Horticultural society revived by banker Walter Newman

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.

(This is the second part of a series about the Elora and Salem Horticultural Society, and gardening in Elora.)

Although Elora’s horticultural society had suspended activities in the early 1860s, gardening and tree planting gained in popularity.

A major effort was put into landscaping Elora’s new cemetery. A handful of gardeners continued to improve their own yards; among them were William Knowles (255 Geddes St., NE corner of Geddes and David St.), Charles Clarke (whose house is now the Giddy Funeral Home), banker Walter Newman, and baker Maurice Halley.

Serious gardeners in these years, and for decades afterward, found it necessary to erect solid fences around their properties to keep out roving livestock. Garden robberies were reported frequently, with thefts of vegetables and fruit committed by adults as often as children.

Organized horticulture was revived in May 1867. Banker Walter Newman, noting the dormant account of the old Elora Horticultural Society on the deposit ledger of his bank, spearheaded the effort. Newman served as the president of the renewed society, which was named the Elora and Salem Horticultural Society, the title it bears to this day.

With fresh enthusiasm, the society held a flower show on July 17, 1867, at the Drill Shed (now the liquor store). The prize list featured 40 classes of fruit, vegetables and flowers, plus stuffed and singing birds. Some flower arrangers liked to assemble their displays around cages of live birds. The show concluded with a large banquet, reviving the tradition of the 1850s.

The society did not formally participate in street tree planting in these years, but many of the individual members did. The value of street trees was not as well recognized then as now. Residents were glad when the stumps were removed from the streets; others believed that trees impeded air circulation, traffic and vision.

The revived society enjoyed success for only five years. The fall show of 1871 was disappointingly small. Though the society had over 60 members, sufficient volunteers to fill the executive positions could not be found in 1872.

The society received a boost in 1873 from Charles Clarke, one of the pioneering Elora horticulturists. As the recently-elected member of the legislative assembly for Centre Wellington, Clarke had sponsored the Agriculture and Arts Act, which provided provincial grants to horticultural societies with more than 100 members. With the aid of grants and Clarke’s personal leadership, the society grew rapidly in the mid-1870s.

The shows of 1873 and 1874 set new records for size. The summer show of 1874 featured 218 entries in 46 classes. For the first time, floral entries outnumbered vegetables. Hydrangea, pelargonium, oleander, and fuchsia were among the popular varieties in these years.

An interesting regulation in the 1870s was that several of the classes were closed to growers who had greenhouses. There were at least four greenhouses in Elora in the 1870s, owned by Newman, Clarke and nurserymen John Brown and Alexander Haig. Brown worked as caretaker of the cemetery, producing most of the plantings himself, and both Haig and Brown sold bedding plants and shrubs. 

Newman became obsessed with exotic plants, eventually acquiring hundreds of specimens of cactus and tropical plants.

Competition in some classes at the show became intense. For example, the 1875 show had 40 entries of currants. Fruits continued to grow in popularity, with many growers experimenting with various varieties of apple trees. Some had more than 20 kinds of apples.

The society continued as a prosperous organization through the 1880s and into the early 1890s, with a membership of 75 to 100 gardeners. Activity centred on the summer and fall shows, with typical summer shows of 400 entries and fall shows of 700. The shows continued to be held in the drill shed, and were regarded by local residents as important occasions: a time to dress up and socialize.

The executive broadened out from merchants and businessmen who dominated its affairs in the early years of the society.

The horticultural society suffered another period of decline in the late 1890s. Membership bottomed out in 1904, with only 34 on the roll. Several shows had to be cancelled through lack of volunteers. The founding of the Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA) in 1906 helped to reverse the decline in Elora. The provincial organization generated fresh ideas and suggestions for new programs.

With the assistance of the OHA, the Elora and Salem Horticultural Society found its feet again. Shows in the years immediately before the First World War attracted about 350 entries, and the executive began to develop junior programs and public planting projects, both new directions for the society.

Despite war-time conditions and the absence from the village of any men on active service, the Elora-Salem Horticultural Society flourished in the years following 1914. 

The fall flower show of 1915 was the largest since the 1880 era, with more than 400 entries. 

Though membership was rising, the society operated under financial constraints because provincial grants were cut off during the war. In 1916, the society embarked on several new programs. 

Several members volunteered to plant a bed of tulips in front of the Elora town hall. Bulbs enjoyed much popularity with gardeners in these years, and the society began to import bulbs in bulk for sale to members at cost. 

Less successful was the competition for lawns and vegetable gardens, which attracted only one entry. In the spring of 1917, the society cooperated with the Elora school board in setting up children’s gardens. 

Following the war, the society expanded its programs further. 

From the lone flower bed at the town hall, the civic program by 1920 included beds at the south end of the Victoria Street bridge, beds at the churches, and urns and window boxes at the library and post office. Civic plantings accounted for over half the society’s expenses in the 1920s. 

To boost membership, the society gave plants or bulbs worth $1 retail to everyone who joined, at a membership fee of $ 1. The offer was made possible by wholesale purchases. Members could purchase additional bulbs, plants or seeds through the society at cost. 

“Every citizen a member” became the slogan, and in 1921 the society embarked on its first door-to-door canvas for memberships. The society took an interest in a broad range of conservation and environmental initiatives, in addition to gardening, during the 1920s. The junior program reflected this broadening out, building on subjects that were part of the school curriculum. 

For example, the value of songbirds as a control of insect pests became widely recognized in North America during the 1920s. The horticultural society began a bird-house project, which quickly became the most popular part of the junior program. Many of Elora’s school children took instructions in birdhouse construction and in the protection of songbird habitat. At the 1921 flower show, 96 birdhouses were entered in competition. 

Elora old-timers will remember the leaders of the society during the 1920s and 1930s: Elwood Davidson, W.O. Mendell, Richard Mills, W.L. Gordon, Edison Brown, W.C. Murray, and most important of all, William Brown. Although women had been participating in the activities of the society from the beginning, no women sat on the board of directors until 1926. 

The flower shows remained important activities during the 1920s and 1930s. A competitive class for photographs appeared on the prize list, and special sections were added for gladioli and dahlias. 

Several members made a specialty of these two flowers; at least 10 members planted more than 1,000 gladiolus corms each in these years. 

Financial problems caught up with the society beginning in 1933, when the provincial government severely cut its grant. 

At the same time, membership declined as the Depression began to be felt severely in Elora. The society’s annual budget declined to less than $200; it had been more than $500 though the 1920s. 

The civic projects continued, but the shows suffered. In 1934, the fall show was moved from the Armoury Hall to the basement of the former Chalmers Church, and there were no monetary prizes. 

Drought added to the problems of the society in 1936, forcing cancellation of the flower show that year, but the society survived. 

Members of the society had been planting trees for years, but in 1940 a formal program was started to plant trees in the cemetery, on the streets and elsewhere in the village. 

Interest in horticulture revived after the Second World War, and the society recovered the vitality it had enjoyed in the 1920s. 

Membership passed the 400 mark in the late 1950s, and the various civic beds, tree plantings, cemetery plantings and junior programs continued. The flower show reached a new height of popularity, completely filling the Armoury Hall each August. 

The society boasted a plethora of enthusiastic volunteers and exhibitors in the 1950s.

Others have been called to the gardens on the far side of the Jordan: Alice and Frank Frankish, Annie Brohman, Mr. and Mrs. Will Millar, Walter Geisel, Olive Hornsby, Bill Jones, Roberta Allan, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Green, Walter Witney, Carrie Gordon, the Cleghorn sisters, and Harvie Gerrie are all missed among the ranks of Elora’s horticulturists. 

From a shaky start in 1916, the outdoor garden competition became a lively contest. A program of demonstrations and lectures each month allows members to increase their knowledge. Civic plantings of flowers continues, and the tree planting program has been expanded. 

Reflecting the rising interest in landscaping and home gardens, the society instituted an annual garden tour in the 1980s; it was one of the society’s most popular activities. 

The Elora and Salem Horticultural Society continues today as one of the village’s most useful service organizations, adapting its programs to the changing needs of the village and the interests of its members. 

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on July 14 and 21, 1992.

Thorning Revisited