‘So blessed’: Moreton’s owners, staff celebrate 50 years of business in Natchez
Published 4:00 pm Thursday, September 14, 2023
NATCHEZ — Blair Zerby, who was raised in Columbus, Ohio, spent his summers with his family in his mother’s native Jonesville, Louisiana, and the surrounding area, including Natchez.
His mother had seven sisters, one of whom happened to own Webber Flower Shop in Ferriday.
Blair studied under The Ohio State University’s Floriculture Program, thinking he would spend his career in horticulture and landscaping.
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After college at Ohio State, Zerby continued his education at the Chicago Floral Art and Design School. It was during that time that his Aunt Violet from Ferriday called to tell him Julian and Terry Moreton, who had operated Moreton’s Flower Shop in Natchez for 25 years, were selling their business.
“ ‘You better get down here,’ she told him,” Brenda Zerby said.
Blair, then 24, came to Natchez to take a look at the business. He happened to be dating Brenda Burns, 22, of Marysville, Ohio, also an Ohio State graduate who planned on a career teaching home economics.
Zerby took out a three-month option to purchase Moreton’s, which at the time was located in a former filling station at the corner of Main and Canal streets, where the Natchez Convention Center is located now.
“In May 1973, he came back to Ohio and brought me a magnolia blossom. It had an engagement ring in it,” Brenda Zerby said. “I said yes, blindly. Blair was here and I came down with his parents. Natchez was a wonderful surprise.”
Fifty years later, Blair and Brenda and daughter, Bethany, who today manages Moreton’s, will celebrate on Friday at the shop at 629 Franklin St. with an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. It’s an opportunity to say thank you to Natchez and their many customers and to recall memories made during the last 50 years.
“It was originally a corner drive through renovated filling station. It had great windows and Blair really used them,” Zerby said.
When they bought the business in 1973, the Zerbys had a 10-year lease on the Main and Canal building. After 10 years, the owner of the building decided not to renew the lease.
“Blair said he wanted to buy a building, stay downtown and that it had to have good windows,” she said.
They settled on the building at 629 Franklin St., which had been a Fred’s Dollar Store.
“We went from 700 square feet to 4,000 square feet. Leine McNeely, an architect here at the time, said she would help us figure out how to best use the space,” Zerby said.
They put up a wall to separate the front of the building, which would be used for retail, from the back, which would serve as a shop or workspace.
“Blair put up the gazebo section in the center of the front of the building and put up several walls,” which would be used for different display areas in the store.
He also made great use of the building’s windows for ever-changing displays.
“We were so lucky because the flower shop offered us the opportunity to meet so many people,” Brenda Zerby said.
She was a teacher by trade and had a home economics degree. She did not plan to work at the flower shop with Blair.
“I interviewed with the school district and they told me they had an opening for a chemistry teacher at the high school. Well, I took a lot of chemistry, but I was not going to teach it,” she said. “We were renting a small apartment under Belvedere, next door to Dunleith. I walked down the street to Braden School and told them I was available to substitute teach, and that’s what I did for a few months.”
By December of that first year, with the help of accountants, Brenda and Blair decided to make Moreton’s a family affair.
“Everyone had been so warm and so accepting. We were just young kids. Blair grew a mustache to make himself look older,” Brenda said.
As Ohio State graduates who moved smack in the middle of the Southeastern Conference, the Zerbys took their fair share of ribbing come football season from Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU fans here.
“People here would call us and say, ‘We’re watching you on TV and you’re not doing so well,’ ” she said. At other times, it would be the Zerbys making the calls to SEC friends here.
The Zerbys quickly became very involved in the city’s Newcomers’ Club at the time.
“That was a really great experience,” she said. “We stayed involved with that group for a long time. In fact, when we moved into the new building, the club had so many people and needed such a large space, we offered up the shop and had Newcomers Couples Bridge in here on Saturday nights.”
It has been a goal of the Zerbys to keep up with changes in the floral industry.
“We wanted to make sure our business was growing and changing. We had children we were rearing here and we wanted opportunities for them here, too. We have tried to keep everything positive and show people everything that can be found in a big city can be found right here in Natchez,” Brenda said.
The Zerbys are parents of three children: Bethany, 46, Bourne, 42, and Byron, 39. Bourne and Byron both live in Metairie, Louisiana, are married and have two children each.
Daughter Bethany left Natchez to move to Austin, Texas, for college at Concordia University. After her student teaching, she took a position in San Antonio and taught for 14 years.
“That’s when we had an opportunity for her to come back to Natchez and she is managing the shop for us,” Brenda said.
Because of Natchez, the Zerbys have enjoyed opportunities they may not have had elsewhere, such as working with those making movies in Natchez.
“When Blair was here during his option on the store, they were filming Huckleberry Finn. He became involved with that and helping to figure out things like how they were going to recreate bales of cotton. Over the years, Natchez has been prevalent in attracting movies. And even TV shows. The TV series The Mississippi with Ralph Waite hired Blair to come and do props and stay on the set to help implement them. Over the years, he has been able to have a lot of fun working the cast and crew and trying to extend that Natchez hospitality to them,” she said.
“We are still Yankees, but we love the South, especially at football time,” Blair said.
As for the flower business, it, like most other industries, has seen many changes.
“I think sometimes people have a false sense of what it is like to be in a flower shop,” Brenda said. “The work is so rewarding, but some days really tough. The world of flowers has become so much more efficient in many ways and the chain of life helps us to make sure those flowers are the freshest they can be, but that accessibility gives us the chance to present so much to people.”
Moreton’s Flowerland staffers particularly enjoy creating flowers for weddings.
“Natchez is such a destination location for weddings. We love working with so many brides. They come in with pictures of that they want and give us a chance to stretch our creativity. Flower arranging is an art form, but it has to be accomplished in a short expanse of time,” she said.
The flower business is an emotion-driven one.
“We have made so many great relationships. Now, when brides come in, we often get to say we did flowers for their mother’s wedding,” Brenda said. “People come in who are excited and wanting flowers for engagements and weddings and birthdays. They also need flowers for funerals at time of deaths, and we are happy to be in a position to offer that comfort.
“We have so many customers who come in and say, ‘You know my wife. Walk around and help me find something you think she will like,’ ” Brenda said. “That’s the great thing about a small town and being downtown and not in a strip shopping center someplace. We know the people and the merchants and the businesses in town and we are so compatible with each other.”
She said the store’s great team of employees had helped make the business a success.
“We have been so blessed over the years to have a great team of employees to do anything and everything, including long hours, to make Moreton’s the special place it has been.”