Staff Photo: John Bohn Frank "Woody" Bell sits on a wood stove in the office of Woody's Wholesale Nursery in Duluth. Woody began the business in 1973, making the nursery the oldest family owned business in Duluth. Woody's son Frank Bell now runs the day to day operations.
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DULUTH -- For three generations, the Bell men have had a fondness for azaleas.
But 40 years after he and his dad opened Woody's Wholesale Nursery on Buford Highway, Woody Bell has to admit his favorite flower is "The one on someone's truck going out the gate."
Woody's Nursery is an institution in Duluth, spawned by a hobby that Frank Bell began when his now 65-year-old son was an infant, growing plants in the backyard and selling them to neighbors.
When Woody graduated from college with a degree in horticulture and wanted to settle down and marry, the father and son set up shop on 3.6 acres along Buford Highway, purchased for $21,000. They eventually added another nine acres for $28,000.
"We started off just building those greenhouses," said Woody, who is actually Frank Woodfin Bell Jr. His father passed away in 1994, and now his son, Frank III runs the place, a wholesale nursery for landscapers and a place that sells everything from maple trees to mulch.
The elder Bell used scrapped telephone poles, beams that survived a tornado and lumber and tin from old chicken houses to build a barn, which is still standing, and Woody raised his family there, riding out economic booms and busts and building the business.
"After 40 years, we've got customers who have shopped here their whole lives," said Martin Gilley, a long-time manager who is now "one of the family," along with other employees who have served in weddings and attended family gatherings.
When Woody's pulled the plastic off the greenhouses last month, "that lets all of Duluth know spring is here," Gilley said.
State Rep. Brooks Coleman, who lives across the street from Woody, said he remembers traveling to Mobile decades ago with the elder Frank Bell to buy azalea cuttings and pot them to sell in the spring.
"It's been great for the community," Coleman said of the business, which is Duluth's oldest family-owned business. "It's been a vital part of our community."
Mayor Nancy Harris agrees. She remembers visiting Woody's as a child, and now the business is always willing to lend a hand with city projects, like providing landscaping at the new public art project on a local roundabout.
"This business has grown from a small roadside stop to a business that works with landscapers and contractors as well as the public," Harris said. "They are absolutely wonderful supporters of Duluth and have loaned and donated many plants and services to city events."
Between Frank's two girls and three other grandchildren, Woody said he isn't sure if the nursery will be in the family for another generation.
But Frank said it just might be. His oldest has quite a green thumb herself.