Renowned tree pioneer dies of cancer at 80

Halka Nurseries is famous for its large-caliper trees


Staff Writer

Chester Halka Sr. and wife Elsie Chester Halka Sr. and wife Elsie If you want to see a small piece of Chester Halka Sr.’s legacy just look at the back of a new $50 bill. His trees are pictured along the sidewalks heading to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Halka, 80, died on Sept. 11 after a battle with lymphoma and leukemia.

Trees from Halka Nurseries, Millstone Township, have been sought after for some of the most well-known landscaping jobs in the country, including the Statue of Liberty and the site of the former World Trade Center, as well as several other landscaping jobs in the nation’s capital.

Chet Halka Sr. poses with a tree being moved, showing the large size of some of his trees. Chet Halka Sr. poses with a tree being moved, showing the large size of some of his trees. Halka helped plant trees around the Jefferson Memorial, the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, the FDR Memorial and the Capitol building, the latter of which happens to be pictured along with the patented Halka Zelkova trees on the back of the newest version of the $50 greenback.

“The American elm was getting killed by Dutch elm disease so the [National Park Service] was looking for a tree that resembled the Amer-ican elm,” Halka’s son Chester Halka Jr. said.

Halka Sr., who grew up in South River, Middlesex County, served during World War II in the South Pacific and returned home to trade school to become a mason before discovering trees.

Halka Jr., of Millstone, recalls his father as a perfectionist in everything he did.

“He was tough. Nobody could do anything good enough for him. He had to do everything himself,” Halka said.

Halka Nurseries celebrated its 50th year last month, but Halka started in the tree business in the 1940s while moving large, mature trees for the company Hunter Higgins, which searched for trees in the forest in order to provide for its clients.

“He always moved big trees but didn’t used to grow them,” Halka’s son said. “He used to collect them in the wild and spend two to three weeks at a time out there [in the woods].”

Then he began planting the trees himself and with his two brothers by his side, established Halka Nurseries.

“Nobody took the time to grow them [to be more mature],” Halka Jr. said. “This was his dream.”

Halka first lived in Old Bridge but began buying land in Millstone about 38 years ago. He met and married his wife, Elsie, in 1950, and the family finally moved to Millstone about 45 years ago, according to his son.

“When we moved here the only paved roads were the county roads. All the rest were gravel,” Halka Jr. said.

The Halka family now owns more than 1,000 acres in the township, with another 1,300 in Cumberland County and other parts of New Jersey.

The company can move very large trees, and has moved some with a root ball as big as 16 feet in diameter. The trees range in price from $200 to more than $20,000, according to Halka Jr.

“We were always the highest-priced nursery — we set the standard,” Halka Jr. said. “The only thing that limits us is what we can get under wires and overpasses on the highway.”

Halka Jr. said his father had about six patents on trees that he developed himself.

“Hybrid trees are normally freaks of nature,” he said. “If you plant thousands of them, sooner or later you’ll find some that are different than the rest. If you find unique traits that are going to be an advantage, you asexually propagate them. It’s cloning.”

Halka Jr. said his father loved plants, animals and land.

“We used to have vultures hanging out at the house because he’d go to the diner and get all the scraps and leave them out front for the animals,” his son said.

He also loved living in Millstone.

“He couldn’t have picked a better location than Millstone because it’s surrounded by big cities,” Halka Jr. said. “The business never would have thrived like this in the Midwest.”

He said half of the business is commercial and the other half is high-end residential. The area supported the business well.

Halka and Elsie were together for 54 years. Halka Jr. said they traveled all over the world — to European countries as well as to China, Israel and Egypt.

“We walked up the steps of the pyramids,” Elsie recalled.

Halka retired in 1989 after experiencing some health problems and “really mellowed out,” according to his son.

Halka has been honored with lifetime achievement awards from two organizations — the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Though he will be missed by his loved ones, his legacy will live on through his family and his trees.

Halka Jr. said the company is talking with architects about bringing custom trees to the ground zero site in New York City in 2008, when the area will be ready for landscaping.

Halka was predeceased by three brothers and is survived by his wife, Elsie; son Chet Jr. and his wife, Bonnie; daughter Jan Waters and her husband, Thomas, of Middletown; two sisters, Irene Livak of Millstone and Sally Masley of Fords; and nine grandchildren.

“We’re going to miss him,” Elsie said.