Elora Horticultural Society founded in 1850

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.

One of the oldest organizations in the village of Elora is the Elora and Salem Horticultural Society. 

Since it was founded in 1850, the gardeners and flower fanciers in this group have cooperated to improve their own horticultural practices and to improve the appearance of the Elora area.

The society has long advertised that it was established in 1853, but the group was actually founded three years earlier.

At the time, there were few other horticultural societies in the province. Toronto had had one since 1834, Woodstock since 1842. There were probably a few others, but none in a village the size of Elora, which boasted a population of only 400 in 1850.

Organized horticulture was something of a novelty in Canada in 1850, but it already had a solid tradition in the United States and Europe. The chief organizers of the Elora society, dry goods merchant Charles Clarke and banker Walter Newman, were well aware of developments elsewhere, and read books and magazines to help with their own gardens, which both men cultivated with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession.

The incorrect founding date for the society, 1853, seems to have resulted from the research of an earlier Elora historian, Elwood Davidson. The earliest mention he found of the society in the Elora Backwoodsman was an account of the flower show of 1853, and this paper did not begin publication until 1852. Davidson did not have access to the old Guelph newspapers. An account of the founding of the Elora Horticultural Society appeared in the Guelph Advertiser on Nov. 28, 1850.

In its first years, the society created something of a fad for gardening in Elora. Membership topped 50, a considerable portion of the adult population of the village at the time. Elora’s leading businessman of the time, Charles Allan, served as the first president. It was a young group, as the average age of its members was 33.

Many people are surprised to discover that the pioneers who settled in this area took a great interest in flowers. Some brought seeds and plants from Europe, often exchanging varieties of plants with other gardeners and experimenting to learn to cope with the Canadian climate. Others planted plots of vegetables to add some variety to a diet that consisted of greasy and salty food.

These activities were common in the 1830s. By the time the Elora Horticultural Society was formed in 1850, packets of seeds were available in local stores, and nurseries, selling trees and shrubs, were becoming common. The closest to Elora were those operated by Stevenson and Hubbard, in Guelph.

Competitive shows dominated the activity of the society in its early years. Elora’s first took place on July 15, 1851, in the banquet room of the old Elora Hotel. This was one of the first flower shows in the province; the first in Toronto had been held only two years before. The Elora show offered prizes in 17 classes: cabbage, head lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, red and black currants, peas, rhubarb, potatoes, beets, dahlias, pansies, geraniums, roses, potted plants, and bouquets. The room was decorated with ferns and wildflowers to welcome a large crowd of visitors.

A larger fall show was held in September of 1851, in the banquet room of the Commercial Hotel on Mill Street, which at the time was the largest room in the village. The society advertised the show widely, and it attracted visitors from Fergus and a few from Guelph, for whom the show required an overnight stay. Vegetables predominated at the fall show, with a sprinkling of fruit, a class for hops, and a showing of cut flowers and bouquets. The Elora Horticultural Society, in its early years, became something of an elitist organization. Membership cost 50 cents, which in the 1850s was half a day’s wages for a labourer. Most members were merchants and businessmen in Elora. Few farmers joined; they preferred to show their vegetables at the Centre Wellington Agricultural Society’s fair.

The 1851 shows established the basic pattern of activity for the society, which was altered only to change dates to accommodate the vagaries of the growing season. The show soon became one of the social events of the season. People dressed up to attend, and were serenaded by the Elora Brass Band during the evening.

In 1854, several exhibitors built flower arrangements around cages of singing birds, and Andrew Gordon proudly displayed his model of Balmoral Gardens.

In most years, the members sat down to a banquet following the fall show. With numerous courses, toasts, and speeches, the event lasted well into the small hours of the morning.

We know few details about the other activities of the society. It served to disseminate information among members, perhaps through formal meetings, but more likely informally and through the circulation of magazines and books. Some of the members constructed hotbeds in 1852, and others began experimenting with exotic varieties of plants.

The Elora Horticultural Society prospered through the 1850s, but began to fall into decline at the end of the decade, and suspended its shows beginning in 1861. Part of the reason was a personal feud between Charles Clarke and Walter Newman; another was that Anglican rector John Smithurst, one of the pillars of the society, had moved to Minto township.

Although the horticultural society fell on hard times, gardening did not die in Elora.

There were, of course, few serious horticulturists in the village. Charles Clarke put the number of first-rate gardens at about a dozen in 1858, and deplored the fact that few working people bothered to plant anything, and most of those who did failed to weed and maintain their beds. Clarke called for provincial aid to help horticultural education. Decades later, as a member of the legislative assembly, he sponsored a bill to provide grants to horticultural societies.

By 1860, seeds and plants were readily available in Elora. George Caldwell’s Seed Warehouse in Guelph offered 25 packets of seeds for $1, postpaid. Many of his varieties were imported from Europe.

Caldwell’s brother, James, established a tree nursery near Marden in the early 1850s, and in 1854 moved to Bon Accord, a mile north of Elora, where he operated as Irvine Bank Nursery. In 1860, Alex Shields began a nursery and market garden on John Street. In addition to selling plants and trees, he offered to lay out, plant, and maintain gardens. He was able to make a living with these activities through the 1860s.

(To be continued next week.)

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on July 7, 1992.

Thorning Revisited