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The Flower City: Horticultural Leadership

The Flower City: Center of Nurseries and Fruit Orchards 

Pratt Pear

Part V: Horticultural Leadership


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

Rochester was indeed taking an increasing pride in its emerging horticultural leadership. A revived Genesee Valley Horticultural Society met annually in collaboration with the Monroe County Agricultural Society’s fair, usually held on the outskirts of the city.  Newly erected Corinthian Hall was made available in 1849 for the horticultural exhibit, and Patrick Barry gave the annual address that year to as many of the six thousand visitors as could crowd into the limited enclosure to hear him.  The name of James Vick first appeared that year when he was elected corresponding secretary at the close of the fair.  Two years later the State Fair met in Rochester, attracting not less than one hundred thousand visitors, the largest throng that had as yet attended a fair in New York State.  Under the supervision of Levi A. Ward of Rochester the horticultural exhibit surpassed any previously held in the state, with Ellwanger and Barry taking most of the prizes but dropping a few to C. J. Ryan and Bissell and Hooker.  It is interesting to note that seventeen Rochester matrons took prizes for domestic manufactures, ranging from woolen fringe mittens to ornamental needlework.  The local bookman, D. M. Dewey, received a diploma for his exhibit of 179 agricultural publications.

Click for Larger Illus.

Click for Larger Illus.

Encouraged by local support and nation-wide recognition, Ellwanger and Barry continued to press their expansion.  The seven acres in the nursery of 1841 had grown to one hundred acres by 1851, one section of which contained over two hundred thousand dwarf fruit trees ready for transplanting.  Another five years saw the Mount Hope Nurseries grow to four hundred acres in size, while the partners extended their resources into distant fields, operating a nursery for a time in Cleveland and founding new ones in Columbus and Toronto, which they later sold to advantage.  Such a rapid expansion of territory, if it was to be properly planted, required extensive purchases from abroad.  Early in 1848 one consignment arrived weighing eleven thousand pounds, but the largest purchase was probably that of 1854 when $9,657 worth of plantings were received in forty-one consignments during the years from various European nurserymen.

A Snuff-Box  Full of Trees:  A Story by W.D. Ellwanger

A Snuff-Box Full of Trees: A Story by W.D. Ellwanger

One shipment arrived not from Europe but by pony express from California — a small snuff-box full of seed on which Ellwanger and Barry paid twenty-five dollars express charges.  The oft-repeated story of this shipment early in the fifties merits inclusion here because it tells so much about the character of the firm itself.   The story begins with G. H. Woodruff, a discouraged gold hunter who found himself one day resting disconsolate in a grove of some of California’s tall trees.  Gazing up at the towering giants he suddenly realized how valuable they would be if transplanted back east.  The wide-spreading reputation of Ellwanger and Barry for careful testing of new seed prompted Woodruff to gather a supply from the cones at his feet; these he shipped to Rochester with the proposition that he share in the proceeds.  The seeds were carefully planted under glass and later transplanted into pots, about four thousand of the seeds received in two shipments developing into healthy plantings.  Woodruff received $1,030.60 for his share from the enterprise; hundreds of the trees were shipped to Europe where, in England at least, they were named the Wellingtonia; while other hundreds were scattered over the East as the Washingtonia.  Many found their way into various parts of Rochester where they contributed a towering dignity through succeeding decades, until the last one was taken down in 1925.

Among the many distinguished visitors who came to view the Ellwanger and Barry Nurseries during these years was Rochester’s first historian, Henry O’Reilly.  After an absence of nearly two decades, during which time he had engaged in various activities as publisher, telegraph builder, and land promoter, O’Reilly returned to find the Flour City whose history he had written in 1838 transformed in considerable degree into the Flower City.  He could not be entirely impartial in his observations concerning the Ellwanger and Barry nursery for a younger sister of his own wife had become the wife of George Ellwanger late in 1846.  Cordial relations had existed for more than a decade between the two families and at least the womenfolk and children had frequently spent a part of the summer seasons together at the old homestead of Micah Brooks in Brooks Grove up the Genesee.  But in spite of the necessary discount due to his disposition to see the nursery in a favorable light and to his generally enthusiastic character, O’Reilly’s remarks on the Mount Hope Nurseries show that he had hit upon an inspiring topic and proceeded to describe it with full details.

Back View of Home Nursery of Ellwanger & Barry.

Back View of Home Nursery of Ellwanger & Barry.

The Greatest Nursery In the World:
Ellwanger & Barry

This Nursery was established in 1838, by Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry, in [a] southerly part of Rochester.  Since which time it has been so enlarged that it now covers 440 [500] acres — probably the most extensive Nursery in the world. The wide celebrity of this great establishment, its extent of business, and the interest generally felt to know its operations, require a notice of corresponding fulness:—

The Fruit Department occupies 350 acres, in about the following proportion of the different kinds: Standard pears, 69 acres; dwarf do., 57 acres; standard apples, 72 acres; dwarf do., 31 acres; standard and dwarf cherries, 25 acres; standard and dwarf plums, 20 acres; and 82 acres of other fruit trees, seedling stocks, &c.

Partial Map of Mt Hope Nursery Grounds from 1859.   Click for Legend

Partial Map of Mt Hope Nursery Grounds from 1859.
Click for Legend

In the above-named department, the following items are particularly worthy of notice: A fine eight-acre block of dwarf and standard cherries, containing 120,000 trees, two years from the bud; 12 acres of dwarf and standard pears, in about equal quantities, two years from the bud, containing 130,000 trees of beautiful growth; another block of 20,000 plum trees from last spring’s grafts, on three acres; 6 acres of currants, chiefly White Grape, Cherry, and Victoria, 200,000 plants; 4 acres of Houghton’s Gooseberry, 70,000; 3 acres of New Rochelle and Dorchester blackberries, 100,000 plants; and 1,000,000 hardy grapes on 3 acres.

The Ornamental Department occupies 90 acres, about as follows:

24 acres of evergreen trees; 50 acres hardy deciduous trees and shrubs; 8 acres dahlias, bulbs and herbaceous plants; 5 acres specimen trees, &c.

The most remarkable items in this department are: The evergreens, which exceed half a million in number, besides this year’s seedlings; the 8 acres of roses; the weeping trees, covering alone over 2 acres; the magnolias, of which there are more than an acre in one plot; the 5,000 trees of the great Sequoia, or giant tree of California; and the great number of cuttings of roses and other shrubs in cold frames, exceeding 100,000, more than half of which were well rooted by mid-summer.

The glass structures for plants and propagation cover 15,500 square feet.

Ellwanger & Barry's Principal Packing Shed, during the Selling Season.

Ellwanger & Barry’s Principal Packing Shed, during the Selling Season.

The packing houses and sheds consist of one packing house 75 by 80 feet, two stories high, with cellars beneath; a shed 150 by 24 feet; and numerous temporary sheds erected at the commencement of and removed at the end of each selling season. Besides these, there are several large stables; work-rooms for both departments; and sheds for sash-frames when out of use, pots, &c.

The men employed are about 225 to 250 in the season — that is, on an average through the season, for 400 or 500 persons are employed at busiest periods — and about 80 thro’ winter. Three men are constantly employed in bookkeeping, correspondence, &c., in addition to the extensive labors in correspondence performed by the proprietors themselves. They have opened and built a street, which is exclusively occupied by their foremen, head workmen, &c.

There are 25 horses employed for cultivating the Nursery, &c.

A single season’s Budding numbers about 700,000 in the fruit department, and 100,000 in the ornamental. To insure complete accuracy, one of the proprietors cuts all the buds, which he immediately passes to a number of hands who accompany him, who remove the leaves, when they are marked and transferred to the foremen of the respective budding companies.

From The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs and Cultivator Almanac, for the Year 1859

A British visitor of the same period, Robert Russell, whose special interest in agricultural matters gave weight to his observations, was duly impressed by Ellwanger and Barry’s establishment:

I visited the [Mount] Hope Nurseries which are the largest, I believe, in the world, extending over 250 acres of ground.  Here, one obtains some idea of the enormous number of fruit trees that are annually planted in the Northern States.  America is a better fruit than grain country, and horticulture is usually a favorite pursuit among those who are engaged in agriculture.  The firm of Berry and Company [sic], who own these nurseries, frequently supply single orders for 100,000 apple trees to the western nurserymen, who retail them in the newly-settled districts.  Apples grow upon a great variety of soils in America. … The Isabella and Catawba grapes are the only kinds that ripen in ordinary years in the north-western parts of the State of New York. … I saw the Osage orange growing in the nurseries as a beautiful fence, but many still doubt whether it is adapted for this climate.

From: North America, Its Agriculture and Climate, 1857, Robert Russell

Ellwanger & Barry Ad from 1861

Ellwanger & Barry Ad from 1861 – Click to See full Page

A decade later a western newspaper publisher, revisiting his old home in Rochester, marveled at the size of this nursery, but was chiefly pleased by the six acres under glass where among other sights he noted many orange and lemon trees “looking as though they might furnish a cooling and refreshing beverage had we only a little ice.”

The records of their sales fully substantiate these estimates of the far-reaching influence of Ellwanger and Barry. George Ellwanger later recalled that  “all the original orchards in California were planted from our nurseries, we being the first that could pack trees to withstand successfully the long journey over the isthmus of Panama.”   In a miscellaneous memorandum written in connection with a visit paid to the nurseries by a Japanese Commission we learn that  “in 1872 Ellwanger & Barry shipped to Yokohma for the Japanese Governnent a large collection of fruit trees and plants consisting of 1oo varieties of Apples standard and dwarf, 75 varieties of Pears standard and dwarf, 26 varieties of Cherries, 14 varieties of Plums, 4 varieties of Apricots, 5 varieties of Nectarines, 14 of Raspberries, 10 of Currants, 8 of Gooseberries, 30 of Grapes, 5 of Blackberries and 16 varieties Strawberries.”

While Ellwanger and Barry were thus expanding their activities, the other Rochester nurserymen were far from idle. When the editor of the Boston Cultivator visited Rochester in 1856 he enjoyed an extended tour through several of its large nurseries and concluded that there must be at least one thousand acres devoted to nursery use within a radius of six miles of the center of Rochester. The Rural New Yorker, in reprinting the account from the Cultivator, comments that  “Rochester is, beyond doubt, the greatest emporium of fruit trees in the world,” adding that the acreage should have been placed nearer three thousand than one thousand. The acreage was large in any event and the list of nurserymen was being constantly extended.  The New York Census found 150 “nurserymen” in Monroe County in 1855, nearly half the total for the state; by 1865 the county numbered 152 nurserymen.  As many as 104 nurseries were reported for the entire state in 1858, thirty of these being located in Monroe County.   An attempt to list all the nurseries of the United States and Canada in 1864 named eighteen within the city of Rochester.

Nurseries of A. Frost & Co., Rochester—Entrance and Green-Houses.

Nurseries of A. Frost & Co., Rochester—Entrance and Green-Houses.

The number was increasing too rapidly to permit a complete enumeration, but among the new arrivals several gained outstanding success. Chief among these was A. Frost and Company, whose Genesee Valley Nurseries occupied over three hundred acres on Plymouth Avenue where Frost Avenue is now located and a newer section further south on Brooks Avenue.  John Donellan [Donnelly] and his nephews converted the run-down Hanford’s Landing Nursery (on the site of Kodak Park) into the thriving Lake Avenue Commercial Nurseries, soon developing a large trade as far west as Kansas and Minnesota.  Bissell and Hooker severed their former partnership and each struck out to develop a successful nursery of his own.  Bissell joined with J. Salter to erect a new “propagating house” at a cost of three thousand dollars on their East Avenue Nurseries where they proposed to specialize in grape vines, while Hooker joined with Joseph Farley to develop two hundred acres on East Avenue near Culver Road as the Rochester Wholesale Nurseries.  Various foreign nursery men recognized the leadership of Rochester in the horticultural world and regularly sent their advertisements for insertion in the local farmers’ publications.

It is difficult to secure an accurate measure of the volume and size of this enterprise.  One account places at over one thousand the number of persons employed in the cultivation of trees and plants in and around Rochester, whose products had sold for upwards of a half-million dollars in 1854.  More fruit trees, it was asserted, were raised in Monroe County, than in all the United States besides, although no data was submitted to establish the claim.  The State Census for 1865 reported the sale of 247,776 fruit and nursery trees by Monroe County firms and a return of $205,360 for the product.  Onondaga County reported a larger number of trees but its return was only a fourth as large.  Indeed all the nursery sales in the state outside of Monroe did not equal in value that of the county.  The fourteen nurseries reporting from Monroe County that year claimed a total investment of $494,700 and provided employment to 397 persons.  These figures likewise exceeded the totals for the rest of the state.  As the first national figures available — for 1851 — show New York far in advance of other states, it is reasonable to conclude that by 1865 the Monroe County production at least equaled that of the leading states of the day.

Old Rochester Nursery Ad 1859

Old Rochester Nursery Ad 1859

The canal had long since given place to shipment by railroad, at least as far as Buffalo where lake steamers sped the trees westward.  Buffalo news writers frequently commented upon the size of these shipments, but attempts to ferret out the facts met resistance as rival nurserymen were reluctant to reveal their orders.  Hints that orders for as much as twenty to forty thousand dollars worth of nursery stock were occasionally received from agents or brokers reselling in the west suggest that Rochester nurserymen had already acquired the status of wholesale distributors, some of whom sent out three to four hundred tons of graftings and plantings a year.  Three of Rochester’s nurseries each had a larger area under cultivation in 1860 than the total of any other county in the state.  Even the six nurseries at Flushing in Queens when combined did not equal the two hundred and fifty acres of Alonzo Frost and Company’s Genesee Valley Nursery.  Ellwanger and Barry’s five hundred-acre nursery already exceeded the $124,000 value of the Flushing Nurseries, although Rochester’s second nursery in size, the three hundred and fifty-acre Old Rochester Nursery, did not quite equal that figure.  Four other Rochester nurseries boasted from fifty to one hundred acres each, and brokers had appeared eager to distribute the products of the smaller nurseries through Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota. Even the outbreak of the Civil War failed to shut off the demand for trees, and indeed the diversion of energies, by checking the expansion of nurseries, boosted the prices of nursery products, and fruit growers likewise saw increased returns available.


←Back: Part IV Rochester Nurserymen of the Forties    
Next: Part VI  Rewards and Contributions->

“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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