It started with a promise.
And 115 years later, McKay Nursery continues to grow using the fundamental goal of “honest business practices, fair prices and the highest quality products.”
In 1897, McKay Nursery, under the direction of William G. McKay (W.G. McKay) took root with a focus on selling fruit trees.
In its infancy, W.G. McKay formed a short-lived partnership with Adelbert S. Riley, thus creating the Riley and McKay Nursery. In 1901, Mr. McKay secured an agency for selling nursery stock on commission basis and rented a horse and buggy to canvass among local farmers. The business blossomed.
With its headquarters in Pardeeville, the growing operation was set up at the old Portland nursery in eastern Waterloo. The company began producing general nursery stocks, including ornamentals and fruit trees, with a specialty in apples.
The partnership with Riley was dissolved by 1902, creating the current namesake of McKay Nursery. After the company became organized, McKay rented five acres in Waterloo for his first trees.
In a matter of years, the company became a family affair, with McKay’s brothers, John and Peter, joining forces to form McKay Bros. Nursery, located on the 95-acre August Gorder farm along Highway 19. By 1907, a non-family member, L.J. Tucker, joined management.
Soon after, facilities were expanded and a 4,000-square-foot packinghouse was built on Jefferson Street. By 1910, the nursery was incorporated, with McKay serving as president, L.J. Tucker as secretary, and John, Frances and Annie McKay as board members. At this time nurseries were located in Waterloo, while the headquarters remained in Pardeeville until 1917 after which they moved to Madison until 1961.
The expansions continued to roll out over the next several decades, including the building of a new storage unit in 1913, purchase of the Drew Carrier building to serve as a supply and stock room as well as boarding house for spring season employees in the early 1920s, and the set up of its main business and nursery office in a building on Jefferson Street in the early 1960s.
Although the company could count on expansions and new buildings, under the direction of W.G. McKay, it was also prepared to weather tough economic times, including the Great Depression, to bring not only the company, but its employees, to the top.
In 1932, the company chose not to pay a dividend to stockholders and instead, invested all the company’s profits into government bonds. By 1936, the investment produced the first bonuses the company paid out to workers. Treatment of employees by McKay garnered the business much positive attention all the way through its 115 years.
The number of acres also continued to expand rapidly from the original five-acre plot purchased by McKay. Just 20 years later, 200 acres were under cultivation. By 1950, 600 acres were being used for operation. Today, more than 2,000 acres support the growth of numerous types of plants, flowers and trees. At one point in time, the company had a large dairy cattle and hog operation, which was later discontinued and the land used to grow nursery stock.
In 1914, there were approximately 75,000 two-year apple trees planted in rows among rows on the land. In 1927, a batch of nearly 50,000 grafted elms joined the nursery.
Though its beginnings had begun in the sweet affair of fruit trees, the focus of the company shifted in the late 1950s, with a bulk of sales going toward landscaping items. To the owner, this was just part of the company answering the community’s call.
“If we have enjoyed a measure of success in this business, it may be because we were able to anticipate the changing demands of the buying public. We managed to have the stock, and at a price, when the public had need for it,” McKay said.
The owner’s dedication to his business was strong, and 60 years after planting the seed that would become McKay Nursery, McKay stepped down, leaving the position to another well-known Waterloo figure, Karl Junginger.
Junginger started working at McKay Nursery Company in the early 1920s and was appointed vice president in 1938. If there were any doubt about a new leader at the company, it surely didn’t last long.
Not many years after assuming the position, Junginger introduced the retirement program and the first profit-sharing plan in the nursing industry to his employees.
He also took note of changing trends in America, particularly with the homebuilding surge after World War II. Junginger hired landscape architect Ken Altorfer and with his help, started a design department to provide landscape planning to new homeowners.
Over the next few decades, the nursery company enjoyed constant growth and attention for its innovative practices and dedication to employees, becoming employee-owned in 1984. In 1997, former President Bill Clinton awarded the company one of five “Business Enterprise Awards” offered to companies in the nation. It was given to socially responsible employers, specifically to McKay Nursery Company for allowing migrant workers to share in the company’s benefits.
Today the company, stretching along South Monroe Street in Waterloo, is home to 2,000 acres of trees, shrubs, evergreens, perennials and grasses. The company offers residential landscape design, site layout and landscape design for commercial projects, landscape installation and landscape services.
McKay President Tim Flood, who assumed the position this fall, said the nursery continues to grow in what it offers to customers, with a focus on variety, native plants and edible landscapes. The company is also heavily invested in monitoring its environmental impact by providing sustainable solutions.
McKay Nursery still holds a strong presence in the Waterloo and Marshall communities, with design, donation and construction of various projects, as well as with a business approach not unlike that of its forefathers.
“I really feel it is critical for us to maintain visibility in the community,” Flood said. “I love seeing what Karl had done for this community, but now it’s our turn. The majority of our employees live in Waterloo or in close neighboring cities. We’re committed to the area, so establishing ways to help, enhance, or contribute seem very important. I hope that we become more involved with the community development now and in the future.”
W.G. McKay passed away in 1959. His life and contributions to the Waterloo community were honored with a rose garden planted at Firemen’s Park. It was donated by the company. According to successor Junginger, McKay enjoyed visiting the nursery to pick and enjoy roses.
In 1940, McKay received an honorary recognition certificate of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society
Upon his passing, McKay’s estate of more than $1 million was distributed and significant enhancements were made to buildings near and far. Firemen’s Park underwent enhancements, the band shell was financed, city baseball teams were financed, the former St. Joseph school was aided and the McKay Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum was created.
McKay also made a difference in the lives of thousands of strangers over his decades with the company, making an annual habit of sending thousands of peonies grown at McKay to area hospitals for patients.
Junginger served as president for 32 years, during which he also served six decades for the company. He passed away in 1991.
His legacy lives on in the Karl Junginger Memorial Library, with a trust set up for the community and one for McKay employees. The community trust continues to sustain the library and provided scholarships for local students.
The high school tennis courts and Veterans Memorial statue near the four corners were also created with Junginger’s assistance, while recently a $150,000 donation was made in his name and honor to the Waterloo Trailhead Facility.
The contributions of both men still resonate in the community today. In a centennial journal from the McKay Nursery Company:
“Both men had a vision for their management and especially in their investment in the company. Both men put the health of the company foremost. Each was rewarded by exceptional personal wealth as the company flourished. It’s largely because of their unselfish approach to investing in employees and the business that the company has been continuously successful for 100 years.”
For current president Flood, walking in the footsteps of McKay and Junginger is both humbling and inspiring.
“I am both humbled and honored to follow two such tremendous men,” he said. “I did not have the privilege of knowing McKay but a day doesn't go by when I don't think about Karl Junginger, Ken Altorfer, Ralph Petranek and Jerry Draeger and all of the great people that helped make this company what it is today. Karl’s commitment to the people at McKay, the community, and his contributions to this company were so impressive. He surrounded himself with a talented team. I feel very fortunate to have learned this business from these great people.”