Bill and Mary Stephens were headed in different directions when they first glimpsed one another in 1986. Mary was the head ranger at Andersons Camp in Sweetwater,Colorado. Meanwhile, Bill motored down the road in a grader — the third generation “There’s your future husband,” Mary’s supervisor announced. But it took five years and a “neighborhood effort,” as Bill describes it, to unite the couple for good. Since then, they’ve been nearly inseparable, working long hours at Stephens Nursery, a third-generation, family-owned and operated business in Dotsero. The Stephens family arrived in this country on the Mayflower. In 1891, Bill’s great- grandfather settled in Sweetwater and began cattle ranching. And until 1989, the family was still living in the original house, built in 1908.
In the early 1980s, the newly constructed Interstate 70 slashed through the fam- ily’s pasture, adding to the already growing strain of decreasing cattle prices. They adapted by planting 90 acres of fast-growing deciduous trees to shade a neighboring planned development for Exxon employees who were working in the oil shale indus- try. However, Exxon suddenly pulled out and the Stephens were stuck with an enor- mous number of trees. It looked like a young couple would save the day by leasing the tree farm, but within months of building a fiberglass greenhouse, they divorced and disappeared.
Since the Stephens owned the land, wholesale tree buyers began calling them. “So, we began watering the plants,” Bill says. “We just ran with it.” And by 1982, the family had converted its cattle ranch into a tree farm and small retail nursery. Soon, Annalies, Bill’s mother, became known for her custom Bavarian planters, which she based on styles from her childhood homeland in Switzerland. Bill entered Colorado State University to study animal science, but after taking a ba- sic horticulture class as an elective, changed his major to landscape horticulture. “It fit my personality,” he explains. “I like to be creative and work outside, and it gave me an opportunity to draft and change and improve [the land].”
So, after graduating in 1989, Bill joined his parents at the nursery After Bill and Mary married in 1992, Bill asked Mary to work at the nursery, since, be- tween her camp job and his nursery, they hardly saw one another. “I loved my camp job, but we decided to start our lives on the same page — together,” Mary says. When the family transitioned from cattle ranching to growing plants, Bill thought his days of getting out of bed every couple hours to check on cows calving had ended. “I thought, ‘That’ll be nice because now I don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night,’” he says. “Now I wake up when it’s 10 degrees and think: ‘Ah! I wonder if the heater’s still on,’ and I get up and check on the greenhouse. It changed from one spe- cies to another; it’s just as consuming and worrisome. I live, eat and sleep agriculture. Work begins around 6:30 a.m., and goes ‘until you can’t see anymore.’”
Bill says that he’s mastered horticulture and landscaping practices by combining his formal education with “the school of hard knocks.” Between the Stephens’ technical knowledge and customer service, it’s no surprise the nursery has been successful for more than 35 years.
“We’re just trying to provide a family-style atmosphere — something that you would have found in the early days, with neighbors helping neighbors,” Bill says.
Bill and Mary have passed on their values of a solid work ethic and living “neighborly” to their three children. At Christmas, the kids could open gifts only after they fed the animals. “We instilled in our kids that animals always get fed before ourselves. Everything gets taken care of first. That way of thinking changes your approach. You think of your neighbor first,” Bill shares..
Their middle child, Katie, credits her work at the nursery for teaching her the kind of ethics, efficiency, customer service and compassion she will need as a veterinarian. “My father has a love for animals and a passion for trees and plants,” Katie says. “He really gives it his all, and so does my mom. They’re always willing to lend a hand.” Katie has also learned to devote plenty of time to plants — as well as customers. “Like each snowflake, each plant, each tree, each flower is an individual — and they all have different ways they need to be maintained,” she explains. Malorie, the oldest, plans to use her customer service skills in her nursing career. And, 17-year-old Luke already sees a difference between his family-instilled work ethic and others his age. “I’ve seen a lot of people from my gener- ation work at the nursery, and they don’t always stay long,” he says. “You have to figure out how to work long, hard hours and finish what you started. It helps me in school to do everything I’m told to do.” Bill and Mary avoid burnout by changing jobs seasonally and, during winter, work at the Eagle County Airport. “By the time you get tired, winter comes and you switch gears, and as the snow starts to melt you become antsy and get the itch to go into the greenhouse,” Bill says.
Bill works in the jet center as a line technician, fueling and towing aircraft and serving private planes. Mary works as a ramp concierge, marshaling planes, moving luggage and delivering supplies. One might think working so closely day and night, season after season, might strain a marriage, but for the Stephens, it’s quite the opposite. “At times we get on each other’s nerves, but for the most part, because we change jobs, it works out,” Bill says. And, after all these years, Bill still loves working with his employees and his family at the nursery, which includes nine greenhouses. “It gives me an opportunity to play with colors,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity to be cre- ative,” he says, adding that, at this point, he wouldn’t know what else to do professionally. From the beginning, the fine reputation of the nursery grew through word of mouth. and people clamor for its vast assortment of everything “green,” from annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs to pottery, planters and hanging bas- kets as well as its landscaping services.
And, although Bill’s parents officially retired from the nursery, Annalies still dabbles. “Old habits are hard to break,” says Bill, reflectively. “She loves the nursery.
“Our family’s a ‘traditional type’. And by that I mean we are four generations who have worked side by side, first raising cattle and now in a nursery business. I have worked side by side with my parents and now my kids. I’m proud that I have a heritage here. We’re a family that likes that tradition. It’s our roots, so we’re not planning on leaving. I’ll work as long as I can, because it keeps me young,”