Venna Davis spent the better part of a long life helping to bring green to the desert.
The Bunkerville native, who died recently at age 91, with husband J.D. Davis founded Davis Nursery and operated it for more than six decades at its North Las Vegas locations. A couple generations of Southern Nevadans shopped there for trees and shrubs.
Running a family nursery isn’t like operating a tree-and-plant department at one of the corporate giant “home centers.” At least, not the way Venna Davis went about the duty.
Although her family still marvels at her ability to keep years of voluminous hand-written records carefully filed in the time before computers — everything double and triple checked — and they are positively awed by her working knowledge of the fluctuating price of everything from steer manure to peach trees, that’s not really what made her special.
She was a wiz with numbers, but it’s the way she treated people that set her apart. And not just customers, who received a fair deal and plenty of experienced advice.
A few neighborhoods excepted, North Las Vegas has long been a working-class town with a blue collar and calloused hands. The Davis family felt right at home — J.D. was the son of an Arkansas sharecropper — and in the early years lived at the business. They also took in neighborhood children whose parents were unable or unwilling to care for them.
“If you didn’t get home early enough someone would have your bed and you’d have to sleep on the floor,” Venna’s son, former North Las Vegas Municipal Judge Gary Davis, recalls. “My dad and mother took in every kid with a problem in town. At times it was kind of like a rescue shelter.”
Then there were the employees. Davis Nursery had a crew of workers that remained loyal to the business for decades. But J.D. and Venna also gave jobs to newcomers and folks just passing through the valley and needing a grubstake to get to the next town.
Strangers would say things like, “Mrs. Davis, I heard your name. Someone in Phoenix told me if I ever got to Las Vegas and needed a job I should look you up.”
Venna would reply, “Give me your name so I can put you on the payroll.”
Like her husband, she would find a few days of work for them. Sometimes they stayed. More often they kept moving. But they always found an open door at Davis Nursery.
“That’s just the way it was,” Gary Davis says. “You’d think gypsies had put a mark on the fence. Everyone knew if you needed a couple days’ labor, you’d find it there. Or lunch money. Or a bus ticket. She’d give them four or five days of work and pay them at the end of the week.”
She also had a soft spot for youth sports teams and especially homecoming floats, usually from Rancho High. Venna provided summer jobs for those teenagers, too.
Then there were the cars: the ones J.D. signed for with a local dealer, who knew the Davises had good credit even if some of their workers might not. When is the last time you heard of a boss signing for your car loan?
For many years the business grew along with the valley, but eventually the family nursery was hit by competition from the big box stores, the migration of the local population toward the edges of the valley, and recession. Through many of the most difficult years, Venna Davis worked her pencil and kept her loyal employees on the payroll — even after her good business sense told her it was no longer prudent to do so.
But she was in it for the long haul.
“During that time Las Vegas was growing, they grew their business,” granddaughter Amber Davis says. “But they also helped people. They helped everybody.”
When you get a minute, drive through a few of the valley’s older neighborhoods and marvel at some of the big trees there.
Like Venna Davis, they managed to put down deep roots in a parched land.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.