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The Flower City: Frontier Fruit Growers

The Flower City: Center of Nurseries and Fruit Orchards 

Lilium Lancifolium Rubrum

Part I: Frontier Fruit Growers

By BLAKE MCKELVEY

reprinted with permission** from
The Rochester Historical Society © 1940

Long before this transplanted European horticulture could be carried into the interior two more or less native fruit cultures flourished in Western New York.  This is not the place to debate the character of the orchards which dotted the hills about the Iroquois villages of the eighteenth century,  for,  whether their apple trees were of a native American variety or seedlings and sprouts brought by the Jesuits from Europe, these orchards — one of which was said to contain fifteen hundred fruit trees — were fairly completely destroyed when Sullivan’s forces cut down all they could find around the forty-odd villages laid waste in 1779.  The Indians never after secured a firm rooting in this area, and orchards did not again blossom forth until the westward-migrating settlers began to arrive from New England and other parts of the East near the close of the century.  There is an enduring tradition that the early apple orchards of the Ontario lowlands were the result of the efforts of that hazy character known as Johnny Appleseed who is supposed to have journeyed along the lake shore in 1800 or 1801 planting apple seeds in scattered clearings between Sodus Bay and Niagara.  But no doubt most of the early farm orchards of the Genesee Country were the result of sprouts or seeds brought by the settlers themselves from their New England homes.

Rochester in 1812

Rochester in 1812

The unrelenting battle of the first settlers against the forest, which so astounded many foreign visitors, had to be won before the communities could develop a new appreciation for trees.  Isaac Weld’s description in 1796 of the Wadsworth estate was characteristic of the early frontier.  “In the true American taste,” he reported, “every tree in the neighborhood of the house was felled to the ground, instead of a neat lawn for which the ground seemed to be singularly well disposed, a wheat field was laid down in front of it.”   Within two decades most of the virgin forest had been cut down, its chilly gloom dispelled, and its lumber and potash hauled to market.  Already a new crop of fruit and ornamental trees was bringing a quaint charm to the rising villages and to the lanes and hedgerows of prosperous farms. One such farmer, David Thomas of Aurora,  traveled westward in 1816, noting in his diary interesting comments on the horticulture of the regions visited.  Thomas soon returned to establish the first commercial nursery of Western New York on his already attractive fruit farm in Cayuga County.

But long before the nursery products were ready for distribution, many a farm and village orchard had blossomed forth.  Two famous Western New York apples, the Early Joe and the Northern Spy were first produced on a farm in East Bloomfield around 1800,  and by 1819 Fanny Wright was delighted by the “smiling gardens, orchards laden with fruit — quinces, apples, plums, peaches” which surrounded the “lovely villas” of Canandaigua. Another English visitor of the same season, Emanuel Howitt, found that town “adorned with flourishing orchards, hung with fruit to such a degree that many of the boughs were supported by props, and many broken down.”

The realization that theirs was a great fruit country was beginning to dawn upon the villagers of the Genesee Country,  but the compelling necessity of exporting marketable articles focused attention on grain and forest products.  The slow and costly transport facilities practically prohibited the shipment of fruit.  Apples were for the most part turned into cider,  while peaches glutted the local markets annually during the ripening season when farmers, unwilling to sell at twenty cents a bushel, dumped wagon loads into the Genesee.  No premiums were awarded to fruit displays at the early fairs and cattle shows in Ontario and Onondaga counties in 1819.

1838 View from Main Street Bridge

1838 View from Main Street Bridge

The settlers at Rochester were too much concerned in the twenties with their booming milling industry and canal trade to give much though to horticulture.  A few ornamental shade trees are supposed to have been planted on Washington Street as early as 1816,  and the local paper carried a small seed advertisement in 1820 in which E. Peck announced the arrival of some vegetable seed for sale at his book store.  The next year the Rochester Brewery advertised a stock of barley seed, but apparently with insufficient results, as the brewery soon closed.  Colonel Rochester,  shortly after his permanent location here in 1818, began the cultivation of pear and other fruit trees in a large garden in the rear of his home leading down to the bank of the river.’  Possibly a similar activity on the part of other citizens as well as a growing market among neighboring farmers prompted Smith and Beebe,  agents for William Prince’s Long Island nursery,  to visit Rochester in 1823 and to return the following year.

A curious document revealing the sumptuous aspirations of a few of the new villagers,  is the landscaped plan for Reynella, the proposed estate of Abelard Reynolds, drawn probably by Valentine Gill in 1829.  The estate was to be located on the edge of the village west of Reynolds Street and south of Buffalo Road (West Main Street), and the plot located a symmetrical fruit orchard in the rear of the proposed stately mansion while a flower and berry garden at the left fronted a tree nursery in the rear.  Possibly the political upset which deprived Reynolds of his postmastership,  coupled with the hard times of 1829, discouraged construction, for nothing further is heard of Reynella.

Local pride must not obscure the fact that Rochester,  in spite of its location astride the beautiful Genesee on the brink of a ninety-five foot water fall, failed to attract the admiration conferred on neighboring villages by the visitors of the twenties.  There was little in the booming mill town to indicate that it would eventually become the horticultural capital of America.  As late as 1832, Thomas Edward Coke, an English subaltern on leave,  gazing on the stump-infested “burnt-over clearing” in which the town was located,  concluded that “nothing can be more miserable than its appearance from a distance.”  But after a closer view Coke soon discovered that the community was bounding with an energy which promised to correct even its miserable appearance.

←Back:  The Flower City: Introduction                                    
Next: Part II: Horticulture Moves West →

“The Flower City” originally appeared:
The Rochester  Historical Society * Publications * XVIII; Edited by Blake McKelvey; Published by the Society: Rochester , New York; © 1940
Used with Permission ; All Inquiries Regarding Use or Reprint should be directed to The Rochester Historical Society.
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