Tom Gilmore is a modest man with a less-than-modest business.
For 100 years Gilmore Plant and Bulb Company Inc. has been shipping trees, plants and flowers across the United States, adorning great edifices like the Jefferson Memorial, the Pentagon, Disney World and miles of highway along the John F. Kennedy Parkway.
“There are very few monuments that don’t have Gilmore plants,” said Tom.
Tom Gilmore was born into the nursery business 76 years ago as a second generation nurseryman and has since gained legendary status as the president and co-owner of the oldest nursery in North Carolina, a former member of the North Carolina House of Representatives and current member of the North Carolina Farm Service Agency State Committee.
“I pray a lot and thank God,” said Gilmore of his family’s long success. “Some of my most enjoyable moments was when I used to make house calls to sell trees and people would say that my daddy was there 40 years ago and sold them 20-30 pecan trees,” said Gilmore. “My father sold pecan trees for a dollar back in the 1920s. I tell them that they got a pretty good return.”
Tom’s grandfather and father were both farmers, raising cattle, turkeys, chickens and crops like tobacco, soybeans, wheat and flower bulbs. By 1912, they opened a nursery that is now run by third and fourth generation Gilmores. Tom’s sons, Dell and Dwayne, are part owners with their father. Dell is in charge of the office and container production while Dwayne is in charge of field production. Dwayne’s sons Josh and Jake also work in field production.
But the Gilmore family isn’t the only generation of workers in the business. “We have second and third generation employees that have been with us for forty and fifty years and we treat them like family,” said Tom.
That’s one of the ways Gilmore Plant and Bulb Company has been able to ship Oaks, Cypress trees, Dogwoods, Holly trees and innumerable flowers as well as design gardens and landscapes that have won them awards few nurseries have obtained.
In 1976, the company received the White House Award for excellence in landscaping for work done at Tryon Palace in New Bern, N.C. — an award that has only been presented three times in 30 years. They also won the American Association of Nurserymen award for work completed at the AT&T Guilford Center in Greensboro, N.C. Tom also has been awarded the Copeland Award for outstanding nurseryman in North Carolina, Guilford County’s Most Outstanding Farmer and Who’s Who in American Politics.
Yet one of his proudest moments was being a part of the history that follows the life of American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Referring to him as a hero, Tom Gilmore can tell the story of the bitter relationship between Jefferson and John Adams as if he had a front row seat, and he has committed several notable quotes to memory.
“Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.” –Thomas Jefferson
“Jefferson believed that the constitution should be rewritten every 19 years to keep up with the times because we must continue to come up with new solutions to new problems,” said Tom Gilmore after reciting several other quotes by the founding father. “As you can see, I love Thomas Jefferson.”
So it was an honor for Gilmore plants, trees and flowers to make their home at Jefferson’s home in Monticello and several miles up the road at the University of Virginia that was founded by Jefferson. Gilmore landscaped around the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and his Chestnut, Oak and Holly trees shade Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written.
“Have you ever seen a picture of President Obama in the Oval Office?” asked Gilmore. “If you look behind him, those are our Holly trees you see out of the window.”
That’s the norm for Tom, who served six years in the North Carolina House of Representatives, was appointed by the governor to be the deputy secretary for the North Carolina Department of Human Resources and was appointed by the Obama administration to serve on the North Carolina Farm Service Agency State Committee.
Tom takes pride in announcing that the entire state committee is comprised of practicing farmers and not just people who want to hold a position.
“All four members on the committee are continually farming,” he said. “We have done some outstanding things by seeking the best talent and promoting women, Native Americans and African-Americans to leadership roles. It’s a work of joy.”
This isn’t his first ride with the North Carolina state committee. Tom served from 1993-2002 under the Clinton administration. That’s also around the time the nursery industry boomed.
By 1995, the nursery and greenhouse industry saw a 10-year jump in cash receipts from $136 million to $858 million. According to the North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association, greenhouse and nursery crops ranked third in the state and North Carolina serves as the fourth largest producer of greenhouse and nursery crops in the nation.
Gilmore Plant and Bulb Company has been a major part of the state’s growth and has had to do some growing on its own. Moving from a retail operation to door-to-door sales and now a wholesale grower, the company continues to evolve to stay in business — something Tom hopes will be the case for many years to come.
“There is no greater calling than to be a nurseryman,” said Tom. “Ultimately, I just want to be a successful father, grandfather and great-grandfather who encourages our family to go into the nursery business. I want them to be successful, dream big and maybe celebrate the company’s 200th birthday.”
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