GORHAM – Bulldozers making way for houses this summer will uproot the lifetime labor of a Gorham couple.

Paul and Donna Allen, owners of Barrows Greenhouses, 312 Main St., will retire later this year, ending a lengthy career of raising flowers.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Donna Allen, as she and her husband talked about retirement plans. “It’s going to be a whole new life.”

The couple plans to operate the greenhouses and floral shop through Memorial Day into June.

The 15-acre Barrows site is being eyed as a housing development. Susan Duchaine of Design Dwellings Inc., said Wednesday she plans to file an application by the first week of March with the Gorham Planning Board to develop Allen Acres. Duchaine hopes construction would get under way by mid to late summer. Duchaine plans 25 single-family homes and five duplex homes at the property.

“It’s a nice site,” she said, which is served by public sewer and water.

“We’re pleased to be part of it and hope the housing market comes back a bit,” Duchaine said.

Tuesday, the Allens reminisced with employees, sharing coffee and a box of doughnut holes at a table in their floral shop at the business.

Shirley Chapman of Gorham, who worked at Barrows for 30 years and designed Memorial Day baskets, wiped away tears.

“I think it’s going to be quite a change for the people,” Chapman said about the entire Gorham community.

Tom Ellsworth, director of Gorham Economic Development Corp., said Wednesday that family-owned businesses are declining.

“You hate to see another one go,” he said.

Priscilla Rines of Gorham is a longtime customer. “I’m very sorry they’re leaving,” she said. “I understand why.”

Raising thousands of plants annually in 44,000 square feet of greenhouse space, the couple committed to the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Allens – Paul is 67 and Donna is 63 – have lived next to the greenhouses in the home where they raised their family and operated the greenhouses for four decades. The florist and greenhouse business has been their life. Barrows has five glass greenhouses along with a couple of plastic-covered ones.

“We were dating and our Sunday drives were delivering funeral flowers,” Donna Allen recalled. “By the time I was 16, I knew where all the funeral homes in southern Maine were located.”

Paul Allen had a background in the greenhouse business, but his wife, a graduate of Westbrook College, studied dental hygiene and worked in that profession six years. However, she trained in floral design and became the vice president, secretary and full-time bookkeeper for the family business.

Barrows Greenhouses is a Gorham landmark. The Allens represent the second family to ever own the business, which was founded in 1905. A Mr. Hannaford started the business and it continued under his son-in-law, Roland “Cuke” Barrows, an outfielder who played with the Chicago White Sox 100 years ago. A Barrows family member operated the business after Cuke Barrows died in 1955.

Paul Allen’s folks, Paul and Anne Allen, and two floral industry investors bought it in 1961 from Carrie Chick, who lived at 308 Main St. After first owning a share in 1972, the younger Allen acquired full ownership of the property in 1980.

Barrows Greenhouses once produced 23,000 lilies, 20,000 poinsettias and 15,000 geraniums every year.

“When it was in full bloom, it was quite a sight,” Paul Allen said.

At its height, Barrows Greenhouses employed 25, once the largest employer and taxpayer in Gorham. It was a place for youths to find summer work.

Donna Allen said her husband enjoyed the hectic pace of readying seasonal crops.

“He liked it when it was running full tilt,” she said.

Besides the successes, Donna Allen recalled surviving trying times of freeze-ups, micro bursts and crop failures.

In addition to their own retail sales, they have marketed plants wholesale to greenhouses and florist shops in Maine, New Hampshire and in Boston, Mass. Easter lilies were flown to Newfoundland.

In addition to individual patrons, Barrows’ customers have included police departments, schools, sports teams, churches, towns and cities – and even a few celebrities. Donna Allen said white poinsettias were delivered to John Travolta’s island home in Maine. “Our salmon pink geraniums went to President Bush’s summer home at Walkers Point,” she recalled.

Ellsworth said Barrows has had a loyal following but times had changed and he cited the arrival of large retail outlets operating nurseries.

Paul Allen said they had lost business in recent years due to imports from California and South America. “You kind of knew in the back of your mind your days were numbered,” he said.

Rising energy costs also took their toll at the business. Donna Allen recalled that at their highest point, the electric bill ran $1,500 a month and the annual oil heating cost between $40,000 and $60,000.

“That’s a lot of flowers,” Donna Allen said. “We won’t have those heating bills.”

The couple began downsizing about 10 years ago, she said, as none of their three children seemed interested in taking over the business. She said their children live out of state – David is a software engineer in Massachusetts, Meegan is a pharmacist in Idaho and Jessica is a film editor in New York.

Longtime employee Ronnie Harkins said Tuesday he’s handled multiple tasks at Barrows for 25 years. He easily recalled the day he was hired – Sept. 17, 1985.

“I’ll miss it a lot,” Harkins said.

Ten years ago, Sarah Rioux stopped at Barrows “on the spur of the moment” and landed a job.

“It’s hard to imagine,” Rioux, who plants and waits on customers, said about the landscape without Barrows Greenhouses.

Anne Kennie of Standish has been at Barrows 22 years, helping in a variety of ways. Kennie has been laid off for the winter but expects to return by March. “I loved every aspect of it,” Kennie said by telephone. “It’s been a good run. Very, very sad. I wish them the best.”

Paul Allen believes its time to retire.

“I hope to ski and golf. I’d like to take a trip across country – travel,” he said.

His wife also looks forward to traveling, visiting family and walking the beaches.

“The first year we just want to enjoy having holidays and weekends – being free of boiler alarms and closing vents and being able to spend time with our four grandchildren, she said.

The couple will move to her family home in South Portland.

“It’s a quick taxi ride to the airport,” she said.

While they are looking forward to the next stage in their lives, the changes are daunting.

“We’re trying to stay away from the emotional part,” Paul Allen said.

“The hardest part is saying goodbye to all our loyal customers and friends,” his wife said.

And it will be especially difficult when the greenhouses are demolished to make way for the housing development.

“It’s going to hit hard,” Paul Allen said.

“We’re trying to stay away from the emotional part,” says Paul Allen, who owns Barrows Greenhouses in Gorham. He and his wife Donna are selling their landmark property, which will become a housing development. Photo by Rich Obrey

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