By Kate Hanzalik
Among miles of green pastures on Erieville Road, 3402 Old State Road consisted of a vast expanse of acreage, a pond, a barn, and an old farmhouse that needed a lot of work. There wasn’t an apple tree in sight, let alone 2,500 of them – or a large warehouse that houses thousands of items made or collected by over 60 local artisans; there was no furniture business, no gourmet cafe, no pianos on a stage, and no trace of a young entrepreneurial couple who, themselves seeking greener pastures, changed the landscape of the world around them. That was, until Florence and Owen Gilmore, founders of Johnny Appleseed Farm, discovered it in 1963.
“I said [to Owen], ‘Keep driving. I don’t want to live in a chicken coop,’” Florence recollects today as she laughs. At 93 years old, she reflects on all the ways Johnny Appleseed Farm has reinvented itself over the years, all of the hardships, and all of the accomplishments. “This was sort of a dream that came true. It didn’t happen overnight.”
The dream was to start an apple orchard, even if the newlyweds had no experience in the field. Florence, a Registered Nurse and Owen, a sales manager at Mohawk Carpets, wanted to take the risk. They gave up their jobs, sold their house in Cazenovia, and planted 2,500 small apple trees. Slowly, as the trees grew, so did the business.
“I was down with my dog at the [farm] stand all the time when the customers came . . . Imagine coming over [to the stand] in the morning by yourself, with your dog, selling apples–with an RN background,” she laughed.
The couple branched out and soon began producing their own cider in addition to selling apples. And because of Florence’s friendships with artisans, and love for local arts and crafts, they sold a small supply of flower arrangements, baskets and quilts. As the years passed, they bought the old farmhouse, worked with an architect to restore it, and raised eight boys, all of whom contributed in some way to the business. But there were challenges: a hail storm and other foul weather, crops in disrepair, and ultimately a seasonal farm stand rather than a sustainable business that operated successfully all year.
So in 1981, Owen decided to expand the business to include unfinished furniture. “The two of us, in an 18-wheeler, got our first [pieces of] unfinished furniture. I’ll never forget it,” Florence said, recalling people asking them, “Can you drive that truck?!”
For the next 20 years, all good things came to fruition. They sold furniture from around the world. They expanded their infrastructure to sell more products and opened The Apple Hill Cafe while still maintaining a few hundred apple trees. By the 1990s, the business was selling $3 million dollars of furniture and $100,000 dollars of apples and food.
“The more children they had, the more people they had to help with the business,” said Erica Gilmore, wife to Florence’s youngest son, Patrick. “Patrick was always working. [He and his brothers] didn’t sleep in on Saturdays. They didn’t watch cartoons. Everybody had a job to do on the farm. As a result of all the hard work, it’s still here.”
Sadly, some of the Gilmores are no longer here, which has raised questions about the future. Owen passed, then their eldest son, who played a leadership role in the business, died of Leukemia. “That hurt. That was really hard,” Florence said. “That was where the business really fell off.” Johnny Appleseed Farm closed in 2015, and Florence had to decide what to do. “I thought, what am I going to do? Sell it? I had crazy offers for it. And I decided, no. We’ll do something else.”
Erica said, “Mom, being the entrepreneur that she is, and I came up with a plan with Patrick to re-open it and continue with the legacy that we have here.”
The family envisioned a cooperative market where Erica and Florence would be co-owners. Florence knows the community loves arts, crafts, and antiques just as much as she does, so she networked with her friends and found people to set up shop in 2017 at what is now called, The Shoppes at Johnny Appleseed. Today, with more than 60 vendors, good eats, and live music, Florence is endlessly entertained and intrigued by what people create and collect. She’s responsible for interior design and decorating while Erica manages the books, technology, and graphic design. Patrick, with an M.B.A. and a culinary degree, and his brother, Shawn, an artist and the owner of Route 20 Sofa Company, transformed the cafe into The Apple Kitchen, a place where patrons can enjoy gourmet food in a picturesque atmosphere. The land outside of The Shoppes is open for people to hike, ski, and snowshoe.
“I’m glad we never sold,” Florence said. “It is going well. People like it.” She encourages aspiring women to work hard for what they want, to be patient, and to never give up on their dreams. “We never gave up,” she said.
“A family legacy is something you really have to work at,” Erica said. “And [Florence] has been such a great role model and so inspiring to us over the years.”