Kohankie Generations

Jen Gerger

by Mark Gilson

The Kohankie nursery dynasty began in 1856 when Henry and Julius, sons of a Prussian immigrant, came to Lake County. Of seven brothers in that family, five would become horticulturists. Henry worked at Storrs & Harrison Nursery for 25 years, operating their cold-storage-cellars during the 1890s. In 1900 he founded Euclid Avenue Nursery in East Cleveland with William Metcalf, but in 1903 returned to Painesville and Henry Kohankie & Son nursery on North Ridge Road, which he operated with his school-age son, Henry Jr. Like many local nurserymen, he provided landscaping and design services for large estates in Cleveland. He died in 1909 after working late in the sleet and rain on the Schofield property alongside Charles Murphy from Call’s Nursery (Perry). The obituary in Florist’s Review indicates he’d been suffering from intestinal problems for some time and insisted, until hours before his death, that this was not a major health matter.

Henry Jr. at age-22 took over the 100-acre nursery and eventually expanded it to over 1000 acres. Like Storrs & Harrison in the century before, the Kohankie operation became the most prominent nursery in the country. Sometimes I am asked why current-day nurseries carry so many items. I think this notion of tremendous nursery diversity began with those iconic giants. It was said of Kohankies, ‘If it can be grown here, you will find it at Kohankies’. Some recall that Kohankies disliked ‘cherry picking’ by their customers. If you stopped by for some of their specialty items, they insisted you fill up your truck with ‘bread and butter plants’ as well!

Henry Jr. became a nationally acclaimed plantsman and grower. As with Storrs & Harrison and Wayside Gardens, the Kohankie catalogs became encyclopedic teaching tools of the era. At his home in the ‘Cherry Hill’ area off Mentor Avenue (across from Hellriegel’s Restaurant) he established many specimens for display (nearby nurseries included Donewell and Bosleys). Henry Jr retired in 1954 and sold the operation to Horton Nursery of Mentor (another famous family dynasty!) rendering them the largest nursery in Ohio and fourth-largest in the country.

Julius Kohankie, brother of Henry Sr., also worked for Storrs & Harrison Nursery, leaving in 1913 to begin his own operation specializing in perennials. He operated from Erie Street (Route 20) in Painesville and supplied plants and designs for many estates in the area, including Perkins, Brooks, Chisholm, Steel, Vail and Minch. Charles Kohankie, son of Julius, took over the business in 1936 but his father survived until 1952.

Another son of Julius Kohankie, Mark Phillip ‘Pep’ Kohankie, two years younger than Charles, became the nursery inspector for local nurseries from the late-1940s until his retirement September 30, 1972, when he was replaced by Robert Endebrock, who would hold that post for over thirty years.

Jane Kohankie, daughter of Julius Kohankie, married Joseph Havel of Havel’s Florist on Mentor Avenue. Havel’s remains in business to this day, despite competition from a WalMart across the street. Havel’s is currently operated by Mark Havel and his children.

Another of the original brothers, Samuel, worked at Storrs & Harrison Nursery until his retirement in 1928. Tragically, his 12-year-old son was killed in 1901 by a ‘fast mail train’ in Painesville near the nursery, on his way home from fishing at a local pond with a friend, the same year William Storrs, son of Jesse Storrs, was killed moving a nursery digging machine.

Today another aging generation tends the cultivated rows and walks the nursery lanes at dusk. Some large former Kohankie fields continue in production to this day. Others, despite the growth of housing developments and freeways in Eastern Lake County, remain in overgrown shrubs and trees that recall those long-ago efforts… the diversity of dreams and offerings.

NOTE: My comments are based on a draft by Rebecca Rogers, another draft by George Haskell (local attorney and nursery historian), a 1988 article in The Times by Charles Kohankie, various obituaries as well as conversations with other local nursery folks. Particular thanks to Bob Endebrock for providing the details such as the Kohankie/Havel connection. This is a complicated family tree and nursery history interwoven with the stories of many other individuals and enterprises. Please help me out with corrections and additions!

Mark Gilson