Henry Meinke, a farmer, was working his land in Niles when he saw an orange light in the southeast sky. This was in 1871, and the orange light was the glow from the Great Chicago Fire.
More than 150 years later, Meinke Garden Center is still in business on the former farmland at its original location on Touhy Avenue at Lehigh Avenue west of the Edens Expressway. It’s now the oldest business in the northwest suburb, surviving with the hardiness of a plant growing in gardening’s Zone 5.
Generations of customers have gone there for flower and vegetable plants in the spring, pumpkins and firewood in the fall and poinsettias and Christmas trees brought in from elsewhere come winter.
These days, some will stop and scratch the ears of the family cat Tigerina, ever on the alert for the presence of mice.
The third Henry Meinke to carry on the business and the family name died Dec. 31 at 94 at Evanston Hospital.
That’s the hospital where he was born in 1927. When his mother was about to give birth, “They had to carry her a couple of blocks to somebody over at Howard Street who had a car, who drove her to Evanston Hospital,” according to Mr. Meinke’s son Jim Meinke.
Mr. Meinke had continued to show up at the garden center, where he was a familiar presence until congestive heart failure and age caught up with him.
He liked to chat with customers, asking what they did for a living. They’d ask about buying and growing perennials, geraniums, rose bushes and tomato plants. He’d tell them he was partial to yellow Sun Sugar tomatoes for their pop of sweetness.
Among his customers, his son said, were Scottie Pippen and Bonnie Hunt.
Mayor George D. Alpogianis called him “the epitome of the village of Niles. They had the personal touch there. There was always a family member to help.”
The business was founded by Mr. Meinke’s grandfather, a hired hand who married a widow whose late husband had farmed the 10-acre site where the garden center now operates.
At the time, Niles was dotted with beet and onion farms worked by immigrants from Norway, Luxembourg and Germany, said Thomas E. Ferraro, author of “Niles: the Early Years.”
Mr. Meinke’s grandfather was a native of the Mecklenburg region of Germany. A stretch of Touhy used to be called Mecklenburg Road, according to a centennial history of Niles.
By the 1920s, the Meinkes were operating a farmstand to sell their fruits and vegetables.
Around 1931, “When he was 4 years old, he went with my grandma to Germany” to visit relatives and stayed for about six months, Jim Meinke said. “He learned how to speak German.”
In Mr. Meinke’s later years, “He could still read the newspaper in German and speak some German,” his son said.
As a boy, he’d make a little money selling candy bars at the farmstand. On Sundays, he’d visit a neighbor to read her the “funnies.”
“She didn’t know how to read,” his son said. “Your neighbors were almost an extension of your family. He went over and read her the comics. Not everybody was well-educated then.”
Young Henry graduated from the old Niles Township High School in Skokie, which later became Niles East, where he ran track and cross country. When the coach went off to fight in World War II, he took on the added role of coaching his fellow runners.
In the late 1940s, when A.B. Dick Company was building a new plant and office on Touhy Avenue in Niles, “My dad helped push wheelbarrows of cement,” his son said.
Mr. Meinke and Dolores Lindmark, his future wife, met at a dance.
Though the family continued to sell produce at the farmstand until 1987, by the late 1960s the Meinkes were building greenhouses and shifting to selling flowers and plants.
His wife died in 2014.
And Mr. Meinke kept busy at the business.
He walked fast, even when he needed to use a cane.
Over the years, other ethnic groups took the place of the area’s German and Norwegian immigrants, his son said, and Mr. Meinke would stock plants aimed at them, like Cucuzza squash for Italian customers and bitter melon and opo squash for Asian customers.
Mr. Meinke also is survived by two grandchildren. Services have been held.
“I miss him for advice,” Jim Meinke said. “He’d like to know how many trees we sold, how many poinsettias we sold. He still cared about all that. I think that kept him going.”
At Christmas, “He’d remind me to call in orders ahead of time.”
In the future, “The places we buy trees from in Michigan, I’ll have to remember to call them extra early to make sure we get the order in.”