Local nurseries served mainly gardeners in 1880s

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.

Warm weather over the few past weekends brought out the gardeners, and the nurseries in Wellington County enjoyed the beginning of their busy season.

The variety of plants, shrubs and trees available to gardeners today would have been the envy of gardeners a century and more ago.

A couple of nurseries in Wellington County opened before 1850, a surprisingly early date, when Guelph had fewer than 1,000 people, and Fergus and Elora were pushing toward the 400 mark. The early nurseries sold some shrubs and flowers, but the majority of their sales were of fruit trees. Several nurserymen supplemented their incomes by growing vegetables for sale in local markets, and to stores and door-to-door customers.

Many farmers planted orchards in the 1850s and 1860s. The fruit supplied their own households, and also provided a commodity for sale and trade. Apple cider was a very popular household beverage in the 1850s and 1860s, when alternatives such as tea and coffee were expensive.

We are not entirely certain who started the first nursery in this area, but the honour may belong to Edwin Hubbard, proprietor of the Guelph Nursery. In 1850, he was advertising peach, apple, pear and cherry trees, at prices ranging from 25 to 50 cents each, or in bulk lots at $25 per hundred. With such a large stock in 1850, Hubbard had probably already been in business for several years. He was a skilled horticulturist, grafting his own trees and experimenting with new varieties. He offered credit to customers. This was a typical business practice of the time. Hubbard also sold roses, shrubs and ornamental trees.

William Stevenson, of Guelph, also operated a nursery and market garden in Guelph, beside the street that now bears his name.

William and James Caldwell tried several times to succeed with a nursery, specializing only in fruit trees. Bill Caldwell began the business in Guelph in the early 1850s, and, by 1853, Jim Caldwell was growing and selling trees at Ponsonby. A year later, the brothers opened Irvine Bank Nursery at the Bon Accord settlement just north of Elora. It did not prove successful, and the Caldwells soon returned to Guelph. The family later switched to the seed business.

In Elora, Alex Shields operated a nursery in 1860, and perhaps earlier. Unlike Hubbard, Shields was a part-timer, and worked as a labourer for part of the year. His plots were located between Irvine and John Streets, on the north side of Mill Street. In addition to plants and trees, Shields grew vegetables for sale to Elora consumers, and offered to lay out and maintain gardens. He deserves the honour of being Elora’s first landscape architect and contractor.

In Fergus, George S. Armstrong operated as a contemporary of Shields. I have seen his advertisements dated as early as 1862, but I suspect he started the nursery long before this date. Armstrong ran a much larger operation than Shields. Like Hubbard in Guelph, he specialized in fruit trees, and also grew fruit himself. His long-winded newspaper advertisements from the 1860s not only advertised his trees, but also supplied a horticultural lesson and practical advice for planting. Armstrong was one of many nurserymen to experiment with new varieties suitable for the local climate.

His property, located on the east side of St. David Street and a little to the north of Garafraxa, is now well within the built-up area of Fergus.

Local nurserymen faced competition from outside the area. Traveling salesmen peddled trees farm-to-farm and door-to-door, and mail-order operations attempted to capture a share of the market.

Strawberries became popular in the 1860s, and most plants were sold by mail. The price was normally $2 for a hundred plants. Few working men earned $2 for a day’s work at the time, so it is not surprising that the most serious gardeners were well-to-do hobbyists or market gardeners who sold their berries and produce.

Many of the traveling nursery salesmen offered new varieties and novelties. Much experimentation was being done at the time, especially with fruit trees, in a search for new varieties that would extend the season, keep well in storage, or ship without deterioration or damage. Dozens of apple varieties enjoyed a brief popularity before fading out of the picture.

One salesman in 1874 promoted the “Emperor of Russia” variety as the ultimate apple, and he also sold the “Tslofsky” apple, which he claimed was ripe by the middle of June.

Gardeners could buy their seeds from mail-order houses, or pick them up at several local stores. In the 1870s, Macorquodale’s Pacific Tea and Coffee Warehouse (it was a small store on Mill Street, Elora) offered the best selection in town. Most seeds were sold by mail. One supplier, Caldwell’s Seed Warehouse, promoted new varieties. The Caldwells imported seed from the United States, England and France, and consequently were able to offer a wide choice of varieties and new introductions. During the 1860s, they offered 25 packets of flower seeds postpaid for a dollar.

Only a minority of homeowners planted flowers on their properties in the mid-19th century, and consequently the local nurserymen did not stock a large selection of them. Most gardeners planted flower seeds directly in the ground, rather than starting them indoors as bedding plants or buying them from nurseries.

Alex Shields sold his Elora nursery business in 1871. His position in the marketplace was quickly occupied by Alex Haig, who operated a market garden and nursery on the south side of Colborne Street, just beyond the village limits in Nichol township.

Haig’s operation was more like a modern nursery than that of Shields.

He erected a greenhouse, and added to it during the 1870s. With a greenhouse, he was able to supply bedding plants and vegetable seedlings such as cabbage and cauliflower. For gardeners who did not wish to walk the mile or so to Haig’s nursery, his plants were available at Alex Kerr’s butcher shop.

Haig’s real passion, though, was for potted flowers, particularly fuchsias, which he grew by the hundreds, spending much time cross-breeding for new shades.

With a good variety of potted plants available from Haig, local homeowners and gardeners could easily assemble collections of houseplants. A friendly competition developed between Haig and his commercial rivals, both for customers and at flower shows

As well as operating the nursery, Alex Haig cultivated several acres of vegetables for sale on the local market. He never became a wealthy man, and soon faced local competition from John Brown, who took over Alex Shields’s nursery on John Street.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on May 11, 1993.

Thorning Revisited