Growing, Growing, Gone

When the U.S. declared war on drugs, Colorado's carnation industry went up in smoke

The skeletons of two large greenhouses stand at the back of Roy Obluda's property. "I've been a little slow tearing them down," he says. "Reluctant, I guess."

When they are gone, so will be the last physical reminder of 36 years in the flower business. Thirty-six years of growing carnations for prom tuxedos, bridal bouquets and Mother's Day corsages. Now dandelions are the only flowers growing on land that once produced 440,000 blooms a year. Four other greenhouses have already been dismantled and sold for scrap; the endless rows of planter boxes disappeared long ago. All that remains are the aluminum ribs of the greenhouses, the empty spaces, the weeds and the memories.

The Obluda family was one of several hundred growers, most of them family operations, that once made Colorado the self-proclaimed Carnation Capital of the world. At the flower industry's height, the state boasted 7.4 million square feet planted with carnations.

Obluda had hoped to pass the family business on to his five children, or at least sell it to support his retirement. But no one wanted to buy into this crippled industry.

He points to more empty greenhouses on the property next door. Five years after Obluda bought his land, the Tracey family moved in and also started growing carnations. There was more than enough business to go around. The two families talked flowers and raised their kids amid rows of red, pink and white blossoms.

When Chuck Tracey died, his son, Mark, tried to hang on. But finally he, too, had to admit defeat. "The widow says she can't even go in the greenhouses anymore," Obluda says. "It's too depressing."

Obluda hung up his own clippers in 1993 but remembers his carnation-growing days fondly. "They kind of get in your blood," he says of the flowers. "There were a lot of long hours. You had to be there for them if they needed you. It wasn't like you could go away on Friday and come back Sunday and expect them to be okay.

"But it was never drudgery. I grew carnations for 36 years, and I never regretted one day of it...There was never a morning that I didn't get up and look forward to going out and seeing them."

Today, fewer than 280,000 square feet of carnations are grown in Colorado. The industry is dying an unnatural death, an unexpected casualty of the U.S. government's failed attempts to stop cocaine traffickers.

Roy Obluda graduated from Colorado State University's horticulture school in 1950 and worked in several greenhouses before deciding to set out on his own. He and his new bride, Mary Ann, found four acres in what was then an undeveloped part of Golden and set to work in 1957. Together they put up the greenhouses, filled the planter boxes, tended the flowers and saw them off to market.

"In a mom-and-pop operation," Obluda laughs, "you've got to have the mom. But she loved them as much as I did."

Their five children grew along with the flowers. As infants they'd be set out in their playpens near where their parents worked. When they learned to walk, they'd toddle after Roy and Mary Ann, playing between the planter boxes. At twelve they were given small tasks. And the week or two before Mother's Day, the busiest time for a carnation grower, everybody would pitch in, doing what they could.

The carnation was a flower tailor-made for Colorado. It needed plenty of sunshine, especially during the winter, and liked cool evenings during the summer. Although California growers tried to claim that their flowers were just as good, everybody knew that something about the Colorado air and altitude produced bigger, better blossoms.

Colorado's proximity to the major carnation markets in the Midwest and on the East Coast gave it another advantage over California, especially in the days when the flowers had to be freighted by truck or railcar. And in the mid-Sixties, the advent of jet airplanes as haulers of freight opened up whole new markets. It seemed as if the flower industry, like the flowers themselves, had nowhere to go but up.

Then the oil embargoes of the early Seventies drove up the price of natural gas used to heat greenhouses. "It broke the marginal growers," Obluda recalls. "But we weathered it. We became more efficient, cut every corner we could."

Growers made large donations to the CSU horticultural school to finance research that would help create better flowers and increase productivity. Combined with technological improvements in air-conditioning and heating for greenhouses, the research helped growers like the Obludas come back from the oil embargoes bigger than ever.

In fact, by 1974 Colorado was the number-one producer of carnations in the world. In honor of the industry, Wheat Ridge held a Carnation Festival every August. Greenhouses sprang up all over the metro area, and there were more than 250 growers in the state. Some growers--like the Davis brothers, whose brick-mason grandfather started the business in the 1920s--had been around for generations. The Davises not only grew flowers, they acted as a wholesaler for more than fifty other growers.

Another wholesaler, Denver Wholesale Florists, had been bought out by fifty growers in 1949; by 1970 it was the top carnation wholesaler in the country. "Within the organization we had these different groups of people," remembers Larry Hagan, who has been with the company 26 years and is currently its controller. "We had a Caucasian contingent, Sicilians, and Japanese-Americans. But everybody worked for the common good.

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