Landscaping the Rappahannock Region: Spotsylvania’s Hopewell Nurseries

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.

Robey's farm and the Hopewell Nursery as it appears on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey’s farm and Hopewell Nurseries. as they appear on an 1867 map.

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.

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nursery - Alexandria Gazette

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nurseries – Alexandria Gazette

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.

James H. Lacy entry in the Hoewell Nursery ledger for February 25, 1857

James H. Lacy entry in the Hoewell Nurseries ledger for February 25, 1857

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.

Hopewell Nurseries advertising broadside

Hopewell Nurseries advertising broadside

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?

Hopewell Nursery's 1850 catalog

Hopewell Nursery’s 1850 catalog

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

10 thoughts on “Landscaping the Rappahannock Region: Spotsylvania’s Hopewell Nurseries

  1. Really enjoyed this post, Eric. I grew up on land that was once part of Hopewell. A very old two story farmhouse was still there in the 1960s (the place was still being actively farmed then) and the narrow gauge railroad tracks still ran through the woods.

  2. Henry Richard Robey, Sr. was my 3rd great grandfather … thanks for the share. It sounds as if a trip to the CRHC is in order.

  3. This is a really exciting post. My name is Eliza Greenman and I’m an orchardist and fruit explorer. I have been looking for the Waugh Crab Apple(Waugh’s Crab), thought to have originated in Culpeper County VA, and stumbled over Robey’s nursery book. I thought to myself: I wonder if any fruit trees still exist there? Your blog post indicates they do not, however the ledger is a priceless wealth of information when going on a fruit hunt. Though the chances of finding any remnant trees are slim, as it was a long time ago, I would love to contact the estates who bought trees to see if any still might be standing. The value of remnant genetics is priceless for the future of Southern fruit, and I wold love to obtain more information on who to call/go visit/how to see this ledger! Many thanks for this post!

    • Eliza – feel free to contact me at and I can tell you more about the ledger and its location. I’d love to also converse with you about historic fruit trees and a potential future project.

      – Eric

    • Ha, ha. I looked at the catalogue re: your recent blog post and was googling Waugh as that one caught my eye immediately out of everything in there, and I ran across this page. Yes Eliza, find Waugh! We need it! 🙂

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