FAIRBANKS — Ann Dolney, Ann’s Greenhouse namesake and its multi-tasking matriarch, can usually be found in Greenhouse No. 1, answering the phone, cashing out customers, or responding to gardening questions, her lively blue eyes in constant motion as she talks and jokes with customers, many on a first-name basis.
On a recent May morning, early-bird shoppers, intent on getting a head start on the Interior’s short but intense growing season, took time to visit with Ann and catch up on family and neighborhood news.
Others dropped by to say hello and take in a welcoming fix from the riot of colorful blossoms and greenery overflowing the 12-greenhouse complex located off of Sheep Creek Road.
Ann is considered by many as the local gardening guru and she often has ready, practical advice. But she is quick to downplay any expertise.
“Mostly gardening is common sense,” she said. “I’m not very technical. I go by feel and guessing. I get lots of calls and questions and sometimes I don’t have a clue.”
A friend brought Pam Webster to Ann’s Greenhouse around 15 years ago, and she’s been a customer ever since.
“Ann’s a phenomenon,” said Webster. “She’s a great example of someone who lives in flow. She keeps busy and stays young.”
Linda, the oldest of Ann’s three children, also marvels at her 80-year-old mother’s stamina.
“She’s energetic, vivacious and she loves people. She remembers everything about them too. I don’t know how she does it.
“We can’t keep her down. She loves her job; she loves the work; she loves the people and that’s what keeps her going.”
Ann’s Greenhouse is a family affair. Linda and her sister Karen serve as assistant managers, and brother Walter is the handyman. Ann’s brother-in-law Jim Dolney travels north every summer from Texas to help.
“He keeps everything running smoothly,” Ann said.
In addition, a seasonal staff shares in the workload.
“Some people have been working here for 20 years,” Ann said. “We seldom have an opening because they all come back.”
After the Memorial Day rush is over, two greenhouses are planted with tomatoes and several large field gardens are seeded with potatoes and vegetable starts.
Produce from the truck garden is sold from mid-June to the end of the season at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market.
It’s a surprise to many that Ann was born and raised in a small German village about 20 miles north of Frankfurt. She has no accent.
Her schooling ended at grade 8 because of World War II. She would have had to take a train to attend high school, but her mother wouldn’t allow it since German trains were Allied bombing targets.
While Ann’s father was in the German army, her mother and grandfather ran the family farm and Ann worked primarily in the family’s small country store, helping with farm chores as needed.
“Mom, grandpa and I were running the whole show,” she said.
The family also was assisted by Polish laborers who lived on the farm and taught Ann Polish. Ann’s father survived the war. He fell ill in Russia and recovered. Later, he was captured on the Western Front and sent to work on a walnut farm in France. He didn’t return home until 1948. “The French treated him very well,” Ann said.
After her father’s death, Ann took her mother and her three children to Grenoble to visit the family her father had worked for and about whom he spoke so highly.
Ann also met her future husband, Ed Dolney, during wartime.
She was turning hay with a rake in a field when the U.S. soldier stopped by. “He was guarding a factory nearby,” Ann explained. The couple corresponded for six years. Ann also wrote to his mother, sisters and aunts, who generously sent CARE packages to her family after the war ended.
Ed traveled to Alaska in 1951, liked what he saw, and after he and Ann married in 1952, they began planning to move north. They arrived in Fairbanks from Pennsylvania with baby Linda, on April 4, 1954, driving a brand new Hudson sedan and pulling a house trailer. “I felt at home here from the day I got here,” Ann said.
That first winter was a hard one. Their house trailer burned down, leaving them with only Ed’s pickup and his lunchbox.
But time and hard work improved their fortunes. In 1958, the family filed on the Sheep Creek homestead site and began the labor of proving up.
The original homestead house was the Ladd Field schoolhouse, Ann said, which has been expanded over the years. A Dall sheep trophy centered on the home’s living room wall is a reminder of the frequent hunting, camping and fishing trips the family enjoyed.
The greenhouse began in 1966 and its operation has continued uninterrupted.
A heart attack in 1995 slowed but didn’t stop Ann from continuing. Now an octogenarian, Ann doesn’t contemplate retiring.
Her love of gardening and nurturing plants and flowers never wanes.
“It’s so important to see something green and something cheerful,” Ann said. “I just get a joy walking through here.”
That same joy is shared by a wide-cross section of locals who enjoy the beauty and the greenhouse’s friendly atmosphere.
So far this season, grateful customers have dropped off cinnamon rolls, cookies and smoked salmon to their favorite gardener.
“She thinks of her customers as her friends,” Linda said. “That comes across to people. They notice that.”