By Elizabeth A. Davis
Rows of plastic-covered greenhouses line a section of farmland nestled in a valley near Pall Mall. Continue down the road, and you will find the grave of Sgt. Alvin York, Tennessee’s legendary Medal of Honor recipient in World War I, in a small church cemetery. Bob Pile’s ancestors settled this land in Fentress County in the late 1770s.
Bob Pile and his sister, Linda Washburn, grew up here. Both left to go to UT Knoxville, found spouses, and settled down with their families in comfortable city lifestyles. Then they gave up that life to follow a dream.
Now, nearly 30 years after returning to the family farm and starting a wholesale flower and plant operation, they have no regrets. Their business, Wolf River Valley Growers, grows more than 2 million plants a year—annuals and perennials in the summer, mums in the fall, and poinsettias in the winter.
But it was not easy starting the greenhouse business.
Bob Pile (Knoxville ’69, ’74) earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering around a stint in the Army. After the second graduation, he went to work for TVA and studied how hot water from power plants could be reused for agricultural purposes, such as heating a greenhouse. Over the next 10 years, he continued to work in agricultural research. He and his wife, Margaret (Knoxville ’72), started a family while living in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Meanwhile, his sister-in-law Connie Pile, who married his brother and lived on the farm, had built one greenhouse to grow bedding plants and poinsettias, and it was successful. A few more greenhouses were added, and it became clear that for a business to thrive, more employees were needed.
“We kept looking for some way to move back. We took a chance,” Bob says. So he and Margaret and their three children moved to Pall Mall in 1984.
“Margaret’s folks didn’t speak to us for six months,” he says, recalling the reaction to their decision to return to the farm.
While the business got off the ground, Margaret went to work for UT Extension in Fentress County to provide a steady income and benefits for the family, becoming the county’s director. She was happy to put her master’s degree in family economics to use, but living on the farm was a big change in lifestyle.
She grew up on a small farm in Mt. Juliet, but in Alabama she had been a stay-at-home mother who volunteered in the community, lunched with her friends, and played bridge twice a week. “I never doubted Bob,” she says.
And her parents eventually came around. “Within a couple of years, [they said] ‘this is the greatest thing ever,’” she recalls.
Linda Washburn (Knoxville ’69, ’86) had similar reservations about bringing her family to Pall Mall. She was worried her two young daughters and her husband, also named Bob, wouldn’t be happy away from their bustling life in Knoxville.
“My daughters and I came behind the U-Haul and cried all the way,” she says about the move.
Linda met Bob Washburn (Knoxville ’69) while working in the Sophie’s Place cafeteria on the UT Knoxville campus. From UT, Bob went to law school at Tulane while Linda taught school there. He got a job with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and they lived there for a few years before returning to Knoxville when Bob went to work for TVA as an attorney.
Bob Washburn had been a trial lawyer for more than 10 years when he and Linda decided to join Bob and Margaret Pile in the greenhouse business.
“I could have stayed at TVA and retired at 55,” Bob Washburn says. “But I would have looked back and said ‘I should have followed a dream.’”
While living in Knoxville, Linda went back to UT to earn her master’s in reading education. She put it to use as the family’s breadwinner in Pall Mall. She retired two years ago after teaching seventh- and eighth-grade reading for nearly 20 years.
Both couples built houses on the farm, on a hill overlooking the greenhouses. Their children pitched in by planting seeds and cuttings. And now the couples take turns tending the business on weekends or while the others are on vacation.
“It turned out very well,” Linda says. “Our kids grew up together, and we did things together as a family.”
For more information about Wolf River Valley Growers, visit www.wolfriver.net.