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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

MI Garden History: Meijer Gardens - Grand Rapids, Michigan (Part 1 of 3: Fred & Lena Meijer)

Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden at Meijer Gardens.
Last summer, my husband and I took a weekend trip to Meijer Gardens.  We had a wonderful time wandering through the garden, the hot house, and viewing the sculptures. The landscape and art were simply stunning.  It is no wonder that Meijer Gardens is one of the most visited public gardens in Michigan (with over 600,000 visitors a year!).  I would like to share a bit about this garden and its history with you.

This blog post will be in 3 parts. The first part is a general overview of the garden facilities, history of Frederik Meijer and his family.  The second part will be about some of the other donors who supported the indoor gardens as well as the hard-working people who helped to design and build the gardens.  The third part will be about those individuals who helped to establish and create the outdoor gardens.

PART 1: Frederik Meijer Gardens - Grand Rapids, MI - Garden Overview, The History of Fred Meijer, His Family & His Company

A sculpture at Meijer Gardens
Garden Overview:

Address & Contact Information:
1000 East Beltline Ave NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49525
(888) 957-1580
(616) 957-1580

Established: 1995. Owned & operated by the West MI Horticultural Society (A non-profit organization)

Grounds: 125 acres including gardens, facilities and nature trails.

Sculpture park:  More than 100 sculptures by: Butterfield, Calder, Fredericks, Lieberman and others.

Azaleas in front of the glasshouse at Meijer Gardens.
5 Indoor Gardens: Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory, Kenneth E. Nelson Carnivorous Plant House, Earl & Donna Lee Holton Arid Garden, Earl & Donna Lee Holton Victorian Garden, and the Grace Jarechi Seasonal Display Greenhouse.

8 Outdoor Gardens: Wedge Nature Trail, Frey Boardwalk - wetlands, Gwen Frostic Woodland Shade Garden, Leslie E. Tassell English and Perennial Bulb Garden, Amphitheater Garden, Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, Lena Meijer Children's Garden, and Michigan's Farm Garden

Other Facilities: Peter M. Wedge Library, Cafe, Gift Shops, and Tram

Entrance to the Lena Meijer Children's Garden

The History of Frederik Meijer & Meijer Gardens (part1):

According to the Frederik Meijer Garden's website,

"Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park opened in April 1995 after 13 years of planning and fundraising by the West Michigan Horticultural Society. In 1990, Fred and Lena Meijer were asked for their support, and they embraced the concept of a major cultural attraction centering around horticulture and sculpture. The original vision has turned into a top cultural destination in the Midwest region, known internationally for the quality of the art and gardens.

Meijer Gardens' dream and commitment is to create a legacy of lifelong learning, enjoyment and a rich cultural experience for generations to come. It is a non-profit organization, privately funded by grants, foundations and individual and corporate gifts. The organization is operated by almost 200 full and part-time staff, more than 800 volunteers and supported by gifts from more than 23,000 member households and many donors."
Sculptures at Meijer Gardens

But who was Frederick Meijer? Why did he donate to the Gardens?  Frederick Meijer's story begins a bit before he was born, with the story of his parents:  Hendrik and Gezina Meijer.

Photo from: Meijer, Hendrik G. The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years. 1984

Hendrick (1883-1964) and Gezina (1886-1978) Meijer were immigrants to the Michigan from the Netherlands.  Like so many immigrants, they came to the United States in search of the "American Dream."  They sought to make a living here and to raise their children comfortably.

When Hendrik first arrived in Michigan, he attempted several jobs.  He worked as a factory worker,
Photo from: Meijer, Hendrik G. The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years. 1984
in a pickling plant, worked on furniture, as a barber and as a dairy farmer. Finally in the 1930's he became a grocer.

In 1934, Hendrik opened the first Meijer grocery in Greenville, Michigan.  Hendrik's goal was to sell quality groceries at a reasonable price to the average American.  In the 1930's this meant that the groceries had to be inexpensive due to the Great Depression.  Hendrik's store accepted state welfare from people who wanted to purchase groceries there.  He established a store policy that prevented his employees from singling these customers out or forcing them in to a special line within the store.  He wanted to avoid causing embarrassment to any of his customers no matter how much or how little money they had.  Hendrik was, in many ways, a champion of the working man.

Hendrik worked with his entire family to keep the grocery store running.  This included his wife Gezina, son Frederik and daughter Johanna.  Hendrik's son, Frederik Meijer, was born on December 7, 1919 in his parents' farmhouse in Greenville, Michigan. From an early age he helped his father work.  One of his first jobs was to deliver milk by wagon to customers from his father's dairy.  Later, he began to help at the Meijer grocery.  He soon became his father's "right hand man" and was treated as a partner in the store from the time he was a teenager.  At the store, Frederik would work to paint signs, serve free coffee to customers, clean, stock, fix things and send checks to suppliers.  He worked throughout the mid-1930's even as he attended highschool.  Once in a while, his father and he would take a break to attend the movies together.
Photo from: Meijer, Hendrik G. The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years. 1984
By 1937, the Meijers expanded their store in order to compete with the A&P chain of grocery stores that were also popular in the area. By 1940, Fred Meijer decided to stay with the store and help to expand it.  He was then made legal partner in the business.  Once he became partner, Fred's duties expanded to include assembling ads for the local paper, creating store layouts, and assisting his father in purchasing real estate for future stores.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  This brought the United States in to World War II.  Although Frederik did volunteer to fight in the war, he was exempted because he had a hernia.  Instead, he continued running, and helping to expand the Meijer grocery store.  In 1942, the Meijers opened a new store in Cedar Springs, Michigan which was in direct competition with a Kroger there.  As the war continued, the family worked to keep the stores open despite the strict rationing and food shortages caused by the war.

By 1945, World War II had come to an end.  This meant an end to food rationing and an opportunity for the Meijer family to open another store.  By 1946, the Meijers were set to open another store in Ionia, Michigan.  Unfortunately, at the same time, the store in Greenville, Michigan caught fire! This was a setback for the franchise.
Photo from:The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years.

Also in 1946,  Fred married Lena (Rader) Meijer.  Lena had been a cashier from a store in Lakeview, Michigan. Fred's sister, Johanna also married Don Magoon.

By 1948,  Hendrick was age 65 and ready to allow Don and Fred to run the Meijer's stores.  Although Hendrik was no longer acting as the primary manager, he did assist in the store until his death from a heart attack in his sleep on May 31, 1964 at age 81.   Fred and Don went on to open several more stores throughout the 1950's. By 1954 there were more than 10 Meijer stores throughout Michigan.  By 1955 the store had its first television commercial aired during the children's television program, "Romper Room."

Fred & Hendrik Meijer. Photo from:  The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years.
Unfortunately, in 1960, Dona and Fred had a disagreement over a merger proposition from another grocery store chain.  Don wanted to merge.  Fred did not.  This resulted in Johanna and Don leaving the company.

This setback did not stop Fred from continuing to expand the chain and to open the first Meijer department store in 1962.  This store was meant to compete with K-mart and would provide not only groceries, but clothing and home goods.  In later years Walmart would copy the basic Meijer layout for their store and would even try to purchase them in the 1970's (a proposition that Fred tactfully declined.)    During this same year, 2 more Meijer stores caught fire and burned down. Yet another challenge for Fred to contend with.
Photo from: The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years.
 Through the 1970's the Meijer store chain continued to grow and to be run by a committee of managers.   In 1975, Fred was elected the chairman of Meijer. He continued to help the chain to grow.  By 1987, the 47th Meijer store had opened. The chain included stores all across Michigan and into Ohio. More departments were added as well including photo processing, bulk food, the deli counter, the seafood counter, cafes, video rental and others.

While he was growing the Meijer empire, Fred and Lena also raised 3 sons by the names of Hank, Doug, and Mark. He raised his sons through the 1950's at his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In 1990, Fred handed Meijer over to his sons Doug and Hank to run, although he remained chairman for the rest of his life.  Fred also created a trust and asked his sons never to sell the store to another company.  Fred wanted to ensure that the Meijer stores would be run well in Michigan, and wanted to retain jobs for people in the area.

A sculpture at Meijer Gardens
In their later years, Fred and Lena traveled and participated in philanthropic efforts.

In 1991 they made a large financial donation of 70.7 acres of land, all of their sculpture collection and around $80 million to help establish Meijer Gardens.  The gardens opened in 1995 and were named for their primary benefactor: Frederik Meijer.

 The Meijers also donated a piece of the Berlin wall to the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.  They continued to assist the community by donating millions of dollars to the Spectrum Health system and other local hospitals, millions of dollars to Grand Valley State University, donating money towards the opening of various nature trails including the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, and funded the Picheral Lake Fred Meijer Nature Preserve at Kent county Park in Canton Township, Michigan.  In addition they also participated in the Urban League which advocates for civil rights and affirmative action.  During the Vietnam era they were vocal opponents to the war.

Fred and Lena were kind, highly social and down-to-earth people.  One story illustrating Fred's personable character took place during a trip that the couple took to Italy in 1999.  While the couple was in Milan, Fred stopped to buy a gelato from a local salesman.  Fred began chatting with the vendor and informed him that he "also sells ice cream."  The salesman then politely wished Fred luck with his "little ice cream store."  Fred smiled, thanked him and offered no correction to the man.

Bronze Horse patterned after the design by Leonardo DaVinci, at Meijer Gardens
During the same trip to Italy, the Meijers also became interested in Italian art and sculpture.  They learned of a bronze horse designed by Leonardo daVinci. They fell in love with the design.  Later, they commissioned a re-creation of this design for Meijer Gardens - only much, much larger.  (See photograph above.)

Fred and Lena believed that art and nature were a good way to bring people together and to make people happy.  They wanted to make sure that the gardens were accessible to everyone, and insisted that Meijer Gardens should be handicap accessible even before there were laws enforcing handicap accessibility.  In 2008 there was a Degas exhibit at Meijer gardens which Fred and Lena attended.  It was said that Fred spent more time talking to people than looking at the art.  He always enjoyed socializing with people.  He was later described by friends as, "friendly, caring, sincere and humble."
Michigan Display at Lena Meijer Children's Garden

On November 25, 2011 Fred Meijer died of  a stroke at age 91. He was survived by Lena, Hank, Douglas and Mark.  Fred was buried in  plot at Meijer Gardens near a replica of the farmhouse in which Lena Meijer was born. Fred's sons continue to run the Meijer stores. At the time of his death, Fred was worth 5 billion dollars and was the 60th wealthiest man in the United States. Today, there are over 200 Meijer stores throughout the Midwest United states.  The stores employ over 60,000 people.  The Meijer store chain is the 18th largest private company in the nation.  The Meijer company continues to be a major employer and support to the community, including donation to Meijer Gardens.

To be continued...

Fred & Lena Meijer Sculpture at Meijer Gardens.


Meijer, Hendrik G. The Life of Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years. Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing Co. 1984  <--- Most of the historical information about Fred Meijer came from this source. 

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