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Generational Business: Bill Martin’s Nurseryland takes ‘green’ to new levels

Trailblazing Thunder Bay garden centre miles from where it started 95 years ago

Bill Martin’s Nurseryland in Thunder Bay has undergone more change than most garden centres in its 95-year history. In fact, when the business started in 1927, it was perhaps in the exact opposite industry: coal. 

Bill Martin Sr. was a coalman in Port Arthur (now the north part of Thunder Bay) when he decided to strike out on his own. With his horses King and Queen, a coal wagon, and a shovel, Bill Sr. founded the Martin Coal Company. He got his first loads of coal on consignment from James Murphy Coal Company, loading up on the Port Arthur docks and filling coal chutes in homes up and down the hill overlooking Lake Superior.

“They were a big coal company in town, and he gave my grandfather a whole load of coal,” said Cathy Martin, part of the third generation to own the business. “He said, ‘When you sell it, pay me’ kind of thing, so that’s how he got started.”

In the 1940s, coal gave way to oil and Bill changed the name to Bill Martin Fuels and Enterprises, swapping coal wagons for oil trucks. It was about this time that Bill’s daughter, Lena, and then Bill Jr. started working for the company, launching what would become a family legacy. It also meant the company had enough capacity to diversify. Since heating fuels naturally had its busy period in the winter, the summers were wide open. Bill Sr., a natural gardener, decided to expand into landscaping.

“The landscaping just came from his natural ability. He used to win prizes for the roses that he grew. He had a rose garden on Algoma Street,” Cathy said. Bill Martin’s landscaped many prominent buildings in Port Arthur, including St. Joseph’s Hospital. “We had property out in the country (west of Thunder Bay), so we could take the top soil from there.”

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Natural gas began to overtake oil as the main source of heat for Thunder Bay, and the home heating oil business in the city shrank and consolidated. When Bill Sr. passed away, Bill Jr. started to take more in the landscaping direction. The next generation of Martins were starting to join by this point, including Cathy and her brothers Billie, Michael, and Paul. The brothers launched a paving stone service for gardens and driveways — one of the first such services in the city. Billie also continued to build the landscaping business as well as Bill Martin’s snow removal service for local businesses and institutions in the winter.

By the early 1970s, Bill Jr. decided to sell the fuel business altogether and began to focus on gardening only. Bill Martin’s Nurseryland opened in 1975 near the corner of John Street and Court with two greenhouses to become the SoGreen retailer in the area. From the beginning, Cathy felt it was important to specialize in plants that would grow well in Thunder Bay. 

“I’m always on the lookout for something new and different,” Cathy said. “We brought up the first scented petunia and scratch-and-sniff tulips.”

One year, everything changed when Cathy and Bill Jr. went to a tradeshow in St. Catharines that featured a Christmas store right in the garden centre. It was an idea they knew could take off.

“A garden centre with a Christmasland — it wasn’t heard of back then. It was new to us, and new to Thunder Bay. We thought it was a great idea,” Cathy said. It was a natural fit for the family, too. “My dad has always been a Christmas fanatic. He just loved Christmas.”

Sadly, Bill Jr. passed away in 1993, but the business continued to grow. In 2000, Bill Martin’s Nurseryland opened a gift shop. “I always wanted the gift store,” Cathy said. Once again, Bill Martin’s was ahead of the curve by emphasizing local and Canadian-made products not found elsewhere, along with quality gifts from Europe.

Today, at 12 employees, the store is full of local treasures from ceramic artists, jewellers, and even a jigsaw puzzle company that features images of local scenery. Bill Martin’s also hosts pop-up sales from local artisans, giving them a spotlight and a place to connect with customers. It’s these personal touches that make Bill Martin’s a unique destination in Thunder Bay for garden, gifts, and Christmas.