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Glass house people

The Leider family and an estimated 200,000 Chicagoans trace their heritage to settlers from the tiny nation of Luxembourg.

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Mark Leider, Kit Leider Pierri, and Jim Leider - HANNAH STEINKOPF-FRANK
  • Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
  • Mark Leider, Kit Leider Pierri, and Jim Leider

The sun won't rise for a few more hours, but Michael Leider Sr. knows that if he's not up by 4 AM, he's already late. He puts his crops into the wagon and starts his day.

It's 1898, and it would be almost 40 years until Lake Shore Drive is completed. Riding on a horse and buggy from Rogers Park to the South Water Street produce market on the west side is a grueling 14-mile journey. But it was an even longer way from his native Luxembourg to the United States, so he can't complain.

After an entire day at the market, he begins the journey back home, but not before loading the cart with horse manure. There are so many horses in the city and the waste has to go somewhere, so he'll bring it back with him to spread onto the field, then wash off the cart to load again with vegetables the next morning. On the way back, sometimes, he's so exhausted that he falls asleep in transit, reins in hand. Luckily his horse knows the way. More than 120 years later, his family will joke that this was the first autonomous vehicle.

Sandwiched between Germany, France, and Belgium, Luxembourg is small as far as countries go, roughly the size of Cook County but with one-eighth the population. It has the largest GDP per capita in the world, buoyed by its steel, technology, and banking industries. Why did Michael Leider Sr. leave?

"He was the second son," Mark Leider, his great-grandson, a fourth-generation Luxembourger and current owner of Leider Greenhouses, explains. "First son got the farm. Second son got a suitcase, a hundred bucks, and a ticket to America."

At the time, in the late 1800s, Luxembourg was a poor agrarian society, overcrowded and running out of farmland fast. Leider Sr. was one of approximately 60,000 Luxembourger immigrants who streamed into the midwest from the mid-19th century to the early 20th. Half would settle and build farms in Edgewater, Rogers Park, and other areas of the north side due to the plentiful farmland.

The U.S. Census Bureau counted 40,000 people in the country who self-reported Luxembourg ancestry in 2017, but Kevin Wester, former executive director of the Luxembourg American Cultural Society, based in Belgium, Wisconsin, estimates that 200,000 Chicagoans alone can trace their heritage to these original settlers, due to large family sizes and being notoriously miscategorized as German, Dutch, or Belgian. That wasn't a typo; this number gives Chicago the distinction of having the largest Luxembourger population in the world, second only to the country of Luxembourg, whose population is 600,000.

Like most Luxembourgers of the late 1800s, Leider Sr. worked as a "truck farmer"—named for the horse-drawn carts of vegetables taken to the market. Then the invention of the refrigerated boxcar changed everything. It was no longer profitable to grow vegetables if a shipment from California could arrive by rail in only a few days' time, so truck farmers made the switch from growing celery, cucumbers, beans, and potatoes to growing roses and carnations in greenhouses. In 1906, 1,200 Luxembourg American families owned greenhouses on the far north side, so many that they became widely known as the "glass house people." Leider Sr. opened his own greenhouse in Evanston in 1898, at the corner of Asbury Avenue and Oakton Street.

As land speculation on the north side increased in the early 1900s, many of these families sold their greenhouses and either moved growing operations to the more rural suburbs or switched to professions that weren't as physically arduous as farming.

Michael Martin Leider
  • Michael Martin Leider

The physical distance, combined with assimilation and a generational detachment from formal institutions, has diluted Luxembourger culture over the decades, says Wester. Once bolstered by Roman Catholic parishes and social clubs (think singing societies and bowling leagues), Luxembourg American identity became less central to its descendants' lives, so much so that many are not even aware of their ancestry, thinking instead that they're German or Belgian.

While other greenhouses and institutions have become lost to history, Leider Greenhouses remains, with more than 52 growing facilities across two locations. In 1965, the greenhouse moved to its current home in Buffalo Grove when the city of Evanston requisitioned the land to build a schoolhouse. While the business has gone through a slew of changes since 1898, it's been kept in the Leider family ever since and is operated by fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of Leider Sr., who came to the United States wanting more than what he was born with.

"In a lot of ways, our product now is the antidote to the digital world," Mark Leider says. He points to a batch of container gardens on a metal cart—a vibrant mix of parlor palms and ivy in wide terra-cotta pots. Popular in the 60s and 70s when everyone wanted their homes to look like a jungle, he says, container gardens are making a comeback. "What we sell is music for your eyes. We sell color, we sell life."

Decades of trial and error have optimized the growing process like a machine, from the automated systems that have rendered the watering can obsolete to the hybrid plant species bred to resist disease. But walking through these glass greenhouses, as sunlight streams in through the roof onto rows of bright green potted plants that seem to stretch into infinity, it's easy to understand why members of each generation of the Leider family have felt the call to carry on the family business.

Leider Greenhouses grows poinsettias several months in advance of the winter. - HANNAH STEINKOPF-FRANK
  • Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
  • Leider Greenhouses grows poinsettias several months in advance of the winter.

After graduating from Knox College with a degree in Spanish, Leider wanted to work at the family greenhouse, but his father, Jim Leider, told him he should work for somebody else first and then come back. So he did. He moved to California and worked at a vegetable seed company and a farm that grew stock (a fragrant flower that grows in clusters) before starting his own growing company, Dos Gringos, which is still in business today. He lived in California for almost ten years before moving back to Illinois in 1995 when his brother, Michael, who was running the greenhouse, was diagnosed with leukemia (he passed away in 2015). Leider and his sister, Mary Leider Barss, share ownership of Leider Greenhouses.

Leider says this past spring was brutal because of the cold and rain. Even as the greenhouses have features that set the internal climate and simulate the time of day, some factors are outside human control. "When it's nice, [our customers will] buy flowers like you cannot believe, but as soon as the rain comes in, the cars will stop. They won't come in." This affects the Leiders' garden center, which accounts for 10 percent of the business, and their wholesale operations.

Beyond reacting to individual seasons—small storm clouds in the face of a 121-year business—Leider Greenhouses has also gone through numerous changes to adapt to the market. When Jim served as company president, Jewel-Osco and Dominick's were their main wholesale customers, but now they sell primarily to Costco—a fortunate move since Jewel-Osco sits in a hypercompetitive category and faces pressure from Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Mariano's, and other grocery stores. Dominick's isn't even in business anymore.

Walking between greenhouses in what is essentially a hallway, Leider points to two tall trees sitting in storage alongside bags of soil. Apple pays Leider Greenhouses to store these two trees as backups for the flagship store on Michigan Avenue, in case the existing trees get sick and need to be replaced.

Leider Greenhouses stores two trees for the Apple flagship on Michigan Avenue. - HANNAH STEINKOPF-FRANK
  • Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
  • Leider Greenhouses stores two trees for the Apple flagship on Michigan Avenue.

"They pay rent to me," Leider explains. "So I figured—it's Apple? You owe me. I mean, I've bought so many things from you guys. You're not gonna complain about the price, I can tell you that."

Leider and his four children haven't been to Luxembourg, but his 80-year-old father, formerly the president of Leider Greenhouses, visited the country once in the mid-1970s for a European trip with the American Society of Florists. "When I came home, people asked, 'What did it look like?'" Jim recalls. "I said, 'It looked like Morton Grove.'" (Morton Grove was also settled by Luxembourgers.)

On a wall in Leider's office hangs a black-and-white photo of his grandfather—Michael Martin Leider, a second-generation Luxembourger and former company head who passed away in 2001—meeting Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, in 1941. At the time, the grand duchess was in exile. Nazi Germany had recently invaded Luxembourg, violating its neutrality, and the royal family escaped just before, not eager to be slaughtered or kept on as puppets in a fascist regime.

Michael Martin Leider (right) meets Grand Duchess Charlotte in 1941.
  • Michael Martin Leider (right) meets Grand Duchess Charlotte in 1941.

Charlotte toured towns, mostly in the midwest, that had large Luxembourger communities to raise money for the country, which she expected it would need for rebuilding after the occupation. At the behest of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she also encouraged the United States, neutral at the time, to enter the war. The 2008 BBC documentary, Charlotte: A Royal at War, features footage of Charlotte touring Leider Greenhouses, including original black-and-white footage of the event taken by the Leider family. Jim Leider appears on the documentary in an interview and talks about the grand duchess's impact on Luxembourg Americans.

As time has passed, the bonds of the Luxembourg American community have grown weaker and it's been harder to carry on the culture. Jim says his father was president of VG Supply, a buying co-op of mostly Luxembourger vegetable farmers. It used to have hundreds of members, but now, Mark Leider says, "You can count them all on one hand"—Jim laughs, and Leider jokingly corrects himself—"or a few fingers."

Leider says that three of his four kids—one of whom, Kit Leider Pierri, works as the garden center manager—have expressed interest in continuing the family business.

"People marvel, 'How do you do it in five generations?' Well, number one, every kid works," Jim says. "And even though the family has a lot of wealth, the kids don't feel rich. Everybody knows that money comes from hard work, it doesn't come from off the trees somewhere. And I think that heritage [is what] we got from the Luxembourg immigrants."   v

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