From Eric Mink:
Readers of this blog have probably noticed that we frequently reference the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC). Located in Fredericksburg, the CRHC is a non-profit repository and research facility that preserves and archives historic documents and photographs related to the Rappahannock region. It is a must for anyone conducting research in the Fredericksburg area. One of the gems in the CRHC’s collection is the subject of this post. In 2005, the CRHC received a business ledger maintained by Hopewell Nurseries, an agricultural business that operated in Spotsylvania County during the mid-19th century. The ledger contains the names of customers who did business with the nursery. The ledger also lists the date and purchases for each customer. This document proves to be a very useful tool with which to examine the antebellum landscape in the Fredericksburg area.
Henry R. Robey owned and operated Hopewell Nurseries on his 700-acre farm. Robey’s farm and nursery occupied land sandwiched between the Orange Plank Road and the unfinished Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, about six miles west of Fredericksburg and roughly one-half mile south of Zoan Baptist Church. Today, the Robey land is part of the Smoketree and Red Rose Village residential subdivisions.
It’s difficult to say exactly when Robey opened his nursery business. Notices in the local newspapers show that he worked as a grocer and dry goods merchant in Fredericksburg until at least 1838. The first advertisement found for Hopewell Nurseries appeared in 1847. The advertisement boasted that the nursery had on hand 17,000 apple trees, consisting of 65 varieties. Cherries, plums, walnuts, along with flowering plants such as roses and dahlias were all mentioned as part of the available stock.
Robey built his operation into an impressive business with contacts and distribution that reached the four corners of the country. He prided himself on providing fruit trees cultivated from Virginia and North Carolina, which he claimed were more suited to the southern climate than other northern varieties. An 1850 newspaper article claimed that there were 80,000 trees, shrubs and plants in stock, which by an 1858 advertisement had jumped to 300,000 plants on 50 acres of Robey’s farm.
Like most landowners in Spotsylvania County, the Civil War brought near ruin to Robey. His nursery and farm did not see any combat, but were located just behind the Confederate lines on May 1, 1863, during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Robey filed a claim with the Confederate government for damage done to his property, which included fences burned and damage done to his land by soldiers and horses. Although scaled back in size, Robey reopened the nursery after the war and it remained in operation until his death in 1876.
Robey’s surviving ledger is an oversized volume, bound in leather, but has suffered water damage and the ink has faded on some of the pages. Overall, however, it’s in very good condition. Within it are the names of over one thousand of Robey’s customers, along with detailed lists of their purchases. For example, James H. Lacy was a frequent customer of Robey’s during the 1850s. Between 1851 and 1857, Lacy and his family lived at Ellwood plantation in Spotsylvania and Orange Counties. The Hopewell Nurseries ledger indicates that during that period Lacy bought 126 apple trees, 41 peach trees, 9 pear trees, 6 plum trees, 3 cherry trees, 100 asparagus roots, 2 weeping willow trees, and 700 strawberry plants.
In 1857, Lacy made the largest of his purchases from Robey. These occurred months prior to Lacy adding Chatham plantation to his land holdings, so these plants were most likely also headed to Ellwood. The entries for those two purchases, dated February 25 and April 15, show Lacy bought more fruit trees, to include apricot and damsons, as well as hop roots, currants, tomato plants, more strawberry plants, and seeds for corn and cabbage. Lacy also picked up some ornamental flowering plants, such as roses, jessamine, honeysuckle, dahlias, verbenas, and forsythia.
This information provides a sense of the landscaping around Ellwood, which still stands and is managed by the National Park Service on the Wilderness Battlefield. There was obviously an orchard, made up predominantly of apple and peach trees. The purchase of cabbage and corn seeds, along with strawberry and tomato plants, as well as asparagus roots, suggests perhaps a garden. The flowering plants may have been used in the garden or perhaps around the house. Does the purchase of hop roots suggest that Lacy tried his hand at brewing beer?
A nice complement to the CRHC’s Hopewell Nurseries ledger is found at the Virginia Historical Society. In its collection is a copy of the 14-page catalog issued by the nursery in 1850. The catalog lists every variety of fruit tree (58 varieties alone for apple), flowering plant and all items available for purchase or order. Paging through the catalog makes one wonder, did Lacy buy Seek-no-further apples, or perhaps some Catshead, or maybe Leather Coats?
The Hopewell Nurseries ledger is a resource that can provide us with a clearer image of the antebellum Fredericksburg area. It is a gem of a resource for anyone interested in19th century Virginia landscape architecture. In addition to Lacy, other prominent customers found in the ledger are the Gordons of Kenmore, Dr. John R. Taylor of Fall Hill, and John L. Marye of Brompton. Thomas F. Knox, whose home is today known as the Kenmore Inn of downtown Fredericksburg, was an agent for Robey, as well as a client. There are even entries for plants provided to the Fredericksburg Cemetery. Combining the ledger with the 1850 catalog can help us understand what residents were planting in their orchards and gardens, as well as how they presented the grounds surrounding their homes.
Thanks to CRHC volunteer, and retired National Park Service employee, John Reifenberg for showing me the Hopewell Nurseries ledger and for compiling an index of names contained within it.
Eric J. Mink