From Semi-Centennial History of the City of Rochester
by William F. Peck (1884)
GEORGE ELLWANGER. The life and character of Mr. George Ellwanger illustrate the truth that an honorable and successful career - one that wins domestic happiness, sincere friendships, public confidence and private esteem, - in a word, everything that renders life desirable, is the result, in most cases, not so much of great genius and brilliant intellectual gifts, as of early training, persevering industry, integrity of purpose and a sincere regard for virtue and purity of life. These qualities command respect and deserve success, and generally gain them.
Mr. Ellwanger was born December 2d, 1816, at Gross-Heppach, in the Remsthal, one of the many beautiful valleys that extend in every direction through the kingdom of Würtemberg in Germany, called the "Garden of the Fatherland." In accordance with the law and practice in his native country, he passed the period of his youth at school. The intervals of study, vacations, etc., he spent with his father and brothers in the vineyards which constituted the family patrimony, the raising of grapes and manufacture of wine being the chief sources of revenue and support for the inhabitants of this favored valley.
The love of nature and taste for flowers and horticultural pursuits that was developed by the associations and occupations of his home, decided him to learn, practically and scientifically, all that was possible relating to plants and flowers, fruits, shrubs, soils, etc. Accordingly, he entered a leading horticultural establishment at Stuttgart, where he remained four years till he had perfected himself in all the arts of horticulture and landscape gardening.
This education constituted his whole capital, his "stock in trade." He then sought a proper sphere for its profitable use.. His intelligent mind was quick to profit by the information, then first spreading in Germany, of the great possibilities of the New world. The limit for achievement in the Fatherland no longer satisfied his restless, growing ambition; and he resolved to leave old friends and home and make his career and win fortune and distinction, if possible, in America, He sailed for this country and arrived in New York in 1835. He did not come as a parasite, to live off its bounty, but brought with him the wealth of a strong purpose, well disciplined mind and habits, and -the knowledge that was to help develop the resources of the country of his adoption. Pushing westward he settled first in Ohio, at Tiffin, then a mere hamlet, but now a large and flourishing city. His expectations not being fully realised at this point, he recalled the many attractive towns he had passed on his way through Central New York. Among them Rochester had most favorably impressed him, from its beauty of location, its thrifty vegetation and apparently prosperous condition.
The wisdom of his resolution to settle here has been amply proved by the results. He did not wait until the position he most desired presented itself, but accepted the first occupation that offered, and then, in the spring of 1835, entered the horticultural establishment of Reynolds & Bateham. From his industry, his quick perception of the requirements of such a business, and a complete knowledge of the modus operandi of propagation, etc.. he was intrusted with the entire management of the establishment. In 1839 he began business for himself. He saw the opening offered in this then new country, for planting fruit and ornamental trees and bought out the horticultural establishment of Reynolds & Bateham, the first of its kind in Rochester. He also purchased eight acres of land on Mt. Hope avenue, the soil being in its primitive state, and naturally well suited to the growth of nursery stock. This was the commencement of the Mt. Hope nurseries, so widely known, and so justly celebrated, and now covering nearly 600 acres in extent.
Seeking then, as always and everywhere since, for all kinds of information relating to the propagation of fruits and flowers, Mr. Ellwanger examined the lists of the few horticulturists to be found in the United States. From that of Mr. Kendrick, near Boston, Mass., he made his first collection of fruit trees from which to cultivate and sell specimen stock. This, he often says. proved one of his "best investments."
In 1840 he made the acquaintance of his present partner, Mr. Barry; and their views being in accord, they entered into a copartnership which has continued without interruption ever since.
Mr. Ellwanger made many business trips to Europe in the interest of his establishment, collecting trees and plants previously unknown in this country, thus advancing public taste and greatly enlarging the scope of his business. He imported the first dwarf apples and pears, and drew public attention, prominently, to the advantages of growing fruit trees with low heads, in contrast to the old method of pruning away the lower branches.
Mr. Ellwanger has been a constant student arid careful observer of all that has been written and accomplished in horticulture, and has visited all the best establishments in the Old world. He has introduced, grown, and disseminated a greater number and variety of trees throughout the United States, than any other person. In this way he has added greatly to the comfort and convenience of living, and shown what taste and refinement can accomplish in embellishing our American homes.
Immediately after the formation of the partnership of Ellwanger & Barry, the united enterprise of these two gentlemen projected and put into execution numerous other business plans. The Toronto nurseries, in Canada, were established by them, and, later, the Columbus nurseries, in Ohio, both of which have since become famous.
Through extensive correspondence with leading horticulturists in Europe, the house of Ellwanger & Barry has been enabled to add everything valuable, new or old, suited to our climate, to their own constantly increasing collections. Nothing has been spared-in time, money and pains to make the Mt. Hope nurseries the most complete and largest in the world, and worthy of the famed valley of the Genesee, called the "Garden of the great state of New York." They were the first in this country to plant complete collections of fruit trees to propagate from, and produce new varieties- This system has been continued till their specimen grounds are of very large extent. They have also a complete arboretum for their own personal satisfaction, and serving, at the same time, as a school for their friends and patrons. Most of the old orchards of choice fruit, in the western states and California, have been furnished by this establishment. For many years nurserymen in all parts of the country were supplied from it, and its productions are in demand all over the world. They make shipments to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and even to Jerusalem. The Japanese government honored it with an unlimited order for a complete collection of fruit trees, shrubs and plants, to be accompanied also by a horticultural instructor.
Rochester had previously only been known as a city at the falls of the Genesee, with a good water-power turning the wheels of a dozen mills for grinding wheat, and ambitiously called the "Flour city." But the constantly extending fame of the horticultural establishment of Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry, first, and chiefly, attracted the attention of people of taste and refinement, at home and abroad, to visit their extensive grounds and conservatories. These visitors, witnessing the effects produced in this city, by surrounding the homes scattered along its well shaded avenues, with beautifully planted grounds, gave it the more appropriate name of the "Flower city."
When Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry first established their nurseries in Rochester, money was scarce, trade was limited, and there were no manufactories to attract labor and create wealth. But their business soon expanded into a vast industrial establishment, employing several hundred hands. These had to be housed, and provided with all the requirements of life, and the money earned, and paid out for labor, soon circulated among the merchants, and gave new life to business. The enterprise of this establishment, and the industry and economy of its employees, showed a most beneficent result in the numerous comfortable homes that, year after year, were planted around, and encroached upon the grounds of the Mt. Hope nurseries. Most of these were built for the employees by Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry on easy terms of payment that encouraged saving by their workmen, in the prospect of soon possessing homes of their own. Many more costly houses of tasteful architecture have been built by the firm, on streets laid out and improved by themselves, bordering the grounds of their large estate.
For a long time Mr. Ellwanger has been identified with the banking interests of the city, having been successively director in the Union bank, the Flour City bank, and trustee in the Monroe County savings bank, and the Safe Deposit company, since their organisation. He is also a director in the Rochester Gas company, and in the Rochester & Brighton street railroad company. He and his partner, Mr. Barry, own half the stock of this latter company, and it has been pushed forward with great rapidity, till its tracks run to every part of the city, and are constantly extending, as the increase of population in new sections, renders it necessary. The money he has given, without ostentation or publicity, to churches, charitable institutions, schools, etc., of Rochester would amount to many thousands, and would surprise those accustomed to see gifts and bequests paraded before public attention. His many acts of personal kindness, and generosity to friends, are known only to those who have been the recipients of them.
While Mr. Ellwanger has been looked upon as a successful and accomplished horticulturist, and has kept the details of this vast business always well in hand, as also of various other business enterprises that have occupied his attention and helped him in the accumulation of his large fortune, he has found time for extensive reading, study and intercourse with the most intelligent men of the day. Not only is he familiar with the rich literature and varied and interesting history of his own country, Germany, but he is well informed in the political, social and financial history and literature of America, and has kept pace with the scientific discoveries, inventions and improvements of the times. In architecture his taste is carefully correct, and his knowledge of the best methods for building is as good as that of professional architects and builders. He has a fine artistic sense, a critical judgment and practised eye, in ancient and modern art, formed by frequent visits to the most celebrated galleries and studios in Europe; during his travels abroad he has purchased many fine original paintings and pieces of statuary.
As a citizen of Rochester Mr. Ellwanger has constantly exercised a helpful and elevating influence on its material prosperity and business integrity. He is always active and prominent in every public enterprise, giving freely of his time and means, if the object is to promote the general good.
In 1846 Mr. Ellwanger married a daughter of General Micah Brooks, one of the pioneers of Western New York. Four sons were born of this marriage, who received the advantages of education afforded in the best schools and colleges of this country, and of extended study and travel in Europe.
Breadth of culture, variety of knowledge, and experience and contact with the world, especially with refined, cultivated people, and correct, moral principles, have always been, in Mr. Ellwanger's opinion, the surest foundation for usefulness and success in life. These lessons he has always inculcated in the minds of his children, and his rapidly accumulating fortune has been freely used in procuring for them these advantages. The same satisfactory results have followed his ambition for his children that have come from his business enterprises.
The eldest son, George H. Ellwanger, is a gentleman of extensive and varied literary accomplishments, and he was, till recently, the editor of the Rochester Post-Express.
The second son, the late Henry B. Ellwanger, ranked with the first horticulturists of the day in scientific attainments, and was widely known in Europe and America for his interesting and instructive writings upon rose culture.
The third son, William D. Ellwanger, after graduating at Yale college, and the Albany law school, has entered upon the practice of law in this city.
The youngest son, Edward S. Ellwanger, is possessed of literary tastes, and is engaged in the book trade.
In his social and domestic life Mr. Ellwanger is genial and entertaining, and is never happier than when he welcomes his friends to his beautiful home. This is always a scene of the most generous and gracious hospitality. People of cultivation and distinction are constantly received and entertained by him, with a refined and graceful courtesy that gives an added, pleasure to social intercourse.
In the attainment of his ambitions he has added to the wealth, and increased the attractiveness, of the city of his adoption. The avarice of accumulating and hoarding material wealth, he has been quick to see, enriches no one; while a selfish absorption of the property and labor of others, without the just return which leaves every man with capital and means equal to his ability and opportunities, impoverishes both the individual and the community, and reacts on those whose only conception of riches is to possess all themselves.
In how many respects, and how beneficially, his fine taste, his practiced eye and skilled hand have turned the waste places - the highways and byways - into teeming fields and blooming gardens, those have seen, who have stood with him on the elevation south of Rochester and looked at the extensive vineyards he has planted, and fields of grain sweeping southward that he annually cultivates, and hundreds of acres of fruit trees, shrubs, and flowers he has planted in this section.
Those who have known him through the busy, active years, during which he has accomplished so much work, and amassed a princely fortune, have seen how strongly he has impressed his character on the business enterprises of Rochester, and reflected his taste for out-of-door adornment on this thriving and prosperous city. His vigorous, and determined purpose, have made him one of the foremost among our citizens, and won for him the distinction of being universally respected and honored. While active and successful in business, however, he has retained his early love for nature, and his faith in the precept that "much of the purest happiness of life is found in active employment in the garden."
Whatever else he has created, or become, he has always remained the true artist among flowers - a landscape gardener without a superior, his skill in creating an effective picture rivaling that of the best landscape painter. Indeed, his knowledge of the harmony and contrasts of color, of light, and shade, of distance and perspective, and their proper treatment for producing fine effects, in a given space, enables him to paint the lawn with nature's actual colors, and dispose the trees, shrubs, and plants - even the sky itself, with its gleams of light and depths of shadow - into pictures, as pleasing to the eye, and satisfying to the taste, as the most accomplished artist can put on canvas. Downing was a genius in landscape art, and Mr. Ellwanger seems also to have been endowed with this rare gift, fostered and nourished among the hills, and valleys and varied and beautiful scenery of his native land.
Some twenty years since the writer of this sketch had the good fortune to make an extended tour of travel with the subject of it, through the states of Germany. We went along the Nekar and Rhine valleys, to Frankfort, the great commercial center where the Rothschild family originated, and on to the picturesque region of Eisenach and the Wartburg, to Leipzig, and thence to the art city of Dresden. We spent a week at Berlin, the ambitious city extending along the banks of the river Spree, and then went to Potsdam, visiting the numerous palaces and villas of Prussian kings and queens. Everywhere Mr. Ellwanger was an intelligent and instructive companion. The art, history, associations, political and social condition of Germany were subjects on which he was as well informed as if he had not already been twenty years a citizen of the New world. At Munich, then first developing into the great art emporium of Germany, his appreciation and enthusiasm for its new schools of modern art, gave him great pleasure in visiting the royal galleries, and the studios of the best living masters.
From Stuttgart, the capital of Wurtemberg, we went, during the October vintage, to the Remsthal, the early home of Mr. Ellwanger. Here it was easy to realize how the scenes and incidents surrounding his youth, had influenced his whole life and character, in America - how, in his case, "the child" was emphatically "the father of the man." The peaceful spirit of rural life reigns in this beautiful valley. Hills covered with the lavish bounties of nature hem it in, and purple mists, and gray shadows, fall deep into the furrows between them. We climbed up, through the vineyards, meeting the vintagers bearing the luscious fruit to the wine-press. At the summit we walked along the crest of the hills, among a profusion and variety of flowers growing wild, and free, such as only the most careful culture could produce, in a less favored locality. From this elevation we looked across the smiling valleys below, and down upon the scenes that had been the daily contemplation of the child, and the cherished remembrance of the man, in maturer years. The industry and thrift, apparent on every hand, had become both precept and example with him ; and united with taste, ambition and ardent love of nature, had enabled him to repeat these pictures of surpassing beauty, in his work as a landscape artist, and to attain so honorable and prominent a position, in the land of his adoption.