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A look back at interesting history from the pages of The Normalite
Souvenirs of History
by Eloise B. Craig
(Published 1965 by The Normalite)
Normal’s first business enterprise was the nursery business, which had its beginning about 1850 in the area north and east of the present town. For the first 25 years the town’s main source of income was derived from nurseries, berries, horses and the university students.
The nurseries were numerous and Normal had few rivals in the Midwest. Hundreds of acres surrounding the two mile square incorporated town were set out in trees, small fruits, berries and vegetables, especially asparagus.
It is difficult for us, so used to the tree lined streets and beautiful shaded lawns, to picture the vast open, treeless prairies that the early settlers found. Mainly coming from the wooded areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio, these people missed the trees. Very early they set out fruit and shade trees which grew into vast nurseries as the early towns came into existence and the demand for trees increased.
William McCambridge, son of the first station master in Normal, painted a picture of early Normal in a letter describing the “spring freshlets, which because of lack of drainage, overflowed the little streams and covered the low marshy places. These, however, became beautiful floral transformations in the center of what is now Normal. In the spring and early summer, the bursting forth of cowslips and marsh marigolds among wide ribbons of vivid light green leaves became brilliant in the sunlight. Down the valley and up as far as one could see was the cowslip glory, brighter than the primrose and the buttercup. And then came the morning later on when the swamp mustard blossoms made great splashes of pure white, and the days when the phlox blossomed in pink patches set on the tawny green upland grass and the deeper and ranker green of the lowlands.” There were clumps of low willows along the water courses, but these were the only native trees.
Nelson Buck had the earliest nursery, followed by Jesse Fell and his brothers, Joshua, Thomas, Kersey and Robert. The man best known for his nursery was Franklin Phoenix, who operated a large nursery from 1860 through the remainder of the century.
In 1855 Cyrus W. Overman and W.H. Mann, his brother-in-law, bought adjoining farms and started large nurseries to the north of Normal in the Little Red School area on Linden Street Road. In 1861 the men built the school building on a high foundation, using the basement for a root and grafting cellar where they could work during the winter months. Dr. H. Schneider had a nursery in this area about the same time.
As soon as Jesse Fell’s residence was completed and a small part of Normal platted, he began planting trees, becoming known as the tree planter. When J.A. Sewall, a professor of literature at the university, was discussing the then new poem, “Gates Ajar”, he was asked by a young woman student if he thought there were trees in heaven. He replied, “I don’t know, but if Jesse Fell gets there and finds none, he will hunt around and find some somewhere and plant them.” Trees were Mr. Fell’s greatest contribution to Central Illinois where he planted tens of thousands himself. Others, seeing how greatly the trees improved the appearance of the new towns and added to the value of the land, followed his example.
It was the custom of the itinerate tree agent to come to Normal’s nurseries during the spring and fall planting season, purchase his stock, bill out his orders and prepare then for shipment. Great numbers of these men came and the hotel and boarding houses profited. Extra employment was given to large numbers of men during their four to six week stay.
Spring and fall the nursery grounds and packing houses were teaming with workers, many who lived in the community and others who came just for the nursery season. Theodore A. Funk, one of these workers, wrote of the nursery business in 1872. “There is a great deal of Hoeing to do. Some of the hands are budding young peach trees. We work 10 hours a day commencing at 7 a.m. and quitting at 6 in the afternoon with an hour to rest at noon. All the hands take their dinners with them and eat outdoors picnic style.”
Annual great shipments of nursery stock were sent out from Normal by the nurseries of Phoenix and Co., Augustine and Co., W.A. Watson (Jersey at Linden) and the home Nursery Co. The Phoenix Nursery was the largest, extending from Taylor Street to the creek on the south and east from oak to near Barnes. The nursery also had a large greenhouse at the corner of Phoenix and Oak. In the early 1900’s children each evening visited the greenhouse to pick up from the refuse piles flowers that were not fresh enough to sell, but still pretty enough for bouquets.
Other nurserymen of the day were Capt. Henry Augustine, who founded Augustine & Co. in 1886, with packing houses south of the G.M. & O. between Linden and the Central. Their main nursery is now a part of the ISU golf course.
Nurserymen of the 1880’s were George J. Foster, H.K. Vickroy and B.J. Vandervoort. The Custer brothers, Frank and Charles, established a nursery in 1890. Frank Johnson, who died this past month, started a nursery about this same time.
Closely connected with the nurseries was the berry business. In 1886, according to “The Advocate”, there were about 60 persons engaged in the business with about 500 acres of berries, consisting of strawberries, blackberries and rasberries. In 1885 statistics showed that Normal berry growers picked about 10,000 cases of 240,000 quarts of strawberries, 4,000 cases of rasberries and 5,000 cases of blackberries.
Probably no town of its size did a more extensive business in growing and shipping berries, small fruits and vegetables than Normal during the ‘80’s. In the summer season of an evening one could see the depot platform loaded to capacity with consignments of express going out on the night trains for distribution early the next morning in Chicago and Milwaukee especially. Berry pickers were numerous and were paid by the quart.
The leading berry and small fruit growers were H.K. Vickroy, J.R. Gaston, William Bright, C.W. Eyestone, W.A. Watson, R.M. Brown, Samuel Smith, H. Peairs, Henry Zimmerman, F.A. Walker, John R. Dodge, R.B. Chaplin, James Evans, John H. Norris, William P. McMurray, Simon Bomgardner, Lincoln H. Schaeffer, John Cunningham, Charles Dawes, W.H. Adams, Samuel Van Pelt, John Pfeiffer, S.B. Denning, Bert M. Kuhn, Samuel A. Kuhn and Henry Augustine.
“The Advocate” of Dec. 24, 1887, told of a new venture. “W. M. Bright is extensively engaged in the culture and sale of Brazilian Flour Corn, small fruit and raising Norman Horses. The Brazilian Flour Corn is a new discovery and those in a position to know say that it will make as good flour as the best of wheat. It yields from 80 to 100 bushels of corn to the acre and three times as much fodder as common field corn. The stalks stand from the ground like sorghum, each grain making from four to six stalks”.
The nursery and berry business continued to flourish into the 1900’s but not on so large a scale as the Phoenix Nursery had been in the 1880’s. Most recent prominence for Normal came with the spread of the Dutch elm disease in the early 1950’s. The late Archie Augustine about 1938 had noticed the unusual growth of an elm on North Street and had made cuttings from the tree. The resultant trees seemed immune to the elm disease.
In 1946 the Augustine Ascending Elm Research Association was formed. A bronze plaque was placed on the original tree in a dedication service August 24, 1953 at the university. The Association presented 60 trees to Normal with the request that they be planted in the curb areas the length of Franklin Avenue.
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