LOVINGTON — Gary Smith found a hobby he loved about three and a half years ago, but never expected it to take off as quickly as it did.
The 65-year-old retired farmer from Lovington started creating and painting large decorative flowers out of old white plastic barrels laying around his farm, then gave them out to friends and family. It didn't take long for people to notice Smith's decorative creations.
"The hobby just took off," somewhat unexpectedly, when people began asking to purchase one of his flowers, he said. Some of his first customers were out-of-towners passing through on vacation that noticed the flowers on display.
Now, the retired grain farmer spends the day forming blank plastic molds into vibrant, colorful flowers that can be seen in yards across Central Illinois. Smith makes and paints the flowers at his farm and sells them out of a shop just down the road, located at 130 W. State St.
Among his growing clientele is Tomi Austin of Arcola, who this year ordered two flowers as Christmas gifts, and a third to adorn her own yard, after seeing them throughout her hometown.
Keeping in mind the favorite colors of the recipients for the petals, the design also features polka dots in the center and different colors accenting the petal tips, Austin said, requesting more specific details stay a secret until she's able to deliver the gifts.
"They're going to be a Christmas surprise," Austin said. "I told him the color and what I wanted the center to be and he did the rest."
Charging $65 for a colorful pattern and $75 for an intricate design, some of the most popular requests have been color schemes focused around popular professional sports teams and universities. They feature the team or school's logo in the center.
Donna Taylor, of Lovington, said she was instantly intrigued with the logo designs and decided to order one as a Christmas gift for her son-in-law featuring his favorite baseball team, The Chicago Cubs, which is now hanging in his garage.
"We thought that would be a great Christmas present for him," Taylor said. "He just loves it."
Themed flowers in the past have included the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts, but his main customer base being in Central Illinois means the most popular requests are the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
His customers are all over the United States, including Ohio, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and California, and a lot of orders come from Indiana, according to Smith.
Some, like a woman who was visiting from the East Coast, have become repeat customers.
"She was heading back to New York and she put one in her SUV and the next time she came she picked up another one," he said. "I've met a lot of new people through this and I've got letters where they send something in the mail after they got their flowers with pictures after they put them up."
Taylor, 70, said the gift was so perfect that she purchased another flower as a holiday gift this year for her step-daughter, a nursing professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and it certainly won't be the last time they order from Smith.
"I wouldn't doubt that one bit, there's always going to be something that comes up," Taylor said. "That would be a definite choice as a gift or even for ourselves. We have a pond in our area so we might get something that could go down there."
Smith said 2020 is the busiest Christmas season for him yet. In early December he said he was working on nearly 85 orders, more than four times the number he was working on last year. Smith says each flower is assembled and made at his farm in about an hour and a half and he shoots to complete four or five a day.
Smith's hobby requires a significant amount of time on the road, traveling to places that supply the plastic barrels used to shape each flower with a number coming from Granite City, he said.
Jill Driscoll, special education teacher at McGaughey Elementary School in Mount Zion, said she reached out to "Gary the flower guy out in Lovington" with a project idea in May, representing the school's beautification committee.
"I had seen his flowers all over Central Illinois," Driscoll said.
The project led to a brand-new landscaping scenery featuring three of Smith's flowers along the outside of the elementary building, which was completed in September. Driscoll said the display made the building "more inviting for young families and young children," and has received plenty of positive feedback from visitors.
McGaughey students chose two of the flowers to be painted red and blue with the final flower painted yellow in honor of the school's bee mascot, Driscoll said. A group of students and teachers also spread mulch and planted perennial flowers and potted flowers.
Smith "gladly helped us with picking out the colors and he actually came in and installed them," Driscoll recalled.
Smith has donated his flowers to events like Secret Santa in Sullivan and gave another during community fundraising in Dalton City honoring a 5-year-old house fire victim.
Smith said the price customers pay is to cover the cost of materials and has no intention in growing the flower production into a for-profit business.
"It's just a hobby," he said. "I don't make any money, I just enjoy doing them."
Anyone interested in the flowers or wanting to learn more can call Gary Smith at (217) 433-8260.
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Contact Garrett Karsten at (217) 421-6949. Follow him on Twitter: @GarrettKarsten