The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the February 22nd issue of the Exeter News-Letter.
by Barbara Rimkunas
The first commercial greenhouse in Exeter was built by Daniel Hayes on Jady Hill near where Bittersweet Lane is located today. Hayes was a local farmer who also had a milk route in town. Of him, the Exeter News-Letter said, “While still keeping his farm in full and successful operation, he had since 1866 been a leading florist of the town, from time to time adding to his plant until he had in successful operation three large greenhouses, in the aggregate covering a space of 6,000 square feet and excellently equipped and stocked.”
Within just a few years, Hayes’ greenhouses were joined by others in town. The 1874 map shows two greenhouses on Pine Street. The first was operated by Charles Burley, who described himself as a florist in the town directory. His advertisement in 1887 offered, “garden flowers, fine roses, cut flowers, bouquets and decorations – orders by mail or express promptly attended to.”
The other Pine Street greenhouse was owned by Nathaniel Gordon. Gordon was a lawyer by training who had decided to leave the profession in the 1850s and go into business. He invested in California silver-mining and government bonds during the Civil War. As his profits grew, he was able to purchase a large homestead on Pine Street that had formerly belonged to Judge Henry Flagg French. French had maintained the property as a model farm with modern drainage and a steady water supply. Gordon began tinkering with the idea of hothouse flower cultivation and eventually built several large greenhouses.
Both of the Pine Street greenhouses were eventually leased and then purchased by George W. Hilliard in the 1890s. Hilliard was one of Exeter’s most active businessmen. According to Nancy Merrill’s History of Exeter, New Hampshire, “Mr. Hilliard’s business enterprises included billiard and pool rooms in Exeter and a large summer hotel in the White Mountains. His greatest success, however, was as a florist; his rose conservatories were known throughout New England.”
Hilliard moved Burley’s greenhouse from Pine Street to Grove Court. He then expanded the enterprise over the next few years. By 1893, his Grove Street greenhouses were heralded in the Exeter News-Letter, “five houses, each of 100 by 15 feet, of which the first is stocked with violets, carnations and orchids, a particularly rare and handsome variety of the latter now in bloom being the odontoglossum grande. The other houses are successively stocked with perle de jardin and nephetos roses; with mermet and bride roses; with bride and Wootten roses, and with Woottens, lilies of the valley, colei, smilax, chrysanthemums and bavardia.”
But Hilliard’s greatest triumph was his American Beauty roses, cultivated in the former Gordon greenhouses. He partnered with Hilding Karlson, to create the firm of Hilliard and Karlson. Karlson, a native of Sweden, was, according to the News-Letter, “not only exceptionally skilled as a florist, but ambitious to master all sciences that bore upon his profession. For two years he had made private studies with Mr. White, of the Academy faculty, in agricultural chemistry, the two often working till the small hours of the night at the Academy laboratory.” Together Hilliard and Karlson began the cultivation of roses fine enough to enter regional flower competitions. The partnership was cut short when Karlson was killed during a freak storm on the 4th of July at Hampton Beach, but his level of scientific skill marked Hilliard’s later successes.
In early 1899, the American Florist noted that “Exeter had the honor of sending to Boston the finest American Beauty roses in the market for Christmas. They came to Welch Brothers from Hilliard and Karlson and no better blooms have ever been seen here.”
Hilliard renamed the business “Exeter Rose Conservatories.” In 1901, his roses took second prize at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society exhibition with stiff competition from other florists throughout New England, New York and New Jersey. Five years later at the same show he would win the Kasting Cup – top prize for the best 50 blooms – and the Welch Brothers’ Cup for the best vase of roses in the show. He shipped over 5,000 roses to Boston and Maine markets for Easter alone in 1907. By 1910, the Exeter Rose Conservatories was one of the largest in New England. The business flourished into the 1920s.
These pioneers of early greenhouse propagation led the way for later flower and nursery businesses in Exeter. John Lovering established the first greenhouse on Lincoln Street that would later become Dot’s Flower Shop. Forrest Ellison started his business on Brentwood road in 1910 with a converted chicken coop. Today greenhouse and garden establishments show no signs of disappearing from the landscape. During the dry frigid days of winter there is nothing as uplifting as a visit through the lush fragrant climate of a well-maintained greenhouse.