This Old (Green) House

After 125 years, the Rahns of Wooden Shoe Hollow know a thing or two about growing stuff.

Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

In the V created where Gray Road splits from Winton, north of Spring Grove Cemetery, there lies a verdant pocket of former farmland. Greenhouses punctuate the landscape, their panes reflecting the sky’s slow progress to a mute audience inside the cemetery gates. It’s a quiet, preternaturally peaceful space in the middle of the city that evokes a long-gone way of life. Last year one of those greenhouses, A.J. Rahn’s, celebrated its 125th anniversary. Mayor John Cranley declared the week of June 7 “A.J. Rahn Greenhouse Week” and a representative from the governor’s office drove down from Columbus to recognize this small business’s contribution to agriculture in Ohio.

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Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

My partner Jen and I have religiously visited A.J. Rahn Greenhouses since her first plant-buying run there one summer when she worked as a landscaper for Cincinnati Parks. To us, it’s always been Rahn apostrophe s, although Rahns’ might be more appropriate given how it’s been handed down over five generations of the family. Rahn’s fuels Jen’s addiction to potted plants and vegetable starts. But the two of us are also hooked on the experience of just walking around this horticultural Valhalla. Even on the cloudiest days, light filters throughout the glass houses containing neat grids of glossy green. The air is thick with humus and photosynthesis and a caged canary sings near the register up front. Their lone mouser stalks among the rows of plants like a pint-size jungle cat—a contributing employee, I’m told.

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Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

I usually head straight to the tropicals and succulents with their bizarre, Dr. Seussian shapes. Some of our favorite houseplants have come from Rahn’s: a String of Pearls plant that spills green baubles the length of a window, a jade that’s grown into a monster. There was even an ancient sago palm, commonly called the Dinosaur Plant as it has been found in fossil form beside dinosaur bones. Jen takes her time when she visits, supplementing what she hasn’t already started from seed with everything from agastaches to zinnias. In winter, Rahn’s brings artificial spring. In spring, as the staff opens up more greenhouses out back, it blossoms into paradise.

Susan Patten, née Rahn, has a hale, fair complexion and bemused bearing. She once helped me wrestle a ridiculously overgrown, steeply discounted hibiscus into the passenger seat of our decrepit Honda for the short trip home to Spring Grove Village. Hummingbirds still fight over its tangerine blooms. We overwinter it indoors, and when we moved, it joined a menagerie of houseplants and shrubs in the 26-foot U-Haul we filled with transplants to our new digs.


Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

My point is that what we have taken from A.J. Rahn Greenhouses has become part of our lives. This has been true for Cincinnatians since Rahn’s started out as local growers of food 125 years before everybody suddenly became interested in local agriculture. And in an age of impersonal transactions, where we slide a card and slide away, Rahn’s sells something on which not just our money but our care and attention are better spent. Could the answer to how A.J. Rahn’s has survived in a world where many of us buy our potting soil and plants in the garden sections of big chain hardware stores be simply that their plants are better? Or might it be more, some indicator of what it means to have lasting value in a world of ephemeral experience? Susan has always been a welcoming face, happy to answer questions on caring for plants. Perhaps she knew the secret to Rahn’s longevity. So I set up a behind-the-scenes tour and history lesson with her and her daughter Mary Sharp, generations four and five of the family. On the May morning I pulled up, the weatherman’s call for hail lent a vulnerable cast to the tidy, white-washed greenhouses with planters spilling color out front.

A.J. Rahn Greenhouses is a vestige of the agricultural production that earned this area the nickname Wooden Shoe Hollow, after the Dutch word for the wooden clogs, or klompen, worn as recently as the 1950s by the German-American gardeners whose families began cultivation here in the late 1800s. Think Dutch clogs, only less pointy—tough footwear that dates all the way back to the field workers of 13th century northern Europe. Koch’s, on nearby Springlawn Avenue, closed two years ago. Besides Rahn’s, Osterbrock’s and Funke’s greenhouses remain on Gray Road. In all, 19 German families have lived and operated greenhouses in this immigrant enclave.

For a solid dose of historical detail on the area, check Charlotte Pieper’s 1951 novel Wooden Shoe Hollow out of the library. Pieper grew up in one of Winton Place’s market gardening families, and as a UC journalism major, wrote a story based on neighborhood lore that she later expanded into the novel. There’s a healthy dose of verisimilitude mixed into this fictional narrative of a German girl striving to build a life in the hollow—the young people who gathered on Saturday nights for a communal dance called “The Crowd”; the non-Germans who were referred to as Yankees. Pieper’s immigrants bear an uncanny resemblance to John Rahn, Susan’s great grandfather. “He met a gardener at the watering trough in Camp Washington,” she writes. “Heard him talking Plattdeutsch to his balky horse. That’s how he came to learn of Wooden Shoe Hollow…. He got a job in the hollow. Saved his money. Sent for Minna. Bought this garden. Found contentment and fullness of life. What more could a man ask? A plot of good ground, a house, a devoted wife, children to rear…”

In 1883, 19-year-old Johan Rahn left Kulmbach, Germany, for the bustling port of Bremen. There he boarded a steamer, and after two weeks at sea, landed in Baltimore. He Americanized his first name and followed his brother’s path to Zinzinnati, most likely riding on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. John worked as a carpenter, turning spokes for wagon wheels. Five years after he arrived, he married German-born 24-year-old Kunigunda Grossmann. In keeping with the tradition that the oldest son should care for the father, he brought over his sexagenarian father George.

No boomtown carpenter will ever want for work, but the trade isn’t without its occupational hazards. A bad cough sent him to the doctor, who prescribed a lifestyle change away from the daily inhalation of wood particles. So John Rahn fell back on the work his family had done in the old country: He rented a plot along the Mill Creek and got down to growing. George was happy to help out.

Our tour brings us to a wooden cart painted blue and red with rusted iron fittings. “The original Rahn’s cart,” Susan says. “My great grandfather used it to haul things around back in the 1900s.” Its wooden wheels reach my shoulder, the 19th century equivalent of heavy equipment. Back then, she says, “these were the boonies.” Susan’s daughter, Mary Sharp, joins us. Mary pours her enthusiasm for her family’s business and history into Rahn’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. As you might imagine, there’s always something fresh and visually enticing to post.


Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

Out back we come to a shed full of tools, from hand rakes and yoke-drawn cultivators to gas-powered rototillers. Tines and discs are worn from decades of harrowing the soil where we stand, just a couple thousand feet west of Winton Road. For farm equipment, they’re surprisingly immaculate, like someone’s gone over them with a toothbrush. That someone is Susan’s brother Joe, the grower. “My Uncle Joe’s a bit OCD,” Mary jokes.

Joe is a big guy with the sort of tan and powerful build you only get from hard outdoor work. His blue eyes have a restlessness that suggests he has a lot on his mind, and if this guy with the notepad is through, he’d like to get back to it.

He seems to see beyond the visible spectrum: for example, energy consumed and heat lost. Rahn’s contracts their natural gas a year or two in advance, locking in the price when they think it is lowest, he says. “Then we do our best to try not to waste it. In greenhouses that are not efficient, we grow cool crops. And then our new houses that have new tops, that’s where we’ll grow crops that require warmer temperatures.”

The new tops are made of Lexan, sheets of double paned synthetic resin with which he hopes to eventually replace all of the glass, cutting their fuel bill in half.

Joe’s unyielding eye can make all the difference between success or failure because cleanliness is the first defense against plant diseases that can wipe out entire crops. Joe has every inch of more than 100,000 square feet of greenhouse space on his mind every day, planning, seeding, planting, and rotating crops up to a year in advance. We come to what’s known as the soil house, where a conveyor belt brings in potting soil to be mixed. This is also where young shoots are transferred by hand from plug trays to three inch pea pots. Joe notes that it’s not unusual for agricultural businesses to stay in a single family. Working side-by-side bonds children to their parents and to their land. And as Rahn’s most ardent customers will tell you: Plants and the act of planting have a way of rooting the planter.

Despite the hard work, Susan remembers an idyllic childhood. “We would go up there and bring fossils back, up where the landfill was,” she says, nodding to the ridge to the north, where, before the Gray Road Fill turned the hillside into a dump, she and her friends would explore rocky outcroppings. “It’s awful now, but one of the kids picked up a rock and in the rock was a frond inlay. This is where the Ice Age ended and left all those treasures.”

In the mid-’90s, Susan and her brother were involved in community meetings to battle the detritus and noise brought by trucks visiting the landfill. Eventually, the owners moved its entrance to Winton Road. The phrase “land-minded,” used in a 1943 WPA guide to Cincinnati to describe the settlers of Wooden Shoe Hollow, comes to mind. For the professional gardener, land is livelihood; for the immigrant, a goal. The way Susan speaks, I can’t help but think perhaps she’s inherited some of that land-mindedness.

Susan traces the evolution of her role managing sales for the greenhouse to childhood. She and Joe sold tomatoes at a sidewalk stand to commuters who worked at Procter & Gamble, Formica, and other operations down on Spring Grove Avenue. Business was slow, and bored with re-reading Reader’s Digest, she arranged one crate of tomatoes all vine-side up, another, all bottom up. Whether it’s that we don’t like to be reminded that our fruits and veggies were once connected to the soil, or that we crave uniformity, customers, she learned, invariably chose tomatoes that showed their smooth, shiny bottoms. While you’ll find Susan up front at Rahn’s, she credits her brother for growing goods that sell themselves. “My brother is a driven, focused grower,” she says. “He’s very concerned about the soil and he does grow things the old-fashioned way, with lower temperatures.”

Joe’s adherence to the old-fashioned way is in no small part responsible for Rahn’s word-of-mouth reputation for plants that, although smaller than competitors’, have a stronger root structure. Cooler greenhouses let plants develop strong roots. There’s a temptation in this business to seek higher profits in shorter grow times by cranking up the heat. Customers’ eyes also go to bigger plants despite the fact that leggy seedlings with underdeveloped roots won’t fare as well in the long run.

“My brother concentrates on growing the roots. And that’s really exemplified with the tomato plants that we sell, with a little tomato in a three-inch pea pot,” Susan says. “We’ve been growing them like that for at least 50 years, and we have people come in and buy a couple and come back the next year and say ‘I never had tomato plants grow like that before.’”

On the one hand, this is a story about doing things the same way for half a century. But pull back the lens and it’s also about adaptation: how the Rahn family went from growing and selling vegetables virtually by hand 50 years after the Industrial Revolution to the present, in which they are purveyors of potted plants and vegetable starts that grow like gangbusters.

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Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

There was an almost tidal push and pull between the Wooden Shoe gardeners and industrialization. The expansion of railroad lines along the Mill Creek pushed them north to Winton Village, where they found a patron in Adolf Strauch, the renowned German-born landscape designer who laid out many of Cincinnati’s parks and became superintendent of Spring Grove Cemetery in 1855, employing numerous German gardeners. The Van Wormers, a wealthy family who owned the land north of the cemetery, were willing to lease and later sell to growers.

John Rahn was one of those attracted by the quiet and the elbow room of country living with all the convenience of a seven-mile mule-cart ride downtown to market. By 1890, just one skinny tract remained on Gray Road, beside a plot owned by his brother Frederick. There were reasons the field hadn’t been claimed; it was uneven and had a creek running through it. But it would be his, something he could pass to his children. John built a barn and, in Winton Village, a home. Later the family built a house on the property itself.

Pieper dramatizes the gardeners’ travails in her novel: valuable tomato seeds lost to flood, crop failures from early frosts and unusually bad winters, destruction of greenhouses by hail stones. She also tends to romanticize. But market gardening was predicated on grueling work, as well as on an unromantic substance that the gardeners could pick up in the stockyards that lined Spring Grove. Manure was plentiful, but always in high demand. It enriched their soil but also generated warmth for the antecedents to greenhouses, glass covered “hotbeds” that extended the growing season into and sometimes through winter. Manure mounded around the boxes would ferment, raising its temperature. One of Pieper’s characters, Herr Pastor, underscored the vitality of manure. “A man would prefer to be caught drunk, beating his horse, or winking at his neighbor’s wife rather than have Pastor get news of his being implicated, even remotely, in a stable-stealing episode . . . one ‘stole’ a stable by offering a few dollars more than his neighbor for the privilege of emptying a stable of manure.” Hotbeds made it possible for the gardeners to meet year-round demand. And greenhouses came along to do that better still.

In another scene from the book, after hail destroys one gardener’s new hothouses, he defends them against claims that they were the devil’s work: “‘Greenhouses will never take the place of hotbeds,’ Wullum Yaeger insisted. Freich Vollman smiled as he looked upon the skeletons of his greenhouses. ‘Some day,’ he ventured, ‘all the gardeners will have greenhouses—sure as the earth turns.’ ‘There will be none on my place,’ Wullum replied. ‘Winter is a time of rest—for the ground and for us, too. If the Lord wanted us to raise greens the year round he wouldn’t cover the gardens with ice and snow.’”

Perhaps, but the Lord didn’t till the soil in Wooden Shoe Hollow. A gardener named Christian Hoeweler introduced the first hothouses to the area in 1912. The Rahn family’s first greenhouses went up in 1915. They were lower than what you see today, covering bare earth where vegetables were grown, heated by coal-burning boilers that John and his sons had to stoke continuously through cold winter nights.

Automatic coal feeders and motorized tillers soon made life easier for the gardeners of Wooden Shoe Hollow, who became known professionally as “truck farmers.” They existed as independent businessmen with a strong sense of community—in the native parlance, Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl—that manifested in the formation of the Hamilton County Truck Growers’ Association. John Rahn served as a trustee. The association collectively sold to distribution houses, freeing farmers from manning market stands. In 1929, just two years into existence, the association boasted 109 members (and fined any member who missed three consecutive meetings $1). That year they brought to market 53,847 50-pound barrels of lettuce, 8,070 barrels of radishes in bunches, 6,419 barrels of cucumbers (12 dozen to a barrel), 7,526 crates of hothouse tomatoes (36 pounds to a crate), 9,667 barrels of beets, 4,500 barrels of carrots, and 13,693 bunches of celery. (The celery crop, they note in their report, was a failure.)

Sons George and Lawrence eventually took over the business. According to an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer in April 1923, George took his younger brother to court, claiming “irreconcilable differences” and alleging that Lawrence “made threats to do things which will injure the business.” The exact nature of Lawrence’s threats has been lost to time. Suffice it to say it was Lawrence who kept control, and those are the initials of his son, Albert John, that the business bears today.

Born in 1951, Joe Rahn missed his great-grandfather’s passing by months. He does remember the contrast between the characters of his grandfather Lawrence and his father Albert, or, as he was affectionately known in the Hollow, Albe. Lawrence “was quiet, reserved. He wasn’t as aggressive as my dad,” Joe says. In family photographs, Albe stands out, a fair, fit figure, tall and thin in well-cut tweed. He dropped out of Hughes High School his sophomore year to help his dad, and took over the business.

Drafted in ’44, Albe fought at Luzon in the Philippines. A cathedral, windows blown out but standing while rubble lay all around, made an impression on him, says Joe. He heard the Latin mass wafting from within the church and it took him back to Sundays at home where he waited in the car while his Catholic wife attended mass. So while training for the invasion of Japan, uncertain whether he’d survive, Albe converted. After Japan capitulated, Albe brought home a drill sergeant demeanor that he bent to the disciplined operation of his greenhouses.

The truck had been a boon for the farmers, making it easy for them to get their goods to market. But the advent of a national highway system in the late 1950s threatened to put them out of business, as vegetables grown in California could now be trucked to Ohio and sold more cheaply than produce grown locally. Profit margins shriveled, forcing growers to shift focus from veggies to flowers, house plants, and ornamentals, luxury products for which discerning housewives were willing to pay a premium.

This change was just fine for Albe’s wife, Crescentia, née Effler, as in William Effler Jewelers of Norwood. She had met Albe at the Hollywood Theatre, and the jeweler’s daughter deigned to take his hand. Susan says her mother was a bit of a rebel with a flair for color. “Fashion was her love,” she says. “I mean the woman had more shoes.” But Crescentia was no delicate hot house flower. “She worked alongside my father all the time,” Susan says, “picking tomatoes and all the other grunt work.” In one family photo, the petite, blonde jeweler’s daughter can be seen driving a tractor-drawn plow across a field.

Crescentia brought an eye for color to a business that was transitioning from food to flowers. And retail expertise from her father’s shop was a boon for a business that involved more than growing and crating vegetables en masse for distribution houses. They needed to court customers, advertise, and arrange enticing displays.

That said, it’s not as if Albe Rahn woke up one day and declared: OK, we’re through with vegetables. Joe says his father was a restless experimenter. Toward the end of Rahn’s run as a vegetable grower for Cincinnati tables he was still hybridizing tomatoes, in part out of dissatisfaction with the hothouse varietals. Tomato plants bred for greenhouses need to be compact, with a high yield of fruit proportionate to smaller plant size. You can see Albe’s rationale: Margins are shrinking, but if I can just boost production while maximizing space and minimizing fuel consumption, maybe I can beat this thing.

He even went on the nationally-broadcast Midwestern Hayride country music television program to show off his hothouse breeds. A photograph shows him on set in a faux greenhouse, the one guy conspicuously not wearing a blazer and skinny tie, clearly proud of the well-endowed tomato plant in the foreground.

Joe says his father began growing flowers in the ’50s but got serious about them in the early ’60s, dedicating real greenhouse space to them. Flower production grew “until it took over the whole place. He never just jumped into things; we worked them in slowly and just let it evolve.”

The ’70s brought a surge of interest in macramé-hung house plants, but also a spate of destructive weather. On the afternoon of April 3, 1974, Albe Rahn looked up into a greenish-gray sky. An outbreak of storms across the Midwest had converged, breeding the epic twisters that flattened swaths of Xenia and Sayler Park. Those same storms shelled A.J. Rahn’s greenhouses just as spring seedlings were emerging, showering glass onto pansies and Easter lilies. “The Xenia year was the worst,” Joe says. “It damaged 3,000 panes. We were fortunate it wasn’t any worse.”

Then came the winters of 1978 and ’79. January of ’78 brought 31.5 inches of snow and the mercury dropped so low the Ohio River froze over completely. “People were starting to lose greenhouses. They were just going down,” says Joe. “The snow load was horrible, and our houses were bulging, too. We were heating them hard and doing the best we could. And we made it through. We lost nothing.”

The Rahns’ greenhouses have weathered war, depression, shifting competition, meteorological cataclysm, and most recently, the Great Recession, which saw sales of flowering and ornamental plants fall while fuel costs rose higher than ever. Yet the family business has withstood the ebb and flow of economic prosperity with its reputation intact. Customers come to beautify their gardens, homes, bedsides, and graves. They range from the wealthy to the meek—Patricia Corbett was a regular and so is Wyoming Baptist Church, which has been coming for almost 40 years. Rahn’s unusual and hard-to-find varieties draw horticultural devotees from far and wide like so many nectar-drunk bees.

Despite the fact that greenhouse work is back-breaking, tedious, and repetitive, they don’t have a lot of turnover. It’s not work you stick with unless, as 10-year veteran Mary Griesemer, who I find replanting multi-colored hibiscus into mixed pots puts it, you’re “super into plants.”

Long before their doors open, Joe is walking the greenhouses to determine what needs watering first. When the staff arrives, he’s assigning tasks: moving plants to the retail area, mixing soil, dead-heading and trimming. In the early spring, they’re seeding and transplanting, in July, they’re already watering poinsettias for Christmas.

“The people here are really tenured,” Griesemer says. “There’s a lot of folks who have been here for 20 years.” A.J. Rahn’s stands apart, she adds, because “a lot of times they seem to care more about the product than the profit.”


Photograph By Aaron M. Conway

Today Rahn’s is riding a wave of renewed interest in succulents and indoor plants. What would Johan Rahn think, I wonder, as I watch Susan conduct a seminar on creating and caring for terrariums. Certainly Albe, with his spirit of experimentation, and the fashion-conscious Crescentia, would approve. Rahn’s will continue to evolve, Susan says. With the ongoing drought in California, there’s even a chance they might go back to winter veggies. “I would love if my brother would grow Bibb lettuce,” she says. “I just think there’s a market for it. It’s hard to find.”

With their 125th anniversary behind them, the family has taken time to pause and reflect. As a team that normally works individually on separate responsibilities, turning 125 brought the family together, prompting conversation on the obstacles and changes their business has overcome, and where they should take it in the future.

“I saw my entire family shift from a ‘Work work work’ attitude to, ‘Wow, we really have done something amazing here. So let’s celebrate.’ This is our hearts’ work and we love it,” says Mary. “This past year proved that our strong family connection can withstand anything the future holds.”

Rahn’s role as the place to go for all things green will continue to grow. Even its reputation is an organic, meandering thing. You can almost hear the laconic conversation over a fence some summer evening, cocktails and watering hose in hand.

“That Celosia is gorgeous. What’s your secret?”

“Good roots.”

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