Shared Waters, Shared Traits: Sacramento's First Nurserymen In Early California

Written by Darrell g.h. Schramm

Whether pioneer, banker, newspaper mogul, miner, merchant, or nurseryman, early Californians were a gambling folk, willing to take risks, to gamble their lives if not their fortunes for a better future. Many speculated or strove but lost; others became millionaires; still, others lost but started over. Some were indomitable. Certainly, that last adjective would apply to most of Sacramento’s first eight nurserymen.

When one thinks about nurseries, most likely honeybees do not come to mind. Yet six years after the Gold Rush, John S. Harbison (1826-1912) opened a nursery of fruit and shade trees in a Sacramento area three miles from the City Depot on 10th Street between I and J Streets. Born in Pennsylvania, he had arrived in San Francisco via Nicaragua, settling briefly in Calaveras County in 1854. The following year he relocated and established his nursery on a property in what was then known as Sutterville. In 1857 he imported 67 bee colonies sent on the steamer Northern Lights. By April 1858, he had sold sixteen of his bee colonies for $100 each. That same year he constructed special hives with moveable frames, soon to be known as the Harbison Hive. At the State Fair in Marysville in August 1858, he displayed his bees. Demand encouraged supply: The second stock of bees arrived late in 1858.

In the 1859 season, he sold almost $30,000 worth of bees, soon becoming the state’s largest bee and honey supplier. Word spread quickly of Harbison’s profit, initiating, according to apiculturist Lee H. Watkins, “the greatest mass movement of honeybee colonies the world has ever seen.” In short time and short order, numerous importers had shipped thousands of active hives to California. In the spring of 1860, importers set at least a thousand beehives on vacant lots in Sacramento, creating a public nuisance. These imports broke the market to such an extent that many hives sold for as little as $4.00, driving ignorant speculators out of business. Meanwhile, Harbison’s reputation was made; able to continue his business, as usual, selling trees, bees, and honey, he did well.

Before Harbison’s arrival, importers had little or no experience with beekeeping; consequently, he wrote his book The Beekeeper’s Directory, published in 1861. But new horizons beckoned. With his partner, Mr. Goodrich, in 1874 he sold off much of his stock of trees, took his bees, and moved to San Diego. By 1875 he was acknowledged as the largest beekeeper and producer of honey in the world. At the time of his death at age 86, he still owned 100 hives and was bestowed the title King of the Beekeepers.

However, honeybees aside, Harbison was not the first to import trees to sell at his nursery. California’s first nurseryman (of whom much has been written), A.P. Smith (1812-1877), having disembarked in San Francisco in 1848 before the Gold Rush and seeing a need for fresh vegetables, bought a large acreage from John Sutter for $5000, money won on gambler’s luck while sailing around the Horn to California. That same year he opened his market garden nursery. Within four years he had added trees, fruits, and flowers, naming his enterprise the A.P. Smith Nursery, later called Smith’s Pleasure Garden. His nursery was one of the first to use irrigation.

When in 1854 his orchard harvest was decimated by grasshoppers, Smith refused to give up. In addition to vegetables, fruit, trees, and ornamental plants, he began to sell roses, some 12,000 roses of—according to E.J. Wickson—200 varieties by 1857, a number contradicted by Smith’s own catalog of the time.

Smith named only 87 varieties. The following year he was growing 15,000 roses. Until 1854 the roses were all cared for under the hand and eye of Thomas O’Brien, who then left to open his own nursery. Consistent with the popular roses of the era, Smith sold mostly Tea (not Hybrid Tea) roses, Hybrid Perpetuals, and Noisettes.

Smith’s nursery had thrived for more than a decade when in 1861-62 floods carried away parts of it and ruined the rest but for pear and apple trees. This was no typical flood. Sacramento was not the only city or area inundated by the most torrential rains in its current and future history. The nearly fifty miles from Sacramento to Stockton was one navigational sheet of water as was much of the region from San Pablo Bay to Marysville. Like most of the Sacramento Valley, even Carson Valley in Nevada Territory was a flood plain underwater, a flood the historian Gregory Crouch called “Noachian.” Valiantly, A.P. Smith rebuilt his business. To his grief, however, much of it was destroyed in another flood nine years later. Having over-extended himself with more supply than demand, he found re-establishment of the nursery cost-prohibitive. When he died in 1877, he was buried in the Old Historic City Cemetery of Sacramento.

Colonel James Lloyd Lafayette Warren (1805-1896), a Bostonian horticulturist who had owned Warren’s Floral Saloon, landscaped the gardens of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and introduced the tulip and the tomato to Massachusetts. It was with business in mind that he arrived in San Francisco in 1849. Warren had brought much of his nursery stock and tools from Boston. He and his son quickly opened a merchandise shop which later became Warren and Son’s Garden and Nursery at the foot of Sacramento’s J Street. (His only son was John Quincey Adams Warren.) On November 30, 1850, Warren inaugurated California’s first Thanksgiving dinner. Indeed, he was a man of firsts.

According to writer Bret Hart, Warren became the first nurseryman in the state to exhibit fruit and flowers, in 1852. That same year he introduced the camellia to Sacramento, a flower still quite popular in the city today. He also funded and held the state’s first agricultural fair at his own New England Seed Store on J Street. His nursery catalog of 1853-54 seems to be the first in the state. In the catalog, Warren lists 134 different roses, most of them the same as those he sold in Boston. Despite the popularity of Hybrid Perpetuals at the time, he offered very few, probably because those roses did not do well in Massachusetts and so he was less familiar with them. On the other hand, he is one of the scarcities of nurserymen in the early decades of statehood who sold Damask roses.

When his business was flooded out, Warren sold most of what he had salvaged and relocated to San Francisco. Determined to do more than sell, he set out to promulgate floriculture and agriculture throughout the Golden State. His office became popular as an exchange house for seeds, plant specimens, and agricultural information. Serving as the editor of California Farmer beginning in 1854, he further spurred an interest in and a development of horticultural and agricultural organizations. The newspaper ceased publication in 1892. Largely instrumental in funding and organizing the first California State Fair, held in San Francisco, he also helped found the State Agricultural Society. Always an enterprising man, he died at age 90.

Like Warren, W. R. Strong (1817-1905) arrived in California in 1849 and moved to Sacramento in 1852 where, with business partner Robert Williamson, he launched Capital Nurseries on J Street. (J Street appears to have been a kind of nurserymen’s row.) As stated in his ads, he sold “trees and plants of every description.” A ledger kept by rose grower Edward Gill of West Berkeley & Albany indicates that Strong ordered rose plants from him. Strong’s catalog shows roses sold in pots for 75 cents to one dollar, and thirty to fifty cents if on their own roots. But his nursery seems to have

focused on trees, fruit, and produce. Whether his nursery was devastated by one or more floods, I do not know, but Strong did not give up and was still in commerce years later. According to the February 16, 1880 edition of Sacramento Daily Record-Union, W. R. Strong was also a Vice-President of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company.

C.B. Strong bought a few lots from him in 1894 and set up a nursery of his own. W. R. Strong sold the rest of his nursery to Mahlon W. Williamson in 1895 and died ten years later. Like A.P. Smith, he lies buried in the Old Historic City Cemetery on 10th and Broadway.

Thomas O’Brien landed in California from Ireland by way of the Isthmus of Panama in 1850. Moving to Sacramento, he worked for A.P. Smith until 1854 when he opened his own Rosedale Nursery, a large establishment on the corner of 26th and B Streets but extending to 31st and D Streets. He raised and sold asparagus, cucumbers, and other vegetables as well as variegated verbena, phlox, and other flowers but especially roses.

In the 1861-62 floods, a freight-heavy steamer crashed through a levee on the American River and skidded into O’Brien’s orchard and house, demolishing the latter. Undaunted, O’Brien rebuilt his house and nursery and was still in business in the 1880s. Records indicate he was also a state assemblyman in the early 1860s. As a landscape gardener, he was asked by the city of Sacramento to submit design plans for the Capitol grounds. To his credit, these were approved.

About 1854 William Muldrow bought a huge tract of land along the American River adjacent to A.P. Smith’s gardens but nearly four times as large. This tract became the Muldrow Gardens, producing primarily vegetables. Unfortunately, although he did establish a new ferry in 1856, Muldrow seemed less interested in his produce gardens than in land speculation and acquisition. In 1859 Muldrow bought part of John Sutter’s claim to Bodega Ranch, but the claim was determined by the courts to be invalid. Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter of Sutter’s various claims, mostly not in his favor, Muldrow filed the first of seventeen lawsuits, then another set against specific persons, estates, and even the City of Sacramento, claiming the land as his own, apparently purchased from Sutter.

Rather than ignore the absurdity of Muldrow’s multitudinous claims, hundreds of citizens began filing their own suits. The many “vampire” lawsuits merely served to befog what legitimate claims there were. Chaos ensued for a time. Then the courts simply dismissed most of the suits and all of Muldrow’s when he did not show up in court. Another litigation in 1881 involved Muldrow and the Sacramento Valley Sugar Beet Co., which also had acquired Sutter land, apparently through Muldrow and others. So much for Muldrow Gardens.

More savory and positive is the story of Charles W. Reed (c.1828-1893) who arrived in California in January 1855. With aforethought, he had brought from New York 10,000 seedlings, 10,000 graftings of fruit trees, and fifteen bushels of tree seed. Along the Sacramento River “opposite the City,” he set up his Washington Nursery. By 1861 he was growing about 200,000 trees and other plants for sale, but the floods of 1861-62 destroyed more than half his stock. Like A.P. Smith and Thomas O’Brien, he rolled up his sleeves and started again. By 1863 he received First Premium from the State Agricultural Society for the best nursery in California.

Six years later he organized the California Silk Culture Association, but the mulberry tree as silk culture was not successful. Reed was successful, however, in growing roses, 51 different kinds in the early 1880s. When the codling moth plagued his orchards in 1879, Charles Reed bought 300 hogs and hired men to pick all the larva-infested fruit and to feed it to the pigs. Much of his crop was saved. He was a man not to be hindered.

Reed shipped his nursery stock by steamboat, freight wagon, and rail. In fact, he was the first grower to ship a carload of fruit across the continent. Eventually, he also bought the New England Nursery in Marysville and in 1891 became co-owner of Reed and Van Gelder Nursery in Sacramento. He died two years later.

In 1851 Peter Kunz (born 1835) arrived on the East Coast from Bavaria. For three years he learned the nursery trade by working for nurseryman and rose specialist Peter Henderson in Jersey City. Leaving for California in 1854, he was soon residing in San Francisco, then in 1856 moved to Sacramento. Here he established his Empire Nursery with Charles Schiminger who later married the sister of Kunz’s wife. The devastating floods of 1861-62 demolished—like those of Smith, O’Brien, and Reed—most of his stock also. Shared waters. About two months after the deluge, he traveled to San Francisco where he married a Louisa Ochs. Having paid $300 to clear driftwood and debris, by the coming summer he restored his business. Two years later he relocated to the corner of Third and R Streets. His nursery specialized in small fruits and rhubarb but also sold evergreens and ornamental plants as well as indulging in the cut flower trade.

In 1877-78, Kunz assisted with the landscaping of the Capitol grounds which had been designed by Thomas O’Brien. Although the flood of 1878 destroyed his nursery once again, ads in the Sacramento Daily Union for Empire Nursery suggest Kunz’s fortitude and resolve. He was back in business.

Time and again, floods created havoc with much of Sacramento. But early nurserymen like A.P. Smith, Thomas O’Brien, W.R. Strong, Charles Reed, and Peter Kunz were determined to succeed and to provide the city with produce, shade, ornamental plants and flowers, helping to make the capital the attractive city it is today. They lived up to what Gregory Crouch asserted in The Bonanza King: “Pacific Coast society expected a man to have the sand to go ‘all in’ in pursuit of the main chance. That was the whole point of being there. The entire California project was a speculative endeavor.” Certainly these first eight nurserymen, as a whole, realized that. In all cases but one of their endeavors succeeded.

Author Darrell Schramm is a retired university professor, a master gardener, and the author of Rainbow: A History of the Rose in California. Among other plants in his garden, he grows 250 roses. He lives in Vallejo.


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