August 1993

 
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The W. & T. Smith

Nursery Company

by

Warren Hunting Smith

My grandfather, Thomas Smith, then aged 17, and his brother Edward, who was 15, came to Geneva from England in 1837, and found work at the White Springs Farm, then owned by Gideon Lee, a former mayor of New York City.

The two boys were brought over by an aunt and uncle, the Wilkinsons, who settled in Penn Yan. The oldest brother (afterwards founder of William Smith College) stayed in England to help his mother and the younger children.

Prospects in Geneva were favorable, and so Edward Smith returned to England in 1842 with power of attorney to permit the family to sell their little place at Tyler Hill, north of Canterbury, where their father had been a woodman. The father died in 1829, aged 41. His widow and children came over to Geneva in 1843, and in 1845 they bought a small farm with a house on Castle Street, and land going back beyond what is now Lyceum Street. William Smith worked in a local nursery to get some experience.

The business was soon so profitable that land on the other side of Castle Street was bought in 1850, part of it had been the Hildreth Nursery; the east part had been a pear farm. Thomas Smith and Edward Smith married two girls whose parents were English and who were cousins of each other.

Thomas Smith was the first to build a mansion on the new property, in 1861-1862; William Smith and Thomas's eldest son, William H. Smith, built imposing mansions there in 1876.

There were set-backs sometimes. During the Civil War, business was so bad that Thomas's children were told that there would be no Christmas presents because there was no money in the bank. Edward Smith, alarmed, asked to leave the company, and he was given one of the farms. After the war he asked to rejoin the nursery, but his brothers said that they had taken the risks of the depression, and so Edward would have to pay more to come back to the firm. He was outraged, and the families were not on speaking terms for some time.

The last years of the 19th century, and the first three decades of the 20th, were periods of great prosperity. The nursery became almost completely wholesale, selling through agents or to smaller retail companies.

Thomas's elder son moved to Rochester to start a wholesale dry-goods firm, but the younger son, Theodore J. Smith, who had graduated from Hobart College in 1884 and had studied law in a lawyer's office in the following year, joined the nursery company, and, after Thomas Smith's death in 1895 and William's in 1912, ran the company until his own death in 1943.

After 1900, there was more business with public parks. Thomas Welch, the genial salesman of the company, sold most of nursery products acquired by New York City. Park Commissioner Gallatin used to come to Geneva with big orders. (When Mr. Moses became commissioner, this lucrative connection ceased.)

William Smith had got the company to import nursery stocks from England and France; this practice later led to the formation of a Franco-American Nursery Company in the early 1900s, chiefly for the importation of rose seedlings which French peasants were able to nurse better than the more impatient Americans could do. However, American companies eventually were able to grow their own seedlings, and importation largely ceased. After World War II, Schuyler Smith procured a few shrubs from Holland.

Though business was slack during World War I, it revived vigorously afterwards, and W. & T. Smith, which had maintained plantings, was in a good position to profit.

By 1928, however, Theodore Smith realized that many new nurseries had sprung up all over the country, and that this over-production would ruin the business for everybody. He wanted to liquidate at once. His nephew and son, protested that they had no other jobs available, and had lost money in the stock market, so he sadly continued a languishing business until his death. There was a partial bankruptcy before that, when he and his wife bought a couple of the farms so that the W. T. Smith Corporation, as it was now called, could continue in the nursery business. Under his son Schuyler, who had never really wanted to be a nurseryman, it struggled along, and the remnants were finally sold off to Dan Quigley in 1960.

In its heyday it had shipped trees as far west as Utah and Montana, but new nurseries in more southern localities enjoyed longer growing seasons, and could sell more trees, even though their products were less hardy than those raised in chilly Ontario County, New York.

This, then, is the rise and fall of a great American company, with all its ups and downs. It had lasted over a century.

1993, Warren Hunting Smith
 
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