Hickory native and entrepreneur Laura Lee Wilfong was one of the local people who supported the start-up and early days of Hickory Museum of Art. Among the many things she did for HMA, Laura Lee (Mrs. Bryan) served on HMA's Board, as documented by the above 1951 letterhead..
In 1934, Hickory native Laura Lee Baker Wilfong (1905-1980), a 1927 Lenoir-Rhyne College (now University) graduate, wife of H. Bryan Wilfong, and the mother of three young boys, started a flower arranging business in her kitchen. As she told it about her still-flourishing businesses in 1967, “I had always loved flowers. I thought about this business of fixing arrangements to sell and I told myself that I could do that, so I did. I started selling to friends, but word got around and business picked up. There wasn’t room in the refrigerator for both food and flowers, so the food had to go.” (1967 interview in the Hickory Daily Record)
In 1935, Wilfong Florist incorporated and moved next-door to the family home. “The first year I spent more than I made, but my husband supplemented me with his earnings as a city letter carrier. After that, I always made my salary and a little profit on top of it.” She also had two more babies. In 1948, Laura Lee established Hickory Wholesale Florists as a practical alternative to getting flowers from elsewhere. This business was also successful.
Wilfong Florist supported the 1944/1945 Lenoir-Rhyne yearbook with a small ad that touted “Wilfong Florist: flowers for every occasion. Flowers by wire! Mrs. Bryan Wilfong.”
Laura Lee was the proprietor of Wilfong’s Florist from 1935 until her retirement in 1968. Bryan Wilfong kept working as a mail carrier, and also was the bookkeeper for the floral business. And in her “spare time”, Laura Lee painted. (See below.)
Laura Lee was very active in the Hickory community in a number of areas. She was one of Paul Whitener’s biggest supporters in the creation and ongoing success of HMA, including housing visiting artists in her home. Paul in turn inspired Laura Lee's paintings of portraits and of Grandfather Mountain scenes.
One story about Laura Lee's continuing involvement with and generosity towards HMA runs as follows. When in 1954 Paul learned of a major art sale in New York City from the estate of Pillsbury Flour Mills Company merchant George Albert Zabriskie (1868-1954), Paul called Laura Lee for a loan of $1,000 since the Museum at the time did not have the funds. Laura Lee not only said yes to that loan, she also loaned him her station wagon for transport. Paul drove to NYC and purchased 22 Museum pieces with that $1,000 and just a little more. (The 2018 equivalent of $1,000 would be about $9,164 per the Consumer Price Index data provided by the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other inflation tabulations may use different indicators.)
In 1959 Harry Wilfong (1932-2017), the middle of Laura Lee's and Bryan's five children and eventually the operator of his own Wilfong Greenhouses for 53 years, married Joann McKinney, the cousin of Paul Whitener's wife Mickey. Throughout the years and into the present, Joann has continued the Wilfong family floral tradition as well as her own family ties through her extensive involvement with HMA and the HMA Guild, including currently donating her own flower arrangements for HMA receptions and special events.
This post is # 9 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.