the billable space by 60 percent through the addition of shelves built upward over the existing tables. In the early 1990s, they added two Quonset huts to the north of the facility, bringing the total billable space to around 20,000 square feet.
Learning and improving were necessities at that time. The Olsons intended to run an eco-friendly greenhouse, rejecting the common practices of the time. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and Growing Power in Milwaukee, Joel experimented with organic methods at a time when the organic growing movement was in its infancy.
At first the Olsons grew only floral plants, which they sold to churches and wholesale to local cemeteries and florists. They transitioned to seasonal flowers and foods, and later to herbs and flowering plants. Finally, in 2005, the Olsons switched to organic food production, including their own brand of clam-shell herbs and tomatoes—“Gracie’s Garden”—sold at the People’s Food Co-op and local restaurants.
In a time of high demand for organic foods, the Olsons found their buyers would purchase everything they had. One winter they received an order from the Twin Cities for their organic produce, but less than a week later, the roof leaked, shutting down the boilers and freezing their entire stock of produce. Unable to receive insurance compensation for their losses and despite help from the USDA, which came a little too late, the Olsons were forced to end their tenure as the owners of Hillview Greenhouse.
A discussion with their friends Tom and Julie Klemond led to a new vision for the next stage of the Hillview Greenhouse. Soon the Hillview Greenhouse Life Center was born. Joel and Jean donated a generous amount of equipment, along with their time and energy, to help get it off the ground.
The Olsons enjoyed their time running the Hillview Greenhouse. Meeting with old friends each season is a favorite memory. That rapport with fellow gardeners made every hardship worthwhile.
The Olsons made extensive improvements and automated nearly every aspect of caring for the plants, from watering to fertilizing, all run from Joel’s laptop. They rebuilt nearly everything over the course of their ownership, except the concrete and glass structures original to the site and the cold frames built by the Joneses. Joel also contributed to raising horticultural awareness through many local media outlets, writing more than 600 articles for the La Crosse Tribune, hosting a radio show and briefly doing a morning TV segment.
Though unfortunate circumstances, including a hailstorm in 2004 that caused severe damage to the roof, led to the sale of the Hillview Greenhouse, the impact the Olsons had on its history is considerable. Their decision to move to eco-friendly gardening practices along with their commitment to increasing horticultural awareness in the community helped to advance the state of urban agriculture in La Crosse.
We sold Olson Hillview Greenhouse brand of tomatoes, “Gracie’s Garden” and Hillview Greenhouse Life Center greens. The demand was always so good that every package that came in went out in the customers’ hands.
Roger Bertsch, Purchaser of organic produce in People’s Food Co-op’s produce department