Brighton Florist Storefront
Waldor Orchids’ founder George Allen Off entered the flower business when he established Brighton Florist in 1925. His love of flowers and his desire to grow them would lead him out of his father’s hotel business and into the fascinating world of growing plants.
Even from a young age, when growing up in Merion, Pennsylvania, George would save his allowance and buy whatever plants he could afford from Mr. Albrecht’s flower shop. This same passion for plants would be echoed in stories his wife Elizabeth would tell of him pouring over flower and bulb catalogs trying hard to decide which he loved the most.
George A. Off
In the summer, George’s father Frank B. Off brought the family "down the shore" to the Atlantic City area. Frank Off owned the Brighton Hotel and operated the Strand Hotel in Atlantic City and he later served as a city commissioner. Frank tried to persuade George to follow him into the hotel business. But at the age of 19, after working for a year at his dad’s hotel, his desire was not there. The enterprising young George pointed out to his father that he could eliminate the cost of buying flowers for the hotel by producing their own. He proposed that they build greenhouses on the mainland to supply the flowers for the hotel. So they built a flower shop and greenhouse range in Linwood and appropriately named it Brighton Florist.
A "King Range"
greenhouse at Brighton Florist
The first greenhouses they built were referred to as the “King Range”. Later they also moved George’s small greenhouse from their home in Merion. George was a natural when it came to growing plants and quickly filled his greenhouses with roses, carnations, snapdragons, sweet peas, and chrysanthemums.
Inside Brighton Florist’s Showroom
The flowers he grew were sold in his own flower shop and used for table centerpieces in his father’s hotels. He also directly supplied the other Atlantic City florists eliminating the need for them to buy from the wholesale flower market. The local florists that George supplied had trouble buying cut cattleya orchids at Easter and Mother’s Day, because wholesale floral distributors wanted their year-round business. So George saw the need to diversify and grow orchids to meet the demand. He was taken by orchids and soon was growing orchids exclusively. Later he was quoted as saying, “It fascinated me how such a beautiful flower could come out of what a lot of people would call an ugly plant.”
Mr. Off’s other area of interest was dairy farming. He purchased two cows in the late 1930’s and named them Pete and Bobbie. With the two Golden Guernsey cows, George started Brighton Farms. It would eventually grow to include more than 100 head of cattle. The milk his cows produced was delivered to Abbott’s Dairy in Atlantic City for processing.
Barns and Dairy at Brighton Farms
Brighton Florist Delivery Truck
When World War II came, George consolidated his orchids into one greenhouse and grew tomatoes in the others in order to qualify for conscribe coal to heat his greenhouses. He produced as much as 40 tons of tomatoes per year.
Frank Off at Brighton Florist
Due to fuel restrictions, Brighton Florist’s retail flower shop was forced to close as they were unable to make deliveries. The Brighton Hotel was occupied by the army to house injured soldiers returning from the war. The several years of occupation when it was not open for guests would spell the downfall of the Brighton Hotel because it relied on their repeat business. But by the end of the war, the cattleya cut flower business would experience a boom. The wholesale price of a single cattleya flower reached as high as $18 in the late 1940’s.
George Off established himself as an orchid grower, but it was not easy. Growers in that day were very secretive about their cultivation methods and usually unwilling to share information. However, George had a way about him and soon befriended growers, like Les Erickson of Thomas Young Orchids, who would divulge cultural tips to him. George would travel up to Thomas Young Orchids in Bound Brook, New Jersey and purchase cattleyas with buds in the sheath just a few weeks before Easter and Mother’s Day. This would both serve to meet the demand for cut orchids at the holidays and to build up a stock of plants.
Overhead View of Greenhouses
When cut flower demand peaked in the mid 1950’s, Brighton Orchids was producing 60-75,000 cut cattleya flowers a week at Easter and Mother’s Day. George’s son Frank remembers leaving at 3 o’clock in the morning to deliver flowers to New York City in his dad’s station wagon. Brighton Orchids eventually grew to 55,000 square feet under glass. George’s brother Lou returned from the war in the mid 1940’s and joined George in operating the business. Brighton Orchids has employed many family members and friends through the years, especially for processing cut flowers at the holidays.
George Off was innovative in developing good commercial orchid growing techniques. He made a device called a "nose" which was a cone that would be filled with potting media and hung on the pot in front of the new growth. This would allow for another year or so before the plant would need to be potted. He was one of the first to use copper sulfate to sterilize his tools to prevent the spread of viruses.
Bench of "Cropped" Orchids
George also became adept at "cropping" which is the ability to make a cattleya bloom by changing its photo period and then using temperature to control the rate at which the buds developed. Stories recounted of those days would recall bench upon bench of solid color as cattleyas were timed for the holidays. It was the job of two full-time employees just to move the plants to the area with the right temperature to time them properly.
Every flower was tagged as it opened to ensure its freshness. George had the slogan “Fresher by Days” imprinted on his cut flower boxes. Gold bands were placed around the stems of his best cuts as they were packed for delivery.
Flowering Plants at
George had two small greenhouses that were not filled with cattleyas. He grew maudiae and complex paphiopedilums in one and hybrid odontoglossoms in the other. For a time, he did some experimental work with hydroponic culture.
The cattleyas available in those days were species and primary hybrids. George continued to collect stock and also began importing species from South America. When he started to acquire some quality stock plants, George began to hybridize and opened a lab to propagate the seed. He had a good eye for making crosses and would eventually produce over 1000 different hybrids.
Lc. Elizabeth Off `Sparkling Burgundy’ FCC/AOS
His most famous cross, Lc. Elizabeth Off `Sparkling Burgundy’, received a First Class Certificate from the American Orchid Society in November of 1961. This cultivar came from a flask that was sold to Lines Orchids. After they had it awarded, a division sold for $5000, about $25,000 in today’s money. This quality hybrid still measures up to the cattleyas of today.
George began to build a second greenhouse range below Brighton Orchids in 1952. The structures were manufactured in England by the Waldor Corporation, a company that made airplanes during World War II. George complied with the Waldor Corporation’s request to name his greenhouse range Waldor Orchids to promote their new venture. By the mid 1950’s, Waldor Orchids grew to include six 80 foot greenhouses, one 175 foot greenhouse and a smaller greenhouse for seedlings.
Walt, Bill and Ida Ruth In Front of Waldor Orchids
Advertisement for Waldor Greenhouses
Construction About to Begin at Waldor Orchids
In 1953, George split operations with his brother Lou and worked exclusively at Waldor Orchids. It took several years for the back bulbs he took with him from Brighton Orchids to start producing flowers. In the mean time, he supplemented his income by growing African violets.
Cymbidiums in Bloom
The large 175 foot greenhouse was built for cut flower cymbidiums which were planted in raised beds. After some years they were dug up and potted in heavy wooden boxes that we still refer to as cymbidium boxes. George also grew anthuriums for cut flowers in beds in the centers of his greenhouses.
The late 1950’s would see a decline in the popularity of the cut cattleyas. When his two sons Allen and Frank returned from military service, the business was pressed to support the family. In 1959, Allen and Frank met with Dr. Davidson at Rutgers University to decide what kind of crop would be the most lucrative for them to produce. The verdict was tomatoes and geraniums. They built a large greenhouse several miles from their dad’s and began their own business which they called Oakview Nurseries. They also added two more greenhouses and expanded to farm the surrounding area with both sweet and white potatoes. Within three years Allen and Frank were growing geraniums exclusively. Their younger brother Scott would join them on the same property in 1977 when he moved his cut cattleya flower operation, Scott’s Orchids, from Tilton Road in Northfield. Frank Off continues to operate Oakview Nurseries although his brother Allen passed away in August of 2005. Scott’s Orchids suspended operations after Scott passed away in January of 2006.
Brighton Orchids continued to supply the wholesale market with cattleya cut flowers. They were instrumental in introducing cloning techniques in America in the early 1960’s after Lou went to France to inquire about this new technology. Cloning saved the orchid industry as Tobacco Mosaic and Cymbidium Mosaic Viruses ravaged most collections due to unsafe handling and sterilizing methods. The Offs began to notice a change in flower production and growth quality because of the effects of these viruses and knew something was wrong. Every plant was virus tested and those infected were safely discarded. Dr Walter Butterfield, who ran Brighton’s lab, began to clone clean stock with the new information Lou brought back from France. Brighton Farms became the first certified virus free nursery in New Jersey.
Lou and Carlotta Off with Blooming Clones
Cloning revolutionized the orchid business bringing the cost of plant material down. As an added bonus, they discovered cattleyas that had been cloned would bloom in 3-5 years instead of the 7 years required when hybridizing. Annual cut flower harvests went from 100,000 blooms in the 1960’s to 600,000 blooms in 1979. Brighton Orchids supplied flowers to the New York wholesale market throughout the next two decades. Their orchids were also used for special events, like the Miss America Pageant. Lou Off continued to direct operations at Brighton until he passed away in April 2004. Since then, Brighton Orchids has ceased operations ending a long, prolific era and leaving a void in cattleya cut flower availability.
In the early 1960’s, due to the decline in wholesale cut flower prices, George decided to try something new. He would start a truck route and delivered his cut orchids directly to florists. The route would consist of 12-15 stops and cover about 300 miles. Cut orchids prices at that time were $1.50-$2.00 for a cattleya, $.75 for cymbidiums and $.50 for work orchids which are slightly imperfect flowers. Along with the regular stops on the route, the driver was also encouraged to find new ones. A few extra boxes were included on his load. The most popular, known as the Combination A, consisted of six cattleya flowers for five dollars.
The flowers for their weekly route were packed on Wednesday for next day delivery. The station wagon would leave at 4:30 in the morning and would not return until around 6:00 in the evening. Waldor Orchid’s top customer at that time was H H Battles & Company. At Christmas, they had a standing order for 300 paphiopedilums and a large order of anthuriums. Other top customers in the Philadelphia area included Liddon Pennock, Alfred of the Sheraton and Harold’s Orchid Shop.
George and Elizabeth, Ida Ruth and Walt, Bill and George
George’s sons, Walter and Bill, began to get involved in the business by the mid 1960’s. In the lab, their best flowers were being mericloned. Cut flower sales began to increase and pot plants were produced more quickly through mericloning.
George developed his famous mix in 1961. After experimenting with various products, he came across Douglas fir bark being used as mulch along roadsides in California. He returned home with a few bags and a good feeling about his new discovery. After proving its advantages, George had the fir bark shipped in by railroad car to the local siding. The fir bark was combined with peat moss, redwood, perlite and some organic fertilizers.
Commercial orchid nurseries in the United States were quick to adopt fir bark as the basic ingredient in their media, replacing the difficult to use Osmunda tree fern fiber. The “Off Mix” is still used by many hobbyists and professional growers today.
The Waldor greenhouses were converted to Lord & Burnham greenhouses starting in the spring of 1968. This change was to add more room in the overhead of the greenhouse allowing for another layer of plants to be hung above the benches.
Cymbidiums in Bloom at Waldor Orchids
By 1970, Walt and Bill were working for their dad full-time. Retail pot plant sales were in their infancy. George again diversified his stock and began selling novelty cut flowers such as miniature cymbidiums and unusual phalaenopsis along with art shade cattleyas.
Slc. Deborah Off
Walter Off entered the American Orchid Society judging system in the late 1970’s and became an accredited judge. After years of learning hybridizing techniques from his dad, Walt began to breed miniature cattleyas. One of the best was an orange Slc. Deborah Off (Sl. Psyche x Sc. Beaufort). It was around this same time that Walt made his first of many annual trips to Hawaii in search of plant material. The warmer climate of Hawaii nearly doubles the plant’s growth rate producing orchids at a more reasonable cost.
The year 1980 would see an increase in orchid plant sales. Knowledge of the ease in which orchids could be cultivated in the home was spreading and florists began to buy plants to sell to the public. Boxes of novelty cut flower sprays were being delivered each week to the Philadelphia area florists. Sales of cattleya cut flowers as corsages started to diminish. George and his sons added another facet to their business when they began to rent plants in the early 1980’s. Their rental clients even included some famous celebrities and sports stars.
George Off suffered a stroke in October of 1986 and he passed away the following April 17, at the age of 81. He lived a life dedicated to God, family and his plants. The legacy of his love for plants is revealed in his children. Five of his seven sons went on to operate greenhouse ranges and all of his children have a love for gardening. The Philadelphia Flower Show, the year following his death, was dedicated to his memory.
Pot Plant Orchids in Bloom
By 1988, Waldor Orchids’ annual pot plant sales had doubled. To meet the increased demand, Waldor began to buy more bud initiated plants from larger wholesale distributors in California, Florida and Hawaii. Miniature cattleyas were introduced by major hybridizers and quickly became popular. In the late 1980’s, due to the increase in sales, Walt and Bill adjusted their retail sales hours to just Friday and Saturday and discontinued plant rentals. Their plant sales also diversified to include all types of orchid species and hybrids.
Every year that Waldor Orchids displays in the Philadelphia Flower Show, the exhibit receives a lot of attention. While it is often one of the most colorful displays, it always has the most exotic flowers. Their displays usually range in size from 1500 to 3000 square feet.
Flower Show Display
Waldor Orchids has had the privilege of installing the central feature at the main entrance to the show on numerous occasions. One of these was the 1994 exhibit which was the last year that the Philadelphia Flower Show was held at the Civic Center. Another time was in 2004, when the show’s theme was “Destination Paradise”. The show that year was in honor of Ed Lindemann, who was retiring after 25 years of dedicated service as designer of the Philadelphia Flower Show. Waldor Orchids’ exhibit encompassed over 10,000 square feet and included more than 100,000 individual flowers.
Walt and George Building the 1983 Display
George Off began displaying his orchids at the Philadelphia Flower Show in the mid 1930’s. At that time, the show was held at the Commercial Museum in Philadelphia. George went on to display each year until the mid 1950’s, after which he took a hiatus until 1968 when he did a combined display with Liddon Pennock. In 1970, Waldor Orchids began to exhibit again and has rarely missed a year since. After twenty years of helping their dad install the displays, Walt and Bill took over the construction in the spring of 1987 due to George’s physical restrictions after suffering the stroke in October 1986.
Waldor Orchids is fortunate to have a great core group of volunteers that aid them in building their displays. These are all friends and in many cases, members of the local orchid societies. Work begins on Monday morning the week prior to the show opening and sometimes is not completed until the early morning hours of opening Saturday.
George Off with
Bob Wickham of Liddon
Each year Waldor Orchids’ display usually receives several awards and trophies. However, they say the best reward and the reason they continue to display is the enjoyment that the visitors receive from the exhibit.
The 1990’s brought a new generation of Offs into the business. As Walt’s and Bill’s children reached their teenage years, they all worked for their dad at one time or another. Plant sales have replaced all cut flower production at Waldor Orchids. Over the years, Walt and Bill have located many of the best sources for plant material and supplies. This allows them to provide the florists and garden centers of the Delaware Valley area with the finest orchids for their weekly deliveries.
Waldor Orchids continues to be a family operated business. George’s wife, Elizabeth, still works full-time potting phalaenopsis and paphiopedilums. Bill Off manages greenhouse operations while Walt handles the business administration. Both of their wives work part-time potting, bookkeeping and staking plants. Walt’s children, Amy and Dave, and his son-in-law Bill are now working in the greenhouses as the third generation orchid growers. Along with a few close friends, they continue to provide the same quality and old-fashioned service that made George Off so successful.
In the years following 2000, Walt and Bill saw the need to once again diversify their business to include internet sales. This new venture will now make Waldor Orchids’ products available to anyone in the continental United States.
Their mission is to continue George Off’s legacy by preserving his old-time collection and selecting the very best of anything new. Waldor Orchids always has a full selection of many varieties of orchids to ensure that they will have something for everyone. They look forward to where God will lead them in their future business endeavors.