Jan. 1, 1957 wasn’t exactly the best of days—or seasons—to start what would become a burgeoning fine-tree care business. On Saturdays that winter, Ezekiel Cromie and John B. Ward went in opposite directions through Main Line neighborhoods, knocking on doors to generate work for their then-business Ward & Cromie.
Mostly, they were awarded dead trees—trees no one else wanted. Ward had just returned from a two-year stint in the Army and was three years removed from Penn State University, where he earned a degree in ornamental horticulture. “We were [taking] jobs we wouldn’t normally want—but, of course, we had nothing,” Ward recalls. “Still, from that day on, we never had a day where we didn’t have work.”
Such were the humble beginnings of what is now Wayne’s John B. Ward & Co., which towers above most others in the tree-care-industry forest. Besides its more than 50-year history of handling the Main Line’s finest trees, the Wards are also active philanthropists.
In honor of Arbor Day—April 30 this year—Ward and his three sons will split time between two elementary schools. First up: Merion Elementary School, where they’ll discuss the significance of Arbor Day—created by Nebraska’s J. Sterling Morton in 1872—and distribute Nordmann Fir saplings to a hundred first-graders. At Friends School Haverford, the Wards will address students in kindergarten through third grade.
Back in the day, Ward specialized in planting and tree work. His partner, meanwhile, could do it all—landscaping, planting, patios, walks and driveways. “[Cromie was] an amazing worker,” says Ward. “He was a climber; I was his ground man.”
Both ends of the business blossomed, and in 1977, there was enough work to split into two companies. Cromie has since passed away, and his sons didn’t carry on his business. That’s the exact opposite of the Ward family success story.
Ward’s three sons have continued his legacy. Jim, the oldest, has been at his father’s side since 1985. Today, he’s the company president. “He’s the heart and soul of this business,” his dad says. “As a 6-year-old, he was planting trees and handled the shovel like a man. He’s always been 100 percent ready to go.”
Though his specialty is management and finance, Matt Ward is still a certified arborist. He came aboard in 2000. So did younger brother Chris—as their father, now 77, was easing into semi-retirement. Chris handles plant fertilization and spraying, areas John Ward still prides himself in.
Ward maintains an active interest in the Penn-Del Chapter of the International Society of Aboriculture. For the past 25 years, ISA’s Penn-Del Chapter has always selected a different nonprofit venue for a charitable workday. One year, the Wards suggested the St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Bryn Mawr, where volunteer crews pruned 50 trees. For the Devereux Foundation in Berwyn, John B. Ward & Co. has been planting Sugar Maples along the drive on Leopard Road. After this year, they’ll have donated 16 trees to Devereux’s Whitlock Center.
The company also spends a day at Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in Radnor, pruning, grinding stumps or removing invasives each fall. “We’re helping them plan for the future,” says Matt.
Each December, Ward coordinates an annual meeting of 50 or so industry folks for what he calls a “pest bull session” to discuss insect knowledge and the safest, most up-to-date disease-control chemicals to combat them. “I’ve just always seen a need to keep educating guys in the field,” Ward says.
In the 1990s, Ward spearheaded dinner dances at Longwood Gardens to raise money for a fund for college students interested in arboriculture. Last year, the ISA’s Penn-Del Chapter handed out $1,000 scholarships to four recipients. About $30,000 remains in the fund, which is named after old-time tree man Horace Thayer. John’s wife, Fran, manages it.
Fran and John Ward raised their family in Bryn Mawr, then moved to Villanova in 1969. There were seven children initially, but two have died, including the Wards’ lone daughter. Of the other two non-tree-business sons, John is a botany professor at the University of Minnesota and Andy is an engineer.
For years, the business was a mom-and-pop operation. Fran, in fact, was the secretary. Today, Ward credits his sons for building John B. Ward & Co. to “mind-boggling” levels. Best of all, they’ve never deviated from their dad’s philosophical business acumen.
“Whenever I meet with people who have been our customers, they glow about my sons,” says Ward. “I’ve never met one person who has told me they weren’t happy with the work the boys do. They’re probably happier with them then they ever were with me.”
“He differentiated himself in the tree-care business,” Matt says about his father. “He always had a passion for tree care, and for doing the job properly. With those principles, he always said everything else would fall into place.”
Besides the trio of brothers, there are 27 others in the business. “But we like to appear small and attentive,” Matt says.
Non-family members like Jim Roach, the company’s general foreman, also hold hallmark status in the industry. Roach is a record seven-time Pennsylvania/Delaware tree-climbing champion who routinely finishes in the top 10 of the international competition each year.
These days, Ward and Fran are back living in their original house in Bryn Mawr, where he’s been planting the property with as many trees and shrubs as possible. They also spend time at a second home in his parents’ native Ireland.
As for the boys, they still knock on doors, but only to check in with existing clients. “They never try to sell what doesn’t have to be done,” says Ward.
John B. Ward & Co. contracts with the likes of Haverford College, Laurel Hill Cemetery and West Laurel Hill Cemetery. At Laurel Hill, the company introduced a fertilization program for a Norway Maple next to the gravesite of Civil War Gen. George Meade. Last year, John was hired as a consultant to identify the tree species of some 650 trees at Laurel Hill.
The industry science sure has changed, admits Ward. And so have the procedures for doing the work. Arborists once made cuts flush to the trunks or other limbs. “Now, we’ve learned that’s completely wrong,” he says.
Arborists also once painted cuts with a tar-based solution, but that’s wrong, too. And years ago, they cleaned out the wounds in rotting trees and filled them with rods and concrete. “Now, if we run into some of that, it’s not so good [on the equipment],” Matt says.
There are minimal hazards in scaling trees since the introduction of new equipment and rock-climbing techniques, which have made the work safer and more efficient. The Wards even install grounded lightening rod systems on specimen trees. “We used to spend so much energy getting up the tree, we’d be exhausted by the time we were up there,” Ward says.
In 1957, there were no bucket trucks—not even chippers. “We were back in the19th century with equipment,” he says.
In the 1960s and ’70s, plant care was driven by chemicals that are no longer in use. “Let’s start with arsenic of lead,” says Ward. “Just the name—think about it. We sprayed it. We’d be covered with it. But I still know [retired arborists] in their 80s, and they haven’t succumbed to it yet. It was like smoking. We didn’t know we were potentially killing ourselves.”
Two years ago, Ward survived a worse scare. At his Lebanon County farm, he was loading his gardening tools into a wheelbarrow when a stray bullet from a neighboring shooting range lodged in his intestines. He pulled through the surgery.
Today, a much safer horticultural oil is popular in the industry, along with disease-resistant species and an integrated pest management approach in which plants are systematically surveyed. “That has minimized [mass] spraying,” Matt says.
It’s also helped that, since the early ’80s, arborists have to be licensed to spray. “We always considered it a science,” says Ward. “But we didn’t know how little we knew about it.”
To learn more, visit johnbward.com.