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The Flower City: Horticulture Moves West

The Flower City: Center of Nurseries and Fruit Orchards 

Beurre d’Aremberg Pear

Part II:
Horticulture Moves West

By BLAKE MCKELVEY

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

Indeed almost all the elements which were to bring leadership in the horticultural world to Western New York were already on hand — except for the inspired leaders themselves. Promising beginnings in the form of local agricultural societies and fairs, farmers’ publications, and even nursery establishments were appearing throughout the state. These movements all had their origin further east, but their westward extension was clearly in evidence. Elkanah Watson, who had staged the first successful agricultural fair in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in 1811, had moved to New York State to carry on this activity in 1816. Small nurseries had already appeared at Newburgh and elsewhere along the Hudson, when David Thomas founded his Botanic Garden at Aurora, in Cayuga County, in the twenties, a year or so before Benjamin Hodge planted the first nursery on the Niagara Frontier near Buffalo.18 The first farm paper, The Plough Boy, appeared in Albany in 1819. A Domestic Horticultural Society was organized at Geneva in 1828, conducting fairs there and at Lyons and Canandaigua in succeeding years. Myron Holley, one of its secretaries, received at least one consignment of seeds from a far-off Danish correspondent in 1829,20 and the next year the first grape vines were planted in the vicinity of Keuka Lake by Reverend William Bostwick. The New York State Agricultural Society was incorporated in 1832, holding its first fair and cattle show the next year; its secretary, Judge Jesse Buel, Albany nurseryman, founded the Cultivator in 1834.

Rochester’s part in these developments started in 1830 with the organization here of the Monroe County Horticultural Society. In January of the next year Luther Tucker founded the Genesee Farmer which quickly gained a wide circulation. The first issue pledged the Farmer to “a diffusion of Agricultural and Horticultural information,” further declaring :

No part of the world is more richly blessed with soil and climate, for a great and flourishing Agricultural interest than the western art of the state of New York — that part called OLD GENESEE. This section of [the] country is supposed by competent judges to be as favorable to the growth of the Vine and Mulberry as the middle of France; and as wine and silk are becoming matters of national interest and legislation, a portion of the columns of the Farmer will be devoted to these subjects.

Click to View Genesee Farmer Volume I (1831) on Archive.org

Click to View Genesee Farmer Volume I (1831) on Archive.org

Local interest in horticulture was encouraged by the Farmer on every possible occasion but gained strength slowly. The editor, Naaman Goodsell, began the cultivation of a garden nursery on a Buffalo Street lot back of Abelard Reynolds’ property on Sophia Street, and in March two agents of eastern nurseries reached the village and temporarily joined forces with Goodsell. Apparently grape vines were part of his stock in trade for the Farmer repeatedly urged the supporters of “true temperance” to raise grapes and make wine in order to displace the hard liquors prevalent in America. Later that season Alexander Gordon arrived from England with a supply of seeds and plantings which he set out “opposite Alexander’s Tavern” on Main Street (East Avenue at Alexander St.), and the next spring was ready to accommodate patrons seeking young fruit or ornamental trees, vines, or garden and flower seed.

While these developments were occurring within the village a more permanent nursery was being established a mile beyond the city limits in the town of Greece. By the fall of 1833 Asa Rowe had not only successfully developed young fruit trees of many varieties, ornamental trees, shrubs, grape vines, and a wide selection of flowers, but he had prepared a catalogue of the seed and plantings available at his twenty-acre nursery and secured the collaboration of the Genesee Farmer in publishing it. Rowe’s Monroe Garden and Nursery probably deserves the credit of ranking as the first commercial nursery to be successfully established in the county. In 1836 a catalogue of forty-six pages was issued to advertise its fine assortment of plants and trees.”

Apparently the efforts of neither Goodsell nor Gordon were very successful. We learn nothing further of the latter, but sometime before October, 1834, Goodsell’s garden became the center of a new horticultural venture, that of young William A. Reynolds in partnership with Michael Bateham, recently arrived from England. The Rochester Seed Store and Horticultural Repository soon advertised a catalogue of seeds for sale, and while disposing of some strawberry plants left by Goodsell the proprietors busied themselves planting the five-acre lot overlooking the canal between Buffalo and Sophia Streets. A greenhouse was erected, and in the spring of 1836 the proprietors employed a recently arrived German youth, George Ellwanger, as foreman in charge of their nursery. The growing interest in horticulture expressed itself in several ways.   All of the early nurserymen and peddlers offered grape vines for sale and apparently many were disposed of. Alexander Ely set out two acres as a grape vineyard, producing over four thousand pounds of grapes in 1835, but the next year he advertised that his infirmities compelled him to dispose of this valuable property.  Fruit trees, especially apples, were a more stable product, and the considerable confusion as to the proper nomenclature for the different varieties prompted the Genesee Farmer to print an extensive list of the best American apples and other fruits with brief descriptions in order to help correct this situation.  Two years later an exhibition of fruit was staged in Rochester at L. B. Swan’s store.

Mulberry Leaves

Leaf Illustrations from an 1830s Guide to Mulberry Tree Cultivation. Click for More.

No other phase of the horticultural development of the period was quite so remarkable as the craze for mulberry trees.  A nation-wide interest had been attracted to the culture of silk after William Prince had imported a new Chinese variety of the mulberry, known as the Morus multicaulis, and had propagated hardy plants on his nursery grounds in Flushing.  The New York Legislature joined other bodies in appropriating for the purchase and distribution of mulberry seed, and by the mid-thirties the fad had reached Western New York.  An English nurseryman arrived with a stock of one million silkworm eggs which he offered for sale at twenty-five cents a thousand, and a correspondent of the Rochester Republican suggested that the trade might be introduced into the County Poor House with great profit to the community as well as to the inmates.” The Genesee Farmer became lyrical, advising the farmers that,

If ye aspire to wealth and ease,
Stock well your farm with mulberry trees;
The silk-worm will their worth unfold,
And coin their foliage into gold.

The long, hard winter of 1835-36 killed many of these young trees, but the nurserymen insisted that a careful planting of the correct variety would avoid this danger.  Seed of the desired kind was naturally much more expensive, and in 1837 Luther Tucker, owner of the Genesee Farmer,  accused an eastern agent of having sold at thirty dollars an ounce seed worth only fifty cents an ounce.  Tucker as well as the local nurseries of Asa Rowe and Reynolds and Bateham had suffered from the misrepresentation, and later attempts to dispose of these trees and of a consignment of two million silkworm eggs met with discouragement.  Optimistic reports of successful mulberry plantations at Sodus and elsewhere in the Genesee Country and of the successful spinning of silk thread of a superior quality in Penfield failed to revive the demand.  Reynolds and Bateham were so discouraged that they sought first to sell their entire nursery and, failing that, offered their stock of eighteen thousand cuttings of the genuine Morus multicaulis at the bargain price of four hundred dollars, or five dollars per hundred.  They advised farmers to “speak quick or you miss ‘em,” but tradition has it that many were left to be plowed under the next year by the new proprietors of the nursery.

Arcade Building

Reynold’s Arcade Building in 1840, From “New Genesee Farmer”

The late thirties were years of discouragement for many in the nursery business as in fields more directly hit by the depression.  Several hard winters and the arrival of a peach blight known as the “yellows” had injured many orchards, adding to the disillusionment over the mulberry.  The frequent arrival of peddlers with seeds and cuttings from the East or from England threatened the local market.  One such competitor from England,  James Houghton, was bought out in 1836 by Reynolds and Bateham, but the arrival of a former English associate with a fresh stock the next spring resulted in the establishment of the Kedie and Houghton Seed Store in March of 1837.   Asa Rowe’s nursery on the northern outskirts of the city, west of the river,  was now in a flourishing state,  and a new nursery recently established across the river by Samuel Moulson on a farm near present North and Norton Streets was already advertising a large selection of fruit trees “now fit for transplanting.”  William A. Reynolds, with no special training in the field,  determined in 1838 to withdraw and accept the management of the Livingston Flour Mills in Penfield.  Bateham was more interested in the seed store in the Arcade where they had sold out their entire stock in 1837 and were rapidly disposing of several tons of seed, tools, and agricultural books received by the first canal boat from the East.  The nursery on Sophia Street was offered for sale, and when no buyer appeared, the offer of their young manager, George Ellwanger, to lease the nursery and buy the remaining stock was readily agreed to in January, 1839.

Bateham's Rochester Seed Store.  Ad from 1841 "New Genesee Farmer". Click for full page.

Bateham’s Rochester Seed Store. Ad from 1841 “New Genesee Farmer”. Click for full page.

The years 1839 and 1840 were crucial years in the horticultural developments around Rochester.  The end of the mulberry craze, the blight of the many peach trees, and the advancing age of many apple orchards had made available extensive areas for replanting, if the farmers could be assured of reliable stock.  Bateham saw something of the opportunities available and determined on a visit to England where he could gather horticultural information and equipment.  On his return he announced the establishment of an Agricultural Warehouse, a sort of wholesale seed store and horticultural department store combined.”  But George Ellwanger more correctly judged the situation as demanding a well-stocked nursery where skeptical farmers could examine what they were buying.  Joining with Thomas Rogers, a mulberry tree salesman from the East who was looking for a more suitable connection,  Ellwanger bought the nursery stock on the five-acre garden at Sophia Street, where one hundred thousand trees, shrubs, and vines had recently been located, together with the plants and nursery equipment at the Arcade store, for nineteen hundred dollars, giving as payment three notes secured by a chattel mortgage on the property.   The nursery grounds were leased for two years at one hundred and fifty dollars a year, and a site was chosen on the southeastern edge of the city where seven acres could be bought at more reasonable rates and where future expansion would be possible.  In order to make the necessary payments on these agreements a vigorous effort was made to sell the surplus equipment at the old nursery site. By May of the next year Ellwanger was able to buy out the interests of Rogers, his first partner, paying him $603 for his various claims, and to make a fresh alliance with a newly arrived and more experienced nurseryman, Patrick Barry.

Meanwhile the decision of Luther Tucker, owner of the Genesee Farmer,  to move to Albany where he had purchased Jesse Buel’s Cultivator and his plan to combine the papers under the latter name left an opening in Rochester.  Bateham joined with E. F. Marshall, a local printer and book seller, and J. J. Thomas, son of the Cayuga nurseryman, to bring out a New Genesee Farmer.  The new paper, following much the same format and policy developed by Tucker and starting in January, 1840, was successful in capturing a large share of the subscribers of the old Farmer, thus occasioning considerable bitterness between old friends.  But the rivalry stimulated an increased interest in the subject of horticulture.  Ample facilities were thus provided to all who wished to express themselves on this subject, and the continued success of the Genesee Farmer under successive able editors helped to forward Rochester’s drive for horticultural leadership.

But the decisive factor in this movement was the establishment of the Mount Hope Nursery in 1840 by George Ellwanger and his new partner, Patrick Barry.  Before proceeding with the story of their achievement we must turn back to note something of the background and training of these remarkable men.

←Back: Part I Frontier Fruit Growers
Next: Part III George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry →

“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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