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Interview with J. Henry McGill

McGill, J. Henry (James Henry), 1903-2007
Desmarais, Melinda H.
Date of Interview: 
McGill, J. Henry (James Henry), 1903-2007; McGill Rose Garden (Charlotte, N.C.); Exxon Corporation; All-American Rose Selections, Inc.; Roses; Rose culture; Urban beautification; Bankers; Delivery of goods--Management; Distributors (Commerce); South Carolina--York County; North Carolina--Charlotte; North Carolina--Charlotte--North Davidson; Interviews (Sound recordings); Oral histories
J. Henry McGill, a Charlotte businessman who with his wife Helen founded the McGill Rose Garden, recounts his life and the development of the garden. A native of York, South Carolina, Mr. McGill moved to Charlotte as financial instability began to afflict rural areas in the lead-up to the Great Depression. After a period working in Charlotte’s fragile banking industry, McGill saw a better opportunity in the growing ice delivery business and took a position with the City Ice Delivery Company. In 1950 he purchased the Avast Fuel & Ice Company, along with the property that would one day become the McGill Rose Garden. Mr. McGill explains that the property was an old coal yard, located in a desolate and crime-ridden industrial area in the North Davidson neighborhood now known as NoDa, which galvanized his wife to plant roses in an attempt to clean up and beautify the property. He describes the positive impact the garden had on the community and its residents as it transformed industrial blight into livable green space and improved the reputation of the surrounding area. Mr. McGill discusses what it means to be an All-American Rose Selection public garden, and the work that goes into selecting and caring for the roses. He details the McGill Rose Garden’s current community outreach programs, ranging from basic gardening programs for preschoolers to vocational training for low-risk prisoners. The interview concludes with Mr. McGill sharing his views on the importance of outreach, the need to build connections between the garden and the community, and his hopes that the community can be advocates for the garden when he’s gone.
North Carolina--Charlotte; South Carolina--York County; circa 1920 - 2002
Interview Setting: 
McGill Rose Garden; Charlotte North Carolina
Oral History, OH
Interview Audio: 
HM: James Henry McGill
MD: Melinda H. Desmarais

Minidisc 1 begins.

MD: Today is November the 21st, the year is 2002, and I’m Melinda Desmarais, the interviewer. And I am here with Mr. Henry McGill at his office at the McGill Rose Garden at 940 North Davidson Street in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m here today interviewing Mr. McGill for the oral history program at the Special Collections Department of Atkins Library at UNC-Charlotte. Mr. McGill, will you please state your full name for me.

HM: My name (clears throat) is James Henry McGill.

MD: And tell me your birth date, Mr. McGill.

HM: It’s August the 7th, nineteen hundred and three.

MD: And tell me where you were born. The place you were born.

HM: I was born in York County, South Carolina, five miles out from Clover, South Carolina.

MD: And were you born at home?

HM: Um-hum. Out in the country.

MD: Tell me your parents’ names.

HM: My father’s name was William Bonner McGill and my mother’s name was Mary Leslie, Mary Elizabeth Leslie, and they were both from Clover, South Carolina in York County.

MD: And do you have any brothers or sisters?

HM: I have one brother and one sister, both dead.

MD: And tell me a little bit about your family life growing up? What did your parents do to make a living?

HM: My father, my grandfather had started a big old country store, and he supplied farmers in that community between York, South Carolina, Clover, South Carolina and Kings Mountain, South Carolina. We were right close to the Kings Mountain Battle Ground. And they owned property on this side of the mountain. Still do. And during my early years when I was growing up, as soon as I got big enough, I worked in that store.

MD: What was the name of that store?

HM: It was McGill Brothers’ Company, Incorporated. And it was right on the corner of 161 and the, the highway going to Blacksburg, right ten miles from Kings Mountain, ten miles from York, South Carolina and five miles from Clover. And in the wintertime they had a gin, a gin. They had a sawmill, and they did all this to accommodate in their community. And so when I was big enough, I helped to haul supplies to that store and in the wintertime, way before hard surface roads when there were just dirt roads, and in the wintertime, when the weather got real bad and the roads got real bad, the, my people and other people in that community quit using their cars and got out their horse and buggy. And when I got big enough to where they had trucks, I started hauling produce to the store from one of these places that I mentioned and that was my early lifehood right in that store or anything else that was to be--. If I needed to, if my father needed to send me out with the hands on the places where they had them working, then he sent me with them. And I’ve spent many a days out there just piddling around really seeing that they working and then I--.

MD: Are these hands on your family’s farm? Did you have a farm, too?

HM: Well my father had farms. He had tenant farms where he had tenants that worked the farms, but then he had to furnish the equipment and their supplies and so forth. And--.

MD: So that’s where you’d go supervise?

HM: Hum?

MD: That’s where you’d go oversee, kind of supervise the hands?

HM: Well that might have had something to do with it, (clears throat) and then when I got big enough to go to school, I went to school, right into a country sc--. I went to a school right in that community until the tenth grade. In the tenth grade my father thought that I needed to go to a prep school. And so (clears throat) we had other people in the town that had sons at Trinity. Trinity was still Trinity yet, and this was about two or three years before it came Duke. He sent me to a prep school called Trinity Prep School [Trinity Park School]. It was under the big Trinity College, now Duke, and I finished there. Then I finished there, and then the question came up about college. I was supposed to be ready to go to college. Well my family were great believers in this Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which you have one in Gastonia. (clears throat) Then it was decided, pretty much decided, from the very beginning, where I would go because it was pretty well known that any McGill that went to college went to Erskine College, and so I went to Erskine College for two years. And while I was there, at some time in my mind, I decided I wanted to be a banker. So the Erskine College was not giving a course in that kind of a thing, so, so I went to Richmond, Virginia to, to Massey’s Bank and Business School [Smithdeal-Massey Business College]. And so I finished there— well I hadn’t quite finished. It was in that city at that time when somebody needed--, somebody, extra help or needed to replace help in the banks they would come to that school to get somebody. And in that school, it was set up just like a bank. You had, of course, false money, but you did all the transaction right in that bank, right in that school. And just I guess six months before I finished that school, the Farmers and Merchants National Bank in Richmond, Virginia, they wanted somebody to fill in at their bank, and so I was chosen to do it before I’d finished. So when I got through school there I already had a job. Well I spent about two years. Then the cashier in York, South Carolina where my father and uncle and all of our people were interested in that bank--. My father wanted me to come home, and, and, and since the cashier had gotten sick and they found out that he would not be back. So I told them that I was going to leave and go to, go to another job, and the cashier said, “Well, let me call your dad and talk to him.” And he did, but they still wanted me to come, so I did.

MD: How did you feel about going to York?

HM: Well I felt a little hesitancy to go because it was in a town, the community where I was borned. And I kind of felt like I wanted to get into something else, and so that was about two years. Times were getting hard, and about two years after that, the Depression came along.

MD: So this was in the late 20s?

HM: Yeah. And so (pause) little banks like in York, South Carolina, that’s where the bank was, they had to come to a place like in Charlotte where there was a big bank and borrow money from them to carry on their business. Well things got bad, and my people owned about 1600 acres of land. And land just went down, down, down, until the farmers and people that lived in that community where they furnished a lot of their supplies, they had really no assets to come to the bank to borrow money because you couldn’t take land as an asset. And I always remember one farmer who was a big farmer came in one day and he wanted to put up his hogs as security. Well you couldn’t do that because hogs because they come and go. So during the Depression, (pause) the teachers were going to get their pay, and, and they would come to the bank where I was and get their checks cashed, and we found out that the bank was going to have to close because we just could not operate it with the assets that people had to offer.

MD: And what was the name of the bank?

HM: The bank was People’s Bank and Trust Company in York, South Carolina.

MD: OK. So you found out it was going to close.

HM: It was going to close, so, what we did, we took those checks that those people--. I mean we took the money, and we did not cash checks. We just kept them. We didn’t give them the checks. We just held it back, so they could still get their money. And that happened. That was one of the things that happened, and the bank closed. And pretty soon, the First Union Bank there in that same town, it had to close for the same reason. Then they closed it in Rock Hill; they closed in Clover; they closed all around us in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and all and one bank here.

MD: So what did that mean for your banking career?

HM: It meant that I was out of a job. It means that everything that I had and that my people had was locked up in that bank. And so then--.

MD: Did the store continue?

HM: The store did, yes, but the thing that happened there, so many of their farmers could not pay their bill and that made it hard. And that, and that store still operates now. It’s still under the McGill name, but it’s a nephew that operates it and a first cousin owns it. So it’s still in the McGill family name, and they still do business there.

MD: What kinds of things did you sell, if I can go back and ask you a couple of questions?

HM: Well, the way I answered that is everything from caskets to ladies’ wear. And, and if I could take you over there now and take you upstairs to that big old building, you’d still find some old ladies hats and old ladies dresses, unless they moved them. The last time I was there they kind of remodeled the store, so I don’t know what’s up there now. But I’ve gone up there many times. Old, old clothes. And they say that my grandfather, back way, he died in 1906, way back beyond that he would put money in his pocket and go off and buy some supplies. And mostly you had pay cash, (laughs) so that’s again back at the store. But, then, the bank closed, and when I closed the door, the front door myself and I don’t think it was, until just about everybody in that town was at our front door. (laughs) And but, anyhow, the bank was closed.

MD: What impact did that have on your family? You said your family--?

HM: Oh, it just, it just pretty much upset them, until where they could hardly do anything. That, that had a bearing on their credit. See they bought things from companies that came around, drummers, who came around and sold things. And then people like that, people begin to wonder whether they’re going to be able to pay or not. But they worked it out, and it’s, it’s all worked out now, and that land in that section has gone from nothing to five and 600 and 700 and 800 dollars an acre. So they’re in better shape. And of course all those people at that time, most of them, even the ones that were in the bank with me at that time, they’re gone, and a new group has taken over, so the times have been better up until this trouble that we’re having now, everything was in pretty good shape.

MD: So how did you end up in Charlotte, Mr. McGill?

HM: Well (clears throat) that’s another little story. My father had a good many friends, and there was a man by the name of W. T. Williams who had worked in the Bank of Clover, and the head of that bank was Mr. Ed Smith. He was president of the bank and president of a big mill there in that little town. And, when I went back home, which I had to do, I was not married yet. My father began to scratch his head and wonder what I could do and he said, “You go over to Clover and tell Mr. Ed Smith I said for him to find you a job.” And I did. And he sit down and talked to me and listened to me, and this W. T. Williams that had worked under him in the Bank of Clover had come to the Commercial Bank here, the old Commercial Bank in Charlotte, and he thought since I’d had some banking experience that I should be back in a bank. He says, “You go to Charlotte and tell Goat Williams, that was his nickname, that I said to give you a job.” And I come over here and I told him--. I knew him, too; I had known him. He made a job. They didn’t have a job; they made a job for me there in the old Commercial Bank. And so in 1927, I came to the Commercial Bank in Charlotte with a job, and I stayed in that bank about two years. And all the ice companies--. Just when electric refrigerators were coming in to be, five ice companies here in Charlotte that served ice all over Mecklenburg County and in the city--. At that time restaurants, hospitals, stores, homes, used ice, ice refrigerators, so they formed a delivery company where they’d just be one company instead of five on the street, and that’s covering Mecklenburg County.

MD: And what was the name of that company?

HM: It was City Ice Delivery Company and that was a job to be filled. So I left the bank and went with an ice company now, and I operated that company for over twenty years. And in that company, Mr. Avant, Mr. W. A. Avant, who owned this property, owned the ice plant here, and he was one of the ones that went in with them, his company. He went in with them. He was a stockholder and a director, and I operated that company twenty years as, as manager and head of the company. And (clears throat) in 1950, I decided, and I decided before that, that I wanted to get into something else, because I could see the electric refrigerators coming in, and in fact they have. We had at that time--, we, we sold 60,000 to 70,000 tons of ice, and sometimes eighty.

MD: Is that per--?

HM: That’s a lot of ice.

MD: Per year?

HM: Per year. But even in my home, and I’m still at yet, because I kept an ice refrigerator in my home until I got in to something else. And when I had an opportunity to go, to get into a distributorship with the Exxon Company, I changed to oil. And I stayed with oil until just two years ago, three years ago, I put in gas. But I kept those, I kept what I was using as long as I was in that kind of business.

MD: Well, I know where we are going to pick up here is really important because that’s going to bring us into talking about the rose garden.

HM: OK--.

MD: But let me go back and ask you one more question if I can before we talk about--.

HM: OK. Am I talking loud enough?

MD: You’re doing great; you’re doing just fine.


MD: Tell me a little bit, if you can remember, about your impressions of Charlotte when you first came here. You’ve seen a lot of change I bet, Mr. McGill, over time. What was it like in 1927, coming from York, South Carolina to Charlotte? What was that like?

HM: It was a big, it was a big change for me, because York was a small town. Charlotte, I thought was a big town. We used to--. At home, we used to go Gastonia and catch the trolley and come to Charlotte, so it, it was a, it was a big change. And when I came here Charlotte was just an ordinary place. At one time, George Washington came here a long time ago. He came here to Charlotte and spent the night. He said it was a trifle town. (laughs) That’s way back beyond that, but right there I could see and I could see them in Charlotte begin to grow and change. And a lot of businesses came here; banks came here. And from West Trade Street at the Square from there on down to South Tryon Street, there’s not but, there’s just two buildings left that was there when I came, and that’s the First National Bank building, and the Johnston Building, all the rest of them are gone. And all up and down the street, the old Commercial Bank where I came to, was a skyscraper then; it’s gone. It’s about, I guess, seven or eight or ten story. I don’t remember just when. But I have seen a big change, and then, when I took over the delivery company--.

MD: The ice delivery?

HM: Ice delivery company, it was a pretty big job to consolidate those five companies together and just start one big company. And we had after, after it was all consolidated--. You see back then they were still using horse drawn wagons and so forth in town. Out in the country, they used trucks.

MD: So you delivered the ice, your company delivered ice in town in Charlotte with a horse and--.

HM: Horse and buggy.

MD: Buggy.

HM: Right uptown. And those horses are mostly trained to stand while the driver delivered ice. And, let me see--. (pause) I could see Charlotte just growing and growing and growing, and now, you know how it’s grown. And it used to be, in the oil business and in the (clears throat) oil business, and I still handled some coal, but I bought this place from Mr. Avant.

MD: And this--. Tell me about Mr. Avant. What did he--? He owned what? Coal, wood, ice?

HM: Mr. Avant started his business in 1902, and he delivered coal and wood to homes and that’s what people had back then. And when I came here after that at the time, see, his, his ice business, his ice plant, I had taken that over in the company that I was operating. It was one of the five, and so he had no more to do with that, and so he still operated the coal yard and wood. And when I came here that was it, and he had three men in this office here just sitting here. He was in Florida or he was in the mountains. He had already gotten his self so he could retire. He would not sell this property to anybody, because he thought so much of the business that he had operated. And he wanted to keep this business, even though it was costing him to do it. But he wanted me to have it, and so I got a chance to come over here with the intentions of not staying in the coal and wood business, but to go entirely into this distributorship with Exxon. And so I did that, and the others just kind of faded out. And so that’s, I don’t know whether that ties in with what you want to know about my, what changes that I saw. That’s the changes that I had to make, and I did make. While I started off to be a banker, I ended up to be an oil dealer. (laughs)

MD: (laughter) So I know that you came here in, in 1950, is that what you said ’50, ’51?

HM: I came and I bought the place in 1950. I did not get it set up and everything actually and everything until ’51, but ’51 although we, we came here and stated with old dilapidated buildings and old houses. See he had some rental houses on it, but he had (clears throat) the best siding in the city of Charlotte because he was on the Seaboard Railroad, and the Seaboard Railing had put a siding right (side) of his whole property, and so he could just bring carloads of coal, and he had chutes out there and all he had to do was knock the bottom and let it go. And so, he, he supported me in the first years that I started here. He supported me, and he, I kept it in his name because he had good credit at the bank.

MD: On the company, you kept his name?

HM: Yeah, um-hum. I didn’t have no, it didn’t have any trouble along that line. Otherwise, I’d have had it pretty hard.

MD: So, how in the world did you take an oil company and end up with a rose garden?

HM: Well, in 1975, the city of Charlotte wanted this property. They wanted it sold that somebody else wouldn’t have it, and they are set up so they can take property. And I, I had property up here where these buildings are, and I had property on Caldwell Street, and up and down this street. And they first wanted this property, and I didn’t want to sell it because my oil company was doing real well. And I had (clears throat) a branch in Matthews, and I had two branches in Matthews and I had bought some other companies, too. And the company was doing real well, but anyhow, anyhow, they, they wanted it. And I didn’t want to sell it, but they kept on until I let them have the property. Well, they, they paid pretty dearly to get it, but they got it, and they wanted to keep it as a green space. And one reason I let them have it was they wanted me to still stay here and look after the garden, and they set no time on it. Just so you stayed there. Well, I went ahead, since I had to really, and, and I let them have it. But they help us with keeping things going and the property and so forth, and it’s been a real nice tie in after all. And so I got out of the oil business really when that happened.

MD: So we’ve kind of skipped to 1975. How did the roses start coming? How did this become transformed into a rose garden?

HM: Well before that, before that (clears throat) my first wife, Helen, when I told her that I bought this place and brought her over here, she said, she shook her head. She said we got to do something about that place.

MD: Why, what, what made her say that?

HM: Well it was just run down. Everything was--. It looked bad. So she started right then and brought two rose bushes from home, and then as we would tear down old buildings and things like that and had space, she’d put out rose bushes. And--.

MD: Now, was she an avid gardener at home? Was she, did she already have an interest in it?

HM: She, she had about fifty or sixty at home, and she loved roses. And she wanted to beautify this place, so the rose garden just kept a growing, because she came over here herself, and in the summertime, when I didn’t need the help, I could just put the help out there, and she, she worked them.

MD: Oh, so you mean the people who worked for you in the oil business? And they would come help tend the garden in the summertime.

HM: In the summertime. Then in the wintertime, we didn’t need much help in the garden, so that worked out pretty good.

MD: How much time did she spend here working in the garden?

HM: Every day almost, and she spent a lot of time here. And she spent--. And my wife now has spent a lot of time. She died in 1985, and so she had between five and six hundred rose bushes on this property at that time.

MD: So did you ever tell her, “Stop planting all these roses!”

HM: Well, actually we didn’t stop, we just kept, we just kept a planting even after she wasn’t here. I just kept on planting more roses because until one time we had around a thousand rose bushes. And--.

MD: Now did you start off loving flowers?

HM: No. When I came over here I had no idea that it would be a rose garden here. All I had in mind was just pushing that oil company, and when I was doing that mostly, she was running the garden and I was running this part of it. She spent a lot of time and studied roses, and she’s interested in this garden now. Her health’s not so good, but she spends a lot of time here and she has marked these roses, put them on computer and everything. The garden is now one of Charlotte’s (pause) place where the Chamber of Commerce and the citizens of Charlotte send the people here that come here and want to see Charlotte.

MD: How did it evolve from your first wife, Ms. Helen McGill, just planting some flowers and it growing and growing--. How did, how did it happen that people started to come and visit?

HM: Well people kept a coming in to see the garden, and so in 1967, on Mother’s Day, we decided to open the garden to the public. And about fourteen or fifteen hundred people came to see it, and from that on, on every Mother’s Day we have opened it without any charge or without anything. And people just came here from everywhere. So that’s pretty much the story of the garden and since then we have just kept the garden going. Now (pause) since I am at the age I am, knowing that somebody is going to have to take over sooner or later, we are trying to (clears throat) bring some other things in that would help people who don’t care anything about roses maybe would care something about taking care of children. And we’re trying to do that now, bringing in preschool children here, and this man, Eric, has had training in that. He brings those children in here and teaches them how to grow things, and then he takes them down in the garden and they plant things. So since we’ve started that program, we have taken in people, you know, that have some kind of defect that can’t do anything, and they come here and they enjoy it. And then we have people come in here from the sheriff’s department that it’s people that haven’t done things too bad, but trying to prepare them for, to find a job when they get out. And that is what we are trying to promote in addition to carrying on this garden like it’s been cared for. And so this, this greenway coming down here, back of us, and it’s being planned now to open it up so they can--, people can come up here. And it’s not very far away, so we can just make a path down to that, and, and we think that the garden will continue to be an asset to this city and be a blessing to the people who live here. It’s not for me anymore. I’ve had my time. But I, I want it here so other people can enjoy it, the new generation.

MD: Now, Mr. McGill, when you came here to this site for your business, what was this neighborhood like? I mean we talk about how much we’ve seen Charlotte change. When you came here in the 50s, what was this neighborhood like?

HM: It was a desolate area. People in this city didn’t come in this neighborhood unless they had to. And after I bought the property and come over here, we had break-ins, we had crime, and on the tele--, on the radio you could hear about some kind of a crime in Belmont, First Ward, Osborne Park, Central Avenue--. Oh, I keep--.

MD: That’s OK. That’s OK. Go ahead.

HM: North Charlotte. And what my wife did, we had a lot of space here that we would not using and we would not covered with anything else and she planted a big garden here, and we didn’t need it. So she gave it to the people in and around here. Anybody that came and wanted it or needed it, that’s, that’s what she did.

MD: Was that her original--? I mean that grew to be her intention, to, to have that for other people to come and enjoy?

HM: Well that’s what she planned to do for.

MD: That was her original intention?

HM: Yeah. We didn’t need it. For instance, tomatoes or anything like that. We had oodles of---.

MD: Oh so you grew vegetables, too?

HM: Here on this property. Of course we got some vegetables and out of it, but lots of it we gave away.

MD: And would you give it to people in the community?

HM: That’s right.

MD: They would come here?

HM: And people, and people that worked here, who some of them lived in this community, and the word kind of got out that, that we were trying to do this for the people. And actually we wanted to do it because we didn’t want to be in a desolate area ourselves, and so we put the alarm system in the, on the whole place, which we have now, but we hardly ever use it. And one colored woman, I think I maybe I told you this, lived on Belmont Avenue over in this district. She said one day that she was not afraid anymore to send her children down here, since we had kind of straightened things out. And so she contin--, continues to send her children. Yeah. And now we have other people in churches and, and schools, they want to come here, too. And we’ve got to grow somewhat, some way to take care of that.

MD: Why do you think the garden had such an impact on the community?

HM: What did you--?

MD: Why do you think the garden had such an impact on the community?

HM: Because it has changed people in it, and that’s the reason crime is not as bad as it was. There’s still some occasionally, it’s still all over town, but it’s less in this community. And now it seems like people are coming here from everywhere. They don’t think about it being a desolate area. Well you, you see the difference. I don’t know whether you knew the difference before they’ve done all this up here, all these new apartments. All of that was part of the desolate area. And some of the best families in this city live right here on Davidson Street and Caldwell Street and other streets. Their old homes but they’re--. And I bought some of them and turned them into rental property. All that’s changed now. The apartments they’re building here and First Ward are good enough for anybody to live in. And I’m not saying that this garden caused all that, but I’m saying we believed it encouraged it to do something about it. And now they’re working in, on Central Avenue. They’re putting this greenway in, and we hope and believe that we have caused some interest in that direction.

MD: Let me ask you a little bit if I can, Mr. McGill, about how you dec--, how you and your wife decided what to plant and--. How is the soil here? You know, this was a coal yard and a wood place. How was the soil when you first started? Was it agreeable to the roses?

HM: No. We had to (clears throat), we had to haul in dirt, and we had to take old houses and old sheds down. And, and dirt just kind of dies when it doesn’t have any fertilizer or anything to it. So we had to pretty much treat that ground, and then we know what kind of fertilizer that roses take. And we use that kind of fertilizer, and if something new comes out that we think’s better, what we do then, we do something else.

MD: So from the very beginning you had to really start with new dirt and new fertilizer.

HM: That’s right.

MD: With you--, when Helen was working on it?

HM: That’s what she was working on, preparing. See, you couldn’t just go out there and dig up a hole in that kind of dirt without getting it ready: taking out the trash, taking out the roots, taking out the rocks. And the business that they were in, it suited them fine. They didn’t care whether it was dead dirt or what, because they had cement bins down there to drop the coal in, and it didn’t go right on the ground, so--.

MD: So she decided one day that this looked pretty desolate, and she was going to come as you say and planted a couple of rose bushes around the fences first?

HM: That’s right. And then she started to planting them all around the place. The first roses we had here she had put out all the way around the fence, climbing roses, and that’s all we had for a year or two. Then she began to put out the, the bush roses and the hybrid teas, the miniatures, and all that kind of thing. It got--.

MD: So out in this area where the garden is now, did you have oil tanks and all that out there, too?

HM: The oil tanks, there’s a picture out there of the tanks out there, but they were right where, right down in this section where the trucks could come in. And then the siding came in right so if we brought in a tanker on the railroad, a railroad tanker, then we could unload it right there.

MD: So these roses were all around that.

HM: They were all around it on both sides. Now the back part of it--. It--, we didn’t have much use for the back part after we went out of the coal business, but that picture out there will show you, I think, how the garden was lined--, I mean how the grounds were lined up to take care of that (clears throat) oil business.

MD: Now when you were busy running the oil business, did you go out there and help during the day or on the weekends or--?

HM: No, I was here every day from early in the morning until we finished, until we delivered the orders we had. We didn’t have any, any hours then. You worked until you got through. And (pause) when I started with this oil business, I didn’t have one customer, and we had to just start from scratch and really build it up. The thing that was to my advantage, I had a lot of Greek business, because they had a lot of cafes and homes. I had made a lot of friends with the Greeks and other people, too. But I mention them because Greeks are not easy to do business with. (laughs) And then I had a lot of friends that came, for instance, Exxon people. We had somewhere around, somewhere around fifty people from Exxon that joined our church. We--. During that time, I had belonged to the First ARP Church, which is now—this rock building up here— which is the Science building now. And 243 of them decided that they wanted to get out and build a church, a Presbyterian church, which is now Westminster Presbyterian. And I, I was not in favor of that in the beginning, but 243 of them—I don’t know whether you’d say prevailed on me or not—but they pushed me a lot, and finally they elected me as head of that group. And we went out of that church in 1950 and built this church without a pastor, without a church, without anywhere to go. And so there I was head of a group that didn’t have a lot of money, and so, but they were determined. (laughs) And then we had to buy a lot, and we wanted this place on Randolph and Colville Road, right in the fork there. We wanted that spot because we thought it was a good place because the church on, Myers Park Presbyterian, was overflowing. And so we went to this man that owned the property. He did not want to sell it. And, but he said, “I’ll tell you. I’ll take one thing. If you’ll go out in the country somewhere and find a farm that I like, I’ll trade yours for that.” So we did just that, and we got the property. Then we had the property, but we didn’t have a church (laughs), and we didn’t have a pastor. So we had the vice president of the Commercial Bank on our, on our roll and also the vice president of Wachovia Bank, which was on the other corner. And through them, and through just about everybody in the church signing the note, we got the money to build a church. And so it’s paid for now; its fifty years old. And I’m glad that I had a part in that, because it will be there long after I am gone.

MD: OK. Well let me ask you a few more questions about the garden.


MD: If I can.

HM: OK now.

MD: How about funding? Did, did you begin and your wife, your first wife begin planting all these roses and doing all of this, and you paid for it yourself?

HM: Let me tell you. Well when I bought the company in 1950, (pause) I let the company at that time take care of the expenses. And we had no trouble at all as long--, and until 1975 when they, when they took the property, which put, put me out of business here. And (pause) then after that, after 1975, we had to begin to try to find other means of support, because the company wasn’t here. And what I had accumulated as a backlog sometime I might use, I had to start using that. Then the city helped us some. Other people has helped us some, but we, what we want to do and what we think we can do for the city is (clear throat) to promote these other things which cost a right much money. These people that we have in here have been trained. This lady we have in here, she has been a big office manager, and she knows a lot. And Eric knows a lot, but those people don’t come cheap. And we used to be able to, in the wintertime, we, we could just cut down the people, cut people off the payroll during the, during the summer months until this garden came along. We could keep some of them, but we couldn’t keep them all. And now, it’s got to be a twelve-months thing. In the, in the summertime, we’re busy taking care of the garden. In the wintertime, we’re busy getting it ready for the next season putting in new roses, planning different programs, and so we want the garden to be interesting to everybody.

MD: And who--? I, I, I know that you have some paid staff here at the McGill Rose Garden now that you are talking about. How, how else do you keep it up? Do you still work in the garden yourself?

HM: I still ov--, I still oversee it more or less. I don’t get out there and really work like I used to, but I used to get out there in the garden and work all day. And that’s what it takes: somebody that’s interested in roses. And roses don’t just grow by themselves; they’ve got to have care. I mean you can put a rose out and it’ll grow, but it won’t do very much (clears throat) without fertilizer or without some kind of care.

MD: Do you have volunteers who help you in the garden?

HM: Have some. Have some that help. For instance, the Charlotte Rose Society, they come every year pruning all these roses. It’s a big, big job, and we used to have to hire somebody to do it. But now, the Charlotte Rose Society have trained people, experts that show people and tell people how to grow roses. They come over here every spring and, and prune these roses for us.

MD: OK. Let me say that this is the end of Minidisc one, and we are now moving on in this interview to Minidisc two.

Minidisc 1 ends; Minidisc 2 begins.

MD: This is Melinda Desmarais, the interviewer, and today is Thursday, November the 21st, 2002. And I’m here with Henry McGill at McGill Rose Garden in Charlotte, and this is Minidisc number two, a continuation of our interview today. So you were telling me about the volunteers and the work that it takes to make this garden work. Do you have a, sort of a philosophy about gardening? What--? You said earlier that at first, your wife was—your first wife—was really into gardening. And you sort of ran your business, but you got turned on to gardening. So what, what has it meant to you to work in this garden? What’s your philosophy about gardening?

HM: Advice well, I guess seeing the people, and a lot of them were customers of ours, to see them coming here. I believe, and after I saw the roses and so many of them and so beautiful, that I began to get interested in it myself. I didn’t pay very much attention to those fifty, sixty roses at home. My wife took care of that. And at first the garden just kind of grew itself to where people began to come in here, and I began to see that it was bringing people in here. And I could see that it was really an asset to my business, and so then I just kept on getting more interested in it. Just keep on. Just whatever she said she wanted, she could have. And they wasn’t any limits to as far as her keeping on putting roses out as long as she had a space to (laughs) put them.

MD: So your clients would come in and remark on them?

HM: Oh yeah.

MD: And then just people in Charlotte would hear about it? How would--? Would they just show up and say, “Hey, we want to see your garden.”

HM: Well we had to give it some publicity, and we did. And you’ve seen some of it. And we still do. The, these people at Southern Living got interested in it and brought their crew up here and spent I don’t know how much time taking pictures of the garden and gave us a lot of publicity. And--.

MD: And how about earlier, before you ever started having your open houses. You know, just when your wi--, when Helen was first starting. Would you have people in the neighborhood just stop by or--?

HM: Well some people from the neighborhood and people would drive by and see it from the front and be--, have a curiosity enough to come and see what it was all about. (laughs) We’ve had a lot of people to see it. They drove by and saw it and wondered what it was.

MD: Do you remember--? Now, I’m sure you, you probably do. Do you remember what that first Mother’s Day open house was like? You said that there were something like fourteen or 1,500 people.

HM: Yeah.

MD: Did you expect that at all?

HM: Yes, I remember it very well, because I sit out there under that tree, and so many people came and thanked us for it. And I would always try to tell them that Mrs. McGill started this garden. And they just made me feel good that we were doing something that people were interested in. And people coming here from all over the city who used to consider it a desolate area and didn’t want to come in this community. And I think to change this like they have and what they’re doing now. I think it’s one of the greatest things for Charlotte that’s ever happened—to get these slums out of this city. And I think they’re going keep on doing it. They’re going, I think, go on out into Belmont and sections like that in North Charlotte and change that, too. That, that changes, that changes the living conditions of a lot of people. Habitat [Habitat for Humanity] has done a lot down in that community and this--. There’s a group of ladies that are working down in that--, in these communities now trying to help people to have a better living condition to live in. And that was Helen and myself’s hope. When we--. After we got the garden going and so on, people were interested. It is our hope, it was our hope then, it was her hope before she died, it’s my hope now. Not for me, not for her; she’s gone. But to make better living quarters for people who are living in slum sections like this has been. I don’t want it to be called a slum area anymore. I don’t want to live in a slum area. And we had that in mind. Now she had it in mind more than I did that we would do--. Not only to have something for ourselves to enjoy, but have something for the people of Charlotte to enjoy, and anybody else wanted to come in. And we have opened it to everybody, anybody that wants to come in.

MD: Now tell me something about being selected as an All-America Rose Selection. That’s a pretty big deal in, in the rose world isn’t it?

HM: Well that is. It’s, it’s only 135 of them, and we’re included in that group.

MD: How did that come about?

HM: It came about just because what the garden grew in to. It became known not only here in Charlotte, but it became worldwide. Then these people are in those, like American Rose Society, they begin to notice us. Now they have a representative right here in Charlotte. They come and check on us ever so often, because to belong to the American Rose Society, you have to meet certain requirements. You’ve got to have around 800 rose bushes to qualify. Then you’ve got to do certain things. And if that man comes around and sees it’s not, then you are disqualified. So the garden’s pretty much—not worldwide—but it’s pretty well known.

MD: And you, you mentioned to me earlier you have visitors from all over the world. Is that right?

HM: Yes, we have. We’ve got them registered on the book. We’ve got them from here from Russia; we’ve got them here from Canada; we’ve got them here from France and other places I don’t remember now. But they’re on the book out there.

MD: So you fairly recently celebrated your 50th anniversary of the garden. Is that right?

HM: It’s the 50th anniversary now.

MD: What, what was--? Didn’t you have a big celebration for that?

HM: Yes, we did.

MD: What was that like? Tell me who was here and what that was like.

HM: Well it was--. It brought people in from all around, and actually got some good out of it that the garden was here and appreciated it and appreciated what it had done for the community. And people like the Foundation of the Carolinas, they have become interested in it now. And two of their ladies have been over here just, not in the same way you are, but they’re looking around. And it’s, it’s, it’s--. You have to do something to belong to the American Rose Society. Now when that garden is blooming with eight or 900 rose bushes in the summertime, it’s got to be seen. People see it and come to see it, and then they talk about it. The news gets out.

MD: It’s hard to keep that under wraps, isn’t it?

HM: Yeah.

MD: Well, let me ask you a little bit about--. You’ve already talked some about this, but how you decide what to plant and where to plant.

HM: Well, you have (clears throat) companies that grow roses, and they are bringing out new roses all the time. And we get catalogs every year from them. And right now we are ready to select our new roses because we have to get them ordered, and those people take your order. Say we get our order now into them, they will not ship those roses until the season is ready for them.

MD: So how do you choose? There must be hundreds of new ones all the time.

HM: Well there’s climbing roses, there’s hybrid tea roses, there’s English roses, there’s old roses, there’s miniature roses, and there is a lot to choose from. But you have to choose a rose that is adaptable to this community. A rose up North where they have awful cold weather, they have to do a lot of protecting in the wintertime. We have to do very little here other than just to cover the base of them with something like pine needles to keep those roots from freezing. As long as you can keep that root alive, and then you will have roses. But if you let them freeze, of course, that ends that rose. But as to selecting, we have been in the, growing roses for fifty years, and we have found out what is best suitable for us. We have found out from the people who come here the colors that, that attracts people, like a red rose or whatever the color might be, a yellow. Then we might have a rose like Billy Graham, for instance. They have a rose that has his name. Well, we ordered it. It didn’t do very good. We ordered again because it was here, and that is doing all right now. Sometimes we just try them out, and if it don’t do very well this season, then we try to put something else in there. And we try to vary the colors, and we don’t, we don’t put all red or all white or--. We try to mix the colors.

MD: How about--. I think I would be sort of remiss if I didn’t ask you this. Do you have a favorite rose?

HM: I’ve got an answer for that. I used to like a red rose, but they come out with a rose called Paradise. And Paradise is a lavender rose, and it is beautiful. And so now we have had--, we’ve got more of those lavender roses. And I wouldn’t say that don’t still like a red rose, but now I like that. And to answer your question, all of them. I like, I like a yellow rose. I love a yellow rose. But when I send my wife roses, I send her red roses.

MD: So you, you still send your, your wife roses?

HM: Yes, I do.

MD: Even though you have all these?

HM: Yes, I do.

MD: (laughs) Now you’ve talked a lot about the, the future, and you’ve talked about what you hope this will continue to do. Can you just elaborate a little more about your hopes for the future for this garden?

HM: Well in the first place my first wife loved roses and loved all kinds of flowers so much, and then she had the place. We don’t have a great big fine home, but I live on Charlotte Drive. She had that place with those fifty or sixty rose bushes in the back yard that she took care of herself. There was a man coming in to help sometimes. She had it surrounded with azaleas and other things, too. And she got sick; she died in 1985. She got sick with Alzheimer’s, and for about three or four years, she was home and with people around the clock to take care of her. Then the time came that I thought she ought to be in the hospital. And I said to Dr. Stuckey--. You remember Dr. Stuckey? He had a cousin that was a doctor, too, and he had been our doctor for a long time--. Ever since he started. And Mrs. McGill at times helped him to put roses around his house, around the Presbyterian hospital and around his office. And a lot of times when I would take her out to see him, they would spend so much time in there, sometimes I’d wonder what in the world they were doing.

MD: (laughs)

HM: (laughs) But they were talking about roses. And when I mentioned this to him, he said, “We’re not going to put her in the hospital.” I said, “Dr. Stuckey, I’ve had to call you out at night. What in the world am I going to do if you can’t take care of her?” He said, “Don’t you worry about that.” Dr. Stuckey and his other doctor said we’ll take care of her. And I said, “How about one or two o’clock in the morning?” He said, “That wouldn’t make no difference. We’ll be there.” And he was, and when she died in April the 15th, 1985, (pause) everything was in bloom, and I was glad he made that decision because she didn’t have to leave her home, especially when everything was in bloom. Now I say all that because that is one reason that’s got me interested in this garden. That is one thing that kept me interested in the garden. And after she died, one year after she died, the city decided they wanted to make this a memorial garden and put up a sprinkler out there, fountain.

MD: Is that the fountain that’s out there now?

HM: This one up here. That one has been added since that time. And the city and myself put that monument in here, and it’s been advertised as a memorial to her. And there’s a marker down there for it. Now that didn’t end it all. She died in 18--, 1985. I got married again, I got married again in 1991 at eighty-eight. And I didn’t think I’d even want to, even think about it. But I started to going after being at home by myself four years, I decided I’m going to get out of here and do something. And so I started going to Fred Astaire [Fred Astaire Dance Studio], and so I hadn’t been out there very long until this receptionist started me to taking me to a table where Joy was. And pretty soon I got (laughs) interested in her and then we were married in 1991. Been married eleven years.

MD: Now did she already have a passion for flowers?

HM: She did not have a rose--. She has a home. She still has a home in Kannapolis. She’s got every kind of flower on it except roses. And when she come over here and saw those fifty or sixty rose bushes in the back yard, she knew what it took to take care of (laughs) them, and she said, “Oh boy. I can’t do that.” So we cut it down to about fifteen, sixteen and put other roses in there. Then she became interested in roses and has been such a big help here until she has just been a real asset to us.

MD: Well you said she has cataloged them all.

HM: Yeah. That and seeing the people come here and enjoy the roses and make a big issue of it and seeing them come back has been a big thing that has got me so interested. And in the beginning, again, I didn’t have any idea that--. I never had thought about putting a rose garden here. When I bought the place, I didn’t. But then when she came in and had got so many people interested in coming in, then I, I just automatically got interested, I guess. And I’ll just tell you the truth. After I got help that I could turn things over to, and I’ve had some good help, and where I did not have to be here at seven o’clock. Knowing that I had somebody here to take care of it, that I could come in later and not have to worry about whether people were taken care of when they ordered something or not, and I began to get out in the yard myself. And sometime that I would get so interested and just forget everything else that it has been an asset to me. And I think it has helped me to live this long.

MD: And tell me--. I know you’ve told me how old you are.

HM: I’m ninety-nine, and I could put five months on 100.

MD: So gardening can help you have a long life, you think?

HM: Well, I begin to think that’s had something to do with it. Of course, I don’t know whether or not I’ve taken as good as a care of myself as I should have or not, but I take that into consideration.

MD: So, Mr. McGill, tell me do you think that Charlotte will be a good steward fifty years from now to this garden?

HM: Would be what?

MD: A good steward. Do you think they’ll continue to care for it?

HM: Yes, that’s, that’s exactly the reason I want to get people like you and other people interested in it, because before too awful long, it will belong to this city. It will belong to this city, and I don’t believe if we got enough people interested in the garden, in the beauty of the garden. And right now while the city has a lot of parks, they do not have anything there that attracts them to any of their gardens as much as this one does right here now. And I’m hoping someday that the city will step in and now they, they’re sending people here as if it was their, one of their parks. So it’s working in that direction. And I still say that it’s not for me anymore, but I want to leave it so it will be interesting enough to the people that live in Charlotte to see that it keeps going. After I’m not here, I can’t do a thing about it, but I’m going to do everything I can to make it. And when we see the things like they’ve done in First Ward, and see what they’re getting ready to do over in this section here and see this Charlotte green around here. I believe the garden will be an asset to this city fifty years from now, and it may even grow bigger. And I want it to be so it will--. I want it to be so it will help the people. You don’t live but so long, and so if you don’t try to do something for other people, I think your life will have been wasted.

MD: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that you might want to add?

HM: That’s the reason I said what, what I did this morning about getting, getting some publicity. I don’t think it will be publicity just for us, but it will be publicity for the garden and it will let people know that they are interested in something else than the college and the people who get the education there.

MD: OK. Well thank you very much for the interview.

HM: Well, I hope I’ve spoken loud enough.

MD: I think you’ve done just great.

HM: Because I feel myself going down. If I just had one of those little buttons like you have so I could turn it up. (laughs)

MD: (laughs) Let me go ahead and just cut this off. Thank you.

End of Interview.