A Life: William E. ‘Frosty’ Frost, 1952-2017; ‘He Looked at It More as a Lifestyle Than a Business’

  • At Frost Gardens on March 6, 2014, Bill "Frosty" Frost hangs baskets of Million Bells in one of his greenhouses in Ely, Vt. Frost and his staff have been starting new plants for the summer season. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill "Frosty" Frost, right, helps owner Chris Clemson, left, and employee Rosemary Palmer plant over 3,000 pansy seedlings during their first day back to work for the season at Frost Gardens in Ely, Vt., on Feb. 16, 2016. Though Clemson took over ownership from Frost in 2015, Frost remained a part of the garden store, offering advice and labor. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • William "Frosty" Frost in a circa 1971 photograph. (Courtesy Happy Galt)

Valley News Correspondent
Monday, May 22, 2017

Ely — Mother’s Day last weekend was the first at Frost Gardens without Bill Frost, known to hundreds of friends and customers as “Frosty.”

The parking lot at the nursery off Route 5 was still packed, without a space to be found, despite the overcast skies and the rain that fell intermittently throughout the day.

Frost had been the former owner of the gardens, known in part for his hundreds of uniquely bred lily variations, and his boisterous personality, and worked there after he sold the place. But he died Feb. 16, 2017, at 64, after suffering a stroke two weeks earlier.

The customers knew who was missing.

“It seems strange not to see him sitting out here by the tree,” Orford resident Anne Duncan Cooley said.

A visit to Frost Gardens on Mother’s Day weekend was “a ritual” for her, but more than that, she’d known Frost for 20 years. Many of his other customers at the gardens, founded about 35 years ago behind Chapman’s store in Fairlee before he later moved it to the Ely site on the Thetford town line, had known him just as long.

Frost was a “terrific storyteller,” Cooley said, before recounting a tale that Frost used to tell, of a man who hid money under rocks in the woods for other lucky Vermonters to find, by chance, in the forest. Local legends like this one were amid Frost’s collection, but his own life was the biggest source of his tales.

“Not fit for print” was a frequent refrain among his friends about many of these stories, but longtime friend Lillian Gahagan remembers one from around the time she first met Frost.

Frost, born in Barre, Vt., in 1952, grew up in a farmhouse in East Topsham, his uncle and aunt a part of the family homestead and farm. His friends say the seeds of Frost’s gardening enthusiasm were sown there.

But Frost’s parents were “real old-time Vermonters,” Gahagan said.

“He had a real hunger to see something else,” outside of that family farm lifestyle, Gahagan said. “He wanted to experience the larger world.”

“He lived a wild life. He was one of the few people — out of the millions who claim to have been there — who I actually believe was at Woodstock,” Chris Clemson, the new owner of Frost Gardens, said.

The famous 1969 rock festival in upstate New York took place shortly before Gahagan met Frost, and his worldliness came home with him, as the cultural mediums of the era — especially the music, like Steely Dan, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder — became a large part of Frost’s home life as well.

Another longtime friend, Aletta Traendly, met Frost during that year when they were in high school together. They met at a practice for Frost’s local band, Meat, where he was the drummer, and Traendly said that from the first time she saw him, “he just glowed with warmth. He was very easy to take an automatic liking to.”

“We were sort of the beginning of the hippie movement in Vermont,” said Traendly, who owns Chapman’s store.

Gahagan met Frost around 1971, when she was 18, and he was 19. But the story from Gahagan’s time with Frost that he used to tell the world about was their first trip together, in 1973, to Europe. They flew into Lisbon, traveled to the coast of Portugal, and then Spain. While there at a campground — where Gahagan said “the hippies would park their vans in a circle” to protect against “marauders” who preyed on tourists and stole their belongings — they unexpectedly befriended a group of four Canadian men.

The Canadians told them there was room in their van for two more, and the pair joined them on a whim. They took the van on a ferry, to Morocco, and traveled the country, sleeping in campgrounds and bargaining for blankets at the Marrakesh market.

They eventually returned to the United States, though took later trips to other places, including Mexico, where Frost returned many times after.

“It was all extremely low-budget,” Gahagan said.

But all of Frost’s travels, and adventures, made their way into his stories. And in turn, that brought people to Frost Gardens.

“He drew people to him,” said Gahagan, who, like others, said Frost Gardens became a social gathering place.

In fact, after Frost’s gardening career began, the music in his life did not go away. He held large gatherings in the greenhouses often in the summer, and on his 60th birthday, decorated a greenhouse as a dance hall, complete with extravagant lights. Longtime local band Dr. Burma played one of their last performances at the party.

“It’s quite a community atmosphere around the greenhouse,” said a longtime friend, Peggy Villar. “He was really fun to dance with.”

When Clemson, who took over the business in 2015, first started working at the gardens when he was in high school, almost a decade ago, he said, “it took me a while to develop a tolerance to” the sarcastic humor that stemmed from Frost, and became a part of the culture at the gardens.

“He looked at it more as a lifestyle than a business. Which was a philosophy I appreciated. And I think the customers did too,” said Clemson, who noted that many of them view gardening as a form of recreation.

“When we were talking to customers we weren’t just trying to sell them plants, we wanted them to be successful and that attitude was refreshing, especially after working at some other nurseries,” said Clemson, who is working to continue that same vibe at the nursery.

Frost, who is survived by siblings Julia Carleton and Leslie Frost Jr., was a mentor to many over the years, including Heather Fields, who now runs her own gardening business as well.

Frost went to Burlington College for horticulture, and fairly quickly, he began breeding his signature lilies.

“I’m standing here at his back porch, looking over the pond, and he’s still got probably 10,000 lilies back here,” Clemson said. Frost was known for his bright clothes, and Hawaiian shirts, and besides the lilies behind his house, he’d inserted disco balls to match.

Frost’s legacy is felt, surely, but it can be seen, tangibly, as well.

“He’s saturated the Upper Valley with daylilies,” Clemson said. “I drive through Norwich and Hanover and I can recognize his lilies out the window.”

Another of Frost’s favorite holidays is not so far away. The Fourth of July, along with a day when he would visit the Hanover Garden Club, were often Frost’s only two days off in the summer.

In their annual float in Fairlee’s Independence Day parade, Traendly and the Chapman’s team are planning to honor Frost, and are constructing, among other things, two giant lilies to represent him, as they parade down Main Street.

That will remind many Fairlee-area residents of his legacy.

“He was a local guy, but he had a big view of the world,” Cooley said. “I really miss him. The whole community is going to miss him.”

Henry Nichols can be reached henry.nichols@tufts.edu.