Making Missouri Green

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

The people who plant the seeds and package the bundles have changed. Buildings have expanded and changed colors. Yet through its existence, the role of the George O. White State Forest Nursery has remained the same. Since 1935, the nursery, located in Texas County, approximately three miles northwest of Licking, has provided millions of trees to Missouri landowners and forest industries for conservation planting.

This year, the nursery is celebrating 50 years of tree production under the Missouri Department of Conservation. The Conservation Department took over the nursery from the United States Forest Service in 1947 and distributed its first crop of seedlings in 1948.

In 1934, the Forest Service designated national forests in Missouri. Thousands of acres were in need of reforestation after indiscriminate logging and wildfires wiped out much of Missouri's forests. George O. White, a Forest Service forester, selected the original 40-acre site for the nursery in 1934. He chose the site because it was centrally located within the national forests and the soil looked good for growing shortleaf pine trees. The Forest Service purchased the acreage in 1935 for $1,430. White later became Missouri's first state forester in 1936.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Work Projects Administration workers, employed by the Forest Service, constructed a home for the head nurseryman, a shop and warehouse, a deep well and a cold storage building. Workers also built two barracks, where they slept, plus a kitchen and mess hall.

Robert Miller, a native of Warsaw, went to work in 1935 at the CCC Camp, earning $1 a day. After a 1934 drought, Miller helped install the first overhead water lines on 27 acres of the nursery. "In those days, you lived in barracks with 200 men and sowed the seeds with a spade," Miller says.

The nursery continued operation until 1942, when World War II disrupted funds for reforestation. The irrigation system was dismantled and shipped to California as a part of the war effort to establish rubber plantations. The Forest Service leased the nursery grounds to a Licking farmer for crop production and shipped many nursery workers, including Miller, to Sullivan, to work at the Meramec State Nursery.

The Forest Service reopened the nursery in 1947, growing primarily shortleaf pine trees on a small portion of the 15 acres of seedbed space. In August of that same year, the Conservation Department signed a 25-year permit with the Forest Service for the use of the nursery, its tools, buildings and equipment. In return for use of the land, the Conservation Department produced 2.5 million shortleaf pine seedlings annually for Missouri national forests.

By 1949, the nursery was producing almost five million seedlings. To get seed for pine trees, landowners brought in bags of pine cones. Workers put the cones in a dry kiln and let them roast at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat forced the cones to open. A machine called the tumbler then rotated the cones, allowing the seeds to drop out.

A bundle of 1,000 deciduous trees sold for three dollars. Four dollars bought a 1,000 pine trees. The Conservation Department delivered the trees to county courthouses for pickup. The most seedlings ever distributed by the nursery was in 1966, when close to 14 million trees were delivered throughout Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas. The Conservation Department ceased county drop-off of bundles in 1974. The Conservation Department now uses United Parcel Service and the United States Postal Service to ship seedlings to landowners. Landowners also can, with prior arrangement, pick up their seedlings at the nursery.

Miller was the first Conservation Department worker to deliver the seedlings in 1947, earning $110 a month. He drove across 110 counties in six weeks. Miller's wife, Nellie, remembers scraping together enough money to cover Miller's expenses on the road, which included one dollar a night for lodging and 35 cents per meal.

The Conservation Department dramatically expanded the nursery in 1955, with the purchase of 414 acres, 38 of which nurserymen used for seedbed area. This increased the nursery's seedbed area from 27 acres to 65 acres. In addition, the Conservation Department added new seed storage and packing buildings. The agency also drilled a second well in 1963.

The Conservation Department changed the name of the nursery in 1960 to the George O. White State Forest Nursery in honor of the contributions White made to reforestation in Missouri. Three years later, the Meramec Nursery closed its doors, making the George O. White Nursery the only official state nursery. Women broke the "men-only" barrier in 1962 when the Conservation Department hired the first ladies as seedling graders.

In 1972, the 25-year lease between the Conservation Department and the Forest Service expired. The Conservation Department operated the nursery on a yearly lease until 1976, when it agreed to a land exchange that deeded title of the original 40-acre tract to the state.

As landowner needs have changed, the nursery has changed what it grows as well. In the early years of the nursery's operation, the Conservation Department shipped ten million shortleaf pine trees annually. From the 1950s through the 1970s, several non-native species, such as multiflora rose and autumn olive, were in demand for wildlife plantings. Most of the 40 to 50 species of trees planted today are native to Missouri.

In the late 1980s, the number of deciduous tree species the Conservation Department distributed exceeded the number of pine trees. Since fewer than half as many deciduous trees can be grown per square foot of nursery space, the State Forest nursery adjusted production to meet the consumer's demands. In 1997, the nursery produced 4.5 million seedlings composed of more than 50 species of deciduous trees. Seedlings sell for $2 to $6 a bundle, depending on the type of tree purchased. The seedlings come in bundles of 25 and are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The nursery ships more than 50,000 bundles of trees each year. To meet demand, the nursery collects or buys 15,000 pounds of white oak acorns, 8,000 pounds of hazelnuts and 600 pounds of wild plum seed just to establish seedlings of those three species. In addition, over the last ten years, the Conservation Department has upgraded the nursery's irrigation system and combined grading, packing, storage and shipping into one building.

Today, 12 full-time employees and up to 50 seasonal employees operate the 780 acres at the nursery. According to Miller, in 1947, the nursery employed 12 to 15 workers in the winter and 75 workers in the summer. The nursery also brought in busloads of school children to pull weeds and count bundles.

Only four Conservation Department superintendents have supervised the nursery since 1947. They include Robert Danson, who held the position from 1947 to 1962. Danson was a worker in the CCC camp in Licking in the 1930s. Following Danson, Del Mugford managed the nursery operation from 1962 to 1981 and Bill Yoder took over in 1981. The Conservation Department named Greg Hoss the new superintendent in 1997, when Yoder became the forest nursery program manager.

Despite the numerous changes, expansions and facelifts the nursery has experienced over the last 50 years, the goal of keeping Missouri green remains the nursery's primary goal. "Technology has changed, but the most important things are still to plant, water and care for the trees," Miller says.

A Nurseryman's Career

Robert Miller knows almost everything about the history of the George O. White State Nursery. He did not read it in a book or study about it in school - he lived it.

In 1935, Robert L. Miller moved from his country home near Warsaw to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Licking. President Roosevelt established the CCC camps to provide jobs for people who were suffering financially because of the Great Depression. Miller came from a family of six children and when he was capable of earning a living, he was on his own to make ends meet.

Miller lived on the nursery grounds in barracks with approximately 200 men. The United States Forest Service paid the men one dollar a day to aid in its reforestation efforts. "We did everything from plant seeds, to pull weeds, to construction," Miller says.

In 1942, the United States was fighting WWII. Funds for the CCC camps diminished and the Conservation Department closed the Licking Nursery. The CCC transferred Miller to Sullivan to work at the Meramec Nursery. He served as the assistant nurseryman, earning $90 a month. He and his wife, Nellie, moved into their first home with running water, paying $11 a month for rent.

Not long after, Robert was called to serve in the military. Nellie moved back to Licking with the couple's 2-year-old daughter. While in Germany, Miller was held as a prisoner of war.

When the war ended and Miller was released, he returned to Sullivan and continued to work for the nursery until 1947. The state took over the Licking Nursery that year, and the Millers moved back to Licking. Robert went to work for the state and Nellie worked at a local insurance agency.

Miller made $140 a month as the nursery foreman in Licking. "It was quite a raise. I thought we were rich. Of course, back then, you could buy three dollars worth of groceries and it would last you a week."

Miller can remember quitting early only one day in his 44 years at the nursery. "One day in 1954, the temperature was 114 degrees, which still is a record high at the nursery. We were taking occasional water breaks, but some men were still getting sick. I knew it was time to call it quits when, in that heat, I started to feel cold."

The Millers and their two children lived on the nursery grounds from 1961 to 1970 in a home that the Conservation Department tore down a few years later. They built their current home, located a few miles up the road from the nursery, in 1971. Robert and Nellie had just settled in when an automobile accident killed their daughter and her husband, leaving behind three children, ages seven, nine and 11. The Millers raised the three children, and they now have six great-grandsons.

Miller retired from the nursery in 1979. To honor his dedication to the nursery, the Conservation Department gave Miller the "Golden Spade Award." The Conservation Department bronzed and inscribed the spade Miller had with him every day on the job. In addition, the agency mounted Miller's seed brush, in recognition of his having planted close to 350 million seeds.

"In all my years at the nursery, I never let anyone else sow the seeds," Miller said. "I was afraid it wouldn't get done right. The year after I retired, someone else planted the seeds and the trees came up just the same. Some things never change."

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