In many ways, the history of Frank’s Garden Center in Bowie parallels the growth and progress of the suburban city itself.
Both sprang up on a patch of undeveloped farmland between Washington, D.C., and Annapolis during the 1960s.
Since then, Bowie has grown from about 1,000 residents in 1960 to a bustling community of about 58,000 today. Similarly, Frank’s — which started out as a small, family-run produce stand in 1965 — endures today as a thriving nursery, garden center and hardware supply store that boasts 40 full-time employees.
Frank Hawkins, the man who started that business and was its sole proprietor for much of his life, died Jan. 25 at the age of 88.
He started the enterprise — he put his name on it and ran things himself until the last few years — as a roadside stand on a 6-acre plot of land he’d bought 53 years ago along Route 450. The parcel included a home for him, his wife and his three boys.
Back in those days, Hawkins was working at a Prince George’s County A&P grocery store, but he kept peeling off from work to go buy more produce. It was selling that fast. Bowie was growing; folks needed plants and dirt and mulch to keep those suburban lawns in bloom, and it wasn’t long before Hawkins quit his grocery job and devoted himself full-time to the family store.
It was a family business in every sense of the word. The family grew squash and tomatoes in the yard and bought sweet corn from local farmers. The two oldest boys, Bob and Jim, would work the stand when they were off from school in the summers. The two of them were moving dirt around on the property with an old Sears tractor before they were even teenagers. Irma, their mom, pitched in by keeping the books. There was also the youngest son, Drew.
In other words, it was hard to tell where home life ended and their jobs began, recalled Jim, 62, who will run things now that his father is gone.
“This was their life,” he said of his parents. “This is what they did. This is what they enjoyed doing. They greeted people here.”
Frank Hawkins grew up on an Iowa farm during the Depression. As a youth, he’d get a nickel for peeling a basket of potatoes for his father — a dime if he did a good job. He served in the Air Force right after World War II and built a prospering business from the ground up — almost literally.
He was, by all accounts, a man who understood the value of a hard day’s work. For the boys, there was plenty of time for fun, but there was a time for work, too.
“My father taught us boys how to work hard and try to save money,” Jim said. “He taught us well — my mother and father both did … My dad was a tough person as far as being able to stand his ground and make a list of things and get them achieved. But it wasn’t hard for us boys. We knew what we had to do and we did it.”
Hawkins had a softer, gentler side, too. He was known, for example, to swing by McDonald’s on his way to work in the morning and pick up six or seven cups of fresh coffee for the employees on the early shift.
For his customers, he bought those plastic-wrapped peanut butter crackers by the bushel and passed out the individual packs to patrons when they came in. During the fall, he’d set out a big basket of apples by the cash register. Anyone who dropped by could grab one for a snack, or to save for later.
That personal touch helped. His loyal customers bought enough plants, pots, pavers and even Christmas trees (11,000 one year, according to Jim) to keep Frank’s flourishing even as superstores like Home Depot and Lowe’s virtually cornered the gardening supplies market.
“My father served the community here for 50 years,” Jim said. “There were many people who came in here just to see him. We’re still considered a mom-and-pop organization. We’ll load the merchandise into your car for you. This isn’t like going to Home Depot and putting it on the cart and loading it into the car yourself.”
In recent years, as Hawkins grew older, he left much of that heavy lifting to others. But he was still a constant presence at the store, often perched in his director’s chair to greet old friends and chat.
Hundreds of those friends and customers have come by in the last week or so, Jim said. There’s a memorial, packed with flowers and old photos, that’s been set up near the front of the store, alongside Hawkins’ beloved old chair.
And while Hawkins may be gone. Frank’s Garden Center lives on. Even without him, Frank’s is still Frank’s.
Jim will take over the operations now and plans to keep things going — just as if his dad were still around.
“That’s the intention, as we speak,” Jim said. “It’s gonna carry on for a while.”