1864 flower show reveals past gardening practices

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Agricultural societies are the oldest organizations in Wellington County, dating to the very first years of settlement in the various townships.

Their proponents had the goal of improving agricultural practices and livestock breeding, through shared information and agricultural shows. The latter provided some friendly competition, and allowed farmers a chance to see the best local farm product.

Horticultural societies came much later. They were modelled on their agricultural cousins. Horticulturists had broader aims. As well as improving cultivation, they sought to beautify their towns and the properties of their members. And they were very much urban, rather than rural organizations.

In Wellington, Elora led the way, with its horticultural society organized in November of 1850. That was a remarkable achievement for a village that then numbered about 400 people. Two more societies followed soon after: Guelph in 1851 and Fergus in 1853.

Like the agricultural societies, competitive shows were the major activities of those early horticultural groups. Generally, there were both spring and late summer shows. The prize lists of those shows, and published accounts of them, reveal a great deal about gardening practices of the mid-19th century in the southern portion of this county.

It is interesting that few working men took part in the early horticultural groups. They were very much an elite group, though there was a sprinkling of people from the lower ranks of what was then a very stratified society.

Along with the wealthy and socially prominent, the young horticultural societies also attracted the professionals of the day. By the 1850s there were already market gardeners supplying vegetables and fruit on the local market, and a few nurserymen offering annual flowers, vegetable seedlings, and shrubs to local growers. Those men enjoyed beating out rich exhibitors at the flower shows, and the wealthy amateurs relished their triumph over the efforts of professional growers.

Published accounts of the spring 1864 show of the Guelph Horticultural Society have survived, and provide a glimpse of that group when it was well into its second decade. That show, held on June 29, 1864, disappointed its organizers because a hot and dry spring had set back many gardens. Still, it was an interesting show.

Exhibitors placed their entries the evening before, in the main room of the Guelph Town Hall. That building, erected in 1856, originally served as a venue for a wide range of activities. Two serious gardeners, Thomas McIntosh and Thomas Baker, both of Galt, judged the show the following morning.

In the afternoon the hall was open to the public, but the big crowd came in the evening, when the Guelph Union Brass Band provided music, relieved by Stephen Boult, an architect and society member, who provided melodies on a pump organ.

As for the exhibits, the show was divided into four sections: greenhouse plants, window and garden plants, a professional class, and a vegetable section.

In addition to the professional nurserymen, several residents had greenhouses and conservatories attached to their houses. William Stevenson was the leading nurseryman in Guelph in the 1860s. His plots at the east end of town were extensive. The city named the street fronting his property after him. However, for whatever reason, Stevenson and the other Guelph nurserymen shunned the show that year. They may have viewed their material as substandard due to the weather, or they may have felt intimidated by the so-called amateurs and their snooty attitudes.

In any case, their absence meant that two exhibitors dominated that part of the show. David Allan was, in the 1860s, Guelph’s most prosperous businessman. He operated the major flour mill in town, and along with it a distillery, then the third largest in Canada, and a feed lot that often held 600 head of cattle fattening on spent mash from the distillery.

Allan had both a large conservatory and a full time professional gardener, a fellow named Dunn. In the greenhouse class, Allan received prizes for potted plants, blooming geraniums, and a bouquet of sweet William.

His efforts, though, were outclassed by another enthusiast with a conservatory, R.M. Moore. He alternated with Allan for first and second prizes in most classes. As well, he showed remarkable specimens of red and white fuchsia. That plant, a native of Mexico, was still something of a novelty in 1864. Moore also had a cactus in bloom, and a superb display of pansies.

Allan and Moore had few entries in the section for window and garden plants. Consequently, there were many names among the prize winners. Frederick Stone, a noted farmer who also operated a store in Guelph, had a number of prize winners, including carnations, potted plants and wildflowers. Tom Tansley, one of the few working men in the society (he was a plasterer) picked up several prizes. John Pipe, owner of a flour mill, took pride in his prize winning geraniums.

A.A. Baker and his wife both had entries in the garden plant section. Women exhibitors were unusual in the early years of horticultural societies. When their names do appear, they were usually widows or spinsters. Baker and his wife were the first exhibitors in Wellington to place entries separately. Other prize winners included George Murton, owner of the Guelph’s largest tailoring shop, and Tom Pallister, operator of the Commercial Hotel.

Market gardeners and amateurs could compete head to head in professional section, but the former were absent at this show. Most of the classes were for spring fruits. R.M. Moore, A.A. Baker and David Allan vied for the best strawberries, in classes for both table use and preserving into jam. Other sections were for large and small gooseberries, and black, red and white currants. There were even classes for dried fruit grown in 1863. Another woman, Mrs. Bill Nichols, was among the winners in preserved fruit. Her husband owned the Court House Hotel on Woolwich Street.

The vegetable section is somewhat surprising for a late June show. Nevertheless, there was competition for early potatoes (won by Noah Sunley, a farmer on Grange Street at the eastern edge of Guelph), rhubarb (won by David Allan), lettuce (captured by brewer Thomas Holliday), and spinach (won by William Benham of Eramosa Township, one of the few farmers active in the society).

Other classes included asparagus, parsley, spring onions, carrots, and herbs grown in pots. Competition was keen among the vegetable entries, with a half dozen entries in many of the classes.

The competition included special prizes for collections of snapdragons, zinnias, and stocks. The fact that exhibitors had those plants in bloom suggests that they were starting their annuals indoors and very early in the season. Another prize went to the best rose collection. R.M. Moore took that one, with 60 varieties on display.

That 1864 Guelph show indicates that horticultural practices were quite advanced for the time, and that serious growers were willing to experiment and go to great lengths to extend the growing season. But it should also be remembered that the society membership was not typical of Guelph’s residents, the vast majority of whom had no interest in horticulture, and whose yards consisted of patches of weeds and unmown grass.

Those early horticultural societies were an unlikely grouping of rich dabblers, nurserymen, market gardeners and obsessive amateurs. Though they were not always comfortable in one another’s company, they did share common goals of beautifying their surroundings and bringing better fresh food to the tables of their families and those of others in their communities.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 6, 2009.

Thorning Revisited