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The Flower City: George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry

The Flower City: Center of Nurseries and Fruit Orchards 

Rapalje Seedling Pear

Part III:
George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry

By BLAKE MCKELVEY

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

The development of the nursery industry in Rochester presents a fine picture of the transition of culture from the Old to the New World. Not only were the horticultural beginnings transplanted during the previous century in New York and the East moving slowly westward, but several of Rochester’s nurserymen came more or less directly from the Old World, equipped with the theories and techniques of its more advanced centers. Houghton, Kedie, and Bateham, and later Joseph Harris and James Vick, all from England, Patrick Barry from Ireland,  and notably George Ellwanger from Germany,  brought a valuable contribution to Rochester, and their eager readiness to send abroad for new seeds and plants as well as fresh ideas was no small factor in the rapid rise of the western town to horticultural leadership.

George Ellwanger

George Ellwanger
1816-1906
Click to Read a Contemporary Biography

After a half century of successful labor in his new home, George Ellwanger penned an interesting sketch of his early career in a manuscript entitled “Mein Lebenslauf.”   Here we learn that George was born in December, 1818,  on a small farm in Gross-Heppach in Württemberg.  His father’s chief occupation was that of a vineyardist,  but the desolation wrought by the Napoleonic wars, the frequency of frosts and hail storms, had combined with the uncertainty of the market to keep the family in frugal circumstances.   George early began to read of the attractive opportunities available in the promised land across the Atlantic.  In 1830 he apprenticed himself for four years to the leading nurseryman and florist in Stuttgart in order to equip himself with a suitable trade for use in the New World.  In 1835 he set sail for America and after sixty-two days came in sight of Staten Island, then in the full glory of late June foliage.

Wisely heading for the home of relatives in Ohio, where he hoped to master the speech of his adopted country,  young Ellwanger journeyed by canal across New York State.  At Rochester, a stop to unload freight — which suggests that George did not disdain the cheap immigrant transport facilities — afforded an “opportunity to inspect the then infant city on the Genesee, whose appearance impressed me strongly, especially its luxuriant vegetation and its favorable location for a horticultural establishment.”   The canal must have appeared as a great trade artery to George at nineteen, and in addition to its Connection both east and west he noted the horse-railroad running to the landing below the lower falls where steamboats loaded for shipment to all of the major cities of Canada.  The city, which was still enjoying its great period of booming growth, made a “sufficient impression,” and after spending the summer with his relatives in Ohio, Ellwanger returned in September, 1835, to seek employment in Rochester.

Patrick Barry1816 -1890Click to read his Obituary from the 1890 "Annals of Horticulture"

Patrick Barry
1816 -1890
Click to read his Obituary from the 1890 “Annals of Horticulture”

Whether George Ellwanger inspected the newly established Rochester Seed Store and Horticultural Repository on his first visit we do not know,  nor do we learn of his earliest employment in the city, but by the spring of 1836 he had assumed, as he tells us, entire charge of that nursery.   For some reason the Directory of 1838 failed to list Ellwanger’s name,  but his rapid advance in the next two years,  first in joint lease of the old nursery and then in joint proprietorship with Patrick Barry of the new nursery site on the southern border of the city has already been noted.  Patrick Barry, a few months the elder of the two partners,  appropriately represented the other main immigrant group of the day.  In Ireland he had attended school until eighteen, when he secured a teaching position in a national public school in the neighborhood.  But the great Irish emigration to America had already begun,  and after two years as school master young Barry determined to seek his fortune in the New World.  Arriving in New York in May, 1836,  he engaged himself to William Prince and Sons, proprietors of the famous Linnaean Nursery at Flushing.   There, from the oldest and most elaborately developed nursery in the States, Barry gained a solid foundation in American horticulture. Four years later he was ready to head west,  and the summer of 1840 found him in Rochester negotiating a partnership with George Ellwanger.

From the New Genesee Farmer 1840.One of the First Ads forEllwanger & BarryClick to Read

From New Genesee Farmer 1840.
One of the First Ads for
Ellwanger & Barry
Click to Read

By October of 1840 Ellwanger and Barry were ready to announce the establishment of their Mount Hope Garden and Nurseries.  The removal of the equipment of the old nursery on Sophia Street to the new site was in process,  and plantings had already been extensively made around the greenhouses which were almost completed.  Recognition of the excellence of the new establishment was won on the eighth of that month when the judges of the recently organized Genesee Agricultural Society’s fair at the Court House awarded Ellwanger and Barry prizes for the best dahlias and the best “bouquets” of cut flowers.

George Ellwanger celebrated the establishment of the nursery by a fitting ceremony a week later when Vice-Chancellor Frederick Whittlesey affixed his seal to Ellwanger’s final citizenship papers,  welcoming him officially as a new American.  A little over a year later Ellwanger joined with other Rochester associates from the Old Country in erecting the first Christmas tree in Rochester.    Hundreds of older Americans gathered to watch the strange ceremony, in front of the little German Lutheran Church on Grove Street, at which the tree was lighted up with candles. So pleased were Rochesterians with the ceremony that it became a feature of the Christmas period and helped to transform a purely religious day into a social and family holiday.

From Rochester Directory of 1844 –  Click for Larger View

Meanwhile the energetic young partners pushed their nursery plans with confidence. Their interior location gave them an eight-day advantage over Albany and New York competitors in supplying the western market where the demand was expanding most rapidly.  Their northern location promised to inure their plantings to the more rigorous climates and thus assure them of the hardihood to survive after transplantation in similar areas.  At the same time the moderating influence of Lake Ontario’s seldom-frozen waters safeguarded their nurseries from the severe cold spells which frequently afflicted rivals in the Mohawk Valley or New England.  The slow sailing vessels on the Atlantic protected the American market from easy exploitation by European horticulturists, while fresh plantings in the West offered an escape from the diseases which were already infecting some older nurseries.  All of these and other advantages were noted in the first catalogues issued by Ellwanger and Barry in 1843.

The young nurserymen did not always enjoy ideal weather and sunny skies.  A hail storm blew up on the last Sunday afternoon in August, 1841,  cutting into shreds many young plants, and the next day a fire broke out in the greenhouse in a portion of which the proprietors then maintained their lodgings.  A local reporter estimated the fire loss at only one hundred dollars, but the combined misfortunes were a severe blow to the struggling young men.  Years later George Ellwanger recalled with justifiable pride the courage with which they went to work to repair their losses,  peddling their undamaged plants through western cities and villages in order to raise funds with which to rebuild and expand.

Something of the financial ventures of the young partners can be pieced together from the court records of the day.  The young men had no benevolent backer to give them a start, but, aided apparently by modest savings accumulated during four years of employment in Rochester and New York,  they put to good use their expert knowledge of the business.   A five hundred-dollar down-payment and a fourteen hundred-dollar mortgage to be paid in four annual installments secured the first seven-acre lot bought from Harvey Gilman in 1839.   The next year another five hundred-dollar payment and a mortgage of twenty-five hundred dollars on the property added a portion of Aaron Erickson’s farm to their nursery.  As they were prompt in discharging these obligations, new acquisitions were possible on easier terms.  Thus in 1846 a portion of the farm of James Hawks on Mount Hope Avenue was purchased with a thirteen hundred-dollar payment and a mortgage of two thousand dollars on the property to be paid in the fifth and sixth year.  Another portion of that farm was leased at forty dollars an acre for each of five years. These were high prices for farm lands, but Ellwanger and Barry planned their most intensive cultivation, and within two decades the expansion of the city was to permit their subdivision as valuable residence lots.  This economic pattern was followed through the years of expansion, as the partners energetically added more acres to their nurseries, usually on the southern borders of their holdings.

1847 Ad for Mt Hope

Mount Hope Ad from 1847
Click for Larger Version

Expansion was one of the secrets of their success, for, by adding new acres every year or so, they were able to develop mature and model orchards on older nursery grounds. The plan enabled them to obtain an accurate knowledge concerning their fruit, a reliable stock from which to take their cuttings, and a means for demonstrating their fruit to visiting customers. With this latter point in mind they announced in successive catalogues that since their location was “nearly opposite the celebrated Mount Hope Cemetery, both places can be visited at the same time … An omnibus runs from the center of the city … every hour carrying passengers each way for one shilling.

While waiting for their trees to mature, Ellwanger and Barry had to be content with floral prizes at the annual fairs.  But Barry did write an article, possibly his first, on “Horticulture in Western New York,” in which he criticized the refusal of the judges at the State Agricultural Society Fair of 1842 to award fruit prizes because the specimens were unripe and their nomenclature imperfect.  Apples, he argued, should be judged on their character, not on their noble parentage.  When the State Fair first visited Rochester in 1843 the officers, prompted possibly by Barry’s article, offered fruit and floral as well as cattle and grain prizes.  Rival nurserymen, such as Thomas, Buel, and Hodge from distant cities, won awards for apples and pears, but Ellwanger and Barry received five dollars for their display of flowers, an honor shared by three other exhibitors, including the daughter of the Society’s president, James Wadsworth.  Ellwanger and Barry did not compete at Poughkeepsie the following year,  but at the next fair they won three prizes, including five dollars for the greatest variety of table apples and the second prize for pears.

During their first years Ellwanger and Barry centered their attention on the problem of developing a reliable stock of fruits already acclimated to Western New York.  In order to secure fresh plants whose growth could be carefully observed they ordered seedlings from Boston and New York of the stocks originally brought in by the first settlers. They were thus able after a short period to offer either young trees or graftings of accepted and popular varieties with which farmers and gardeners could replace aged and possibly diseased trees in run-down orchards.  They declared it their object to relieve orchardists from dependence on the drifting peddlers whose cheap seeds and plantings frequently withered in the strange climate or grew into worthless trees that only encumbered the ground.

But Ellwanger and Barry were fully conscious of the disadvantages of possessing a limited number of varieties.  Accordingly in December, 1844, George Ellwanger set out on a voyage to Europe in order to increase their stock.   Journeying through England, France, and Germany he collected buddings and graftings from widely scattered nurseries, transporting his plants on top of the diligences or stages in which he traveled and stuffing his bags with the catalogues and other publications of the leading horticulturists of the day.  Shortly after his return a second and larger catalogue was issued in which Ellwanger noted that he had adopted the London Horticultural Society’s method of listing plants and describing their features.  The fruit department was declared to be the chief specialty,  and the Preface continued: “Our purpose is, and has been since the formation of our establishment, to make, here in WESTERN NEW YORK, a collection of fruits unsurpassed by any in the country, embracing every valuable variety of either native or foreign origin, adapted to our soil and climate.”   In addition to the fifteen acres previously planted, six more were being prepared for the new plantings.   A year later twenty-three acres were under cultivation and ten more were being made ready as the program of expansion gained momentum.

←Back: Part II Horticulture Moves West     
Next: Part IV Rochester Nurserymen of the Forties
 ->

“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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