By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — When Dexter Whittemore opened Whittemore's Flower Shop on Laconia's Main Street in 1924, it was to start a new life. Whittemore was born to family that operated large greenhouses in Boston, but, unlike his siblings, Whittemore was sickly, stricken with tuberculosis of the bone and a limp, and not expected to thrive or even survive into adulthood. His family sent him to Arizona, where it was thought that the hot, dry air would help him convalesce. When he returned, healthy, his mother gave him a gift of money. He used the money to buy a tract of land on Academy Street in Laconia, to build greenhouses on that land and to open a storefront to sell his flowers.
That's the early history of the flower shop, according to Dot Steuer, who, along with her now-deceased husband Andy, bought Whittemore from its original owner in 1971. Steuer still works at the flower shop, though she and Andy sold the business to its third and current owners, Kris and Mark Roberts, five years ago when Andy's health began to decline. So, the store's second owner, working for its third owner, will tag along for the business's first move. Yes, Whittemore's Flower Shop, the oldest business on Main Street, will close its doors on Jan. 27 and relocate to the historic farm in Belmont owned by Mark and Kris Roberts.
Kris Roberts said that the floral business faces growing competition from other outlets, such as supermarkets.
"You can't just sell flowers anymore," she said. She hopes to have the flower shop ready to reopen in April as one of the offerings of Badger Hill Farm, located on Hackett Road, about a mile from the intersection of routes 106 and 104. In addition to the flowers, the farm will also have a stand selling vegetables, honey and eggs, and will run an event center where they can host weddings. The scenic farm, situated on 200 acres, is named after Gov. William Badger (1779-1852), who once lived on and farmed the property.
Though the new location won't have the kind of foot traffic that Whittemore's has enjoyed during its 93 years on Main Street, Laconia, Roberts said that those who visit will enjoy a pastoral beauty not available downtown. The farm has hayfields, horses, cows and chickens, and guests will be welcome to walk through the flower gardens.
The move to an agricultural work space is a little intimidating for Steuer, who, although she has lived in Laconia for nearly 50 years, is a city girl at heart. She and Andy are from the New York area, where they grew flowers for sale into the city. Through a business connection, they heard that Whittemore wanted to sell his business. But, he was a particular man, and he didn't want to sell his business to just anyone – he wanted a grower. And, Andy was a grower.
"He could make a broom stick grow flowers on it," said Steuer. "I don't know how he did it." Even so, moving to New Hampshire was a culture shock for the Steuers.
"There's a lot of funny stories. This girl from New York coming up here," she said, such as the time when her employees assumed she was Jewish because she asked them where she could find a good bagel. Looking back, though, she said she wouldn't have had it any other way. Her employees turned into great friends, she and Andy raised children and grandchildren that make her beam with pride, and she continues to love her work.
Steuer creates between 10 and 30 floral arrangements each day. Each one will play an important role in someone's life, and when she's arranging a bouquet, she thinks about the occasion behind it.
"We never have a routine. Every day is different, and you have a chance to be with people that are happy," she said, such as someone in love, "and you deal with the folks that have lost someone. So, you learn about life. It's not all sweetness and light." Even when the customer is grieving, Steuer said, talking about which flowers might be appropriate can help.
"They're so happy to talk about their memories. I try so hard, that when people walk out they're happier," she said – although sometimes Steuer needs a moment to herself afterward.
After that conversation, or even if its just a few notes on an order form, Steuer begins to build an arrangement intuitively; her hands position the stems as if acting of their own volition.
"I've always associated people with colors of flowers," she said. "Often, when people walk in the door, I know right away what to suggest."
Dot Steuer arranges flowers for a client who is delivering them to an ill friend. After owning Whittemore Flower Shop since 1971, and continuing to work for the business after she sold it to its current owners, Steuer's work has adorned life moments, good and bad, for many Lakes Region residents. The shop will be closing on Jan. 27 and later reopening in Belmont. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)