The 'British Connection' - Brenham and Texas' Early Nurserymen

by Bluefford Hancock and Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist

Washington County, TX., is steeped in history and has a rich heritage in the development of Texas culture. Almost everyone is aware of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos, that Sam Houston had a home at Old Independence and that Baylor University had its beginning in Washington County in the 1840's. But few know that Washington County had some of the very first (if not the first) commercial nurseries n the State of Texas. During the last half of the 19th century Brenham and Washington County were a center for exceptional horticulturists and of the nursery trade in Texas.

Thomas Affleck
Early Brenham horticulturist, Thomas Affleck

The first nurseryman to arrive was Thomas Affleck, originally from Scotland, then the proprietor of a vast and profitable nursery just outside Natchez, Miss. He visited in 1855, and moved permanently in 1857, establishing his plantation "Glenblythe" just south of present New Gay Hill. The house was located where Mr. Bill Hager once lived, but the plantation itself covered 3500 acres and included saw and grist mills.

Just how much nursery stock Afflect brought with him from Mississippi is problematical, but he did advertise that he shipped from his "Central Nurseries" via the newly-completed railroad which passed uncomfortably close to his front door. The War Between the States destroyed Affleck's hoped-for prosperity, and he died of pneumonia in 1869. His son Isaac Dunbar Affleck did not continue the "Central Nurseries."

Affleck did, however, leave a rich heritage of agricultural writing on national and international levels. He also landscaped the capitol grounds of both Louisiana and Texas. Examples of his almanacs and other writing were obtained by Louisiana State University during the 1930s and are part of the library archives there.

In July, 1859, yet another former subject of Queen Victoria made his home in Washington County. William Watson and his wife Sarah Warren immigrated from Ireland to settle in Brenham. Watson had established his nursery "Rosedale" by 1860, but he interrupted his horticultural career to serve in the Confederate Army. After the War, he hurried to resume his business. Sarah died of yellow fever during the terrible epidemic of 1869, and Watson later re-married Carrie J. Thomason. In 1870, he purchased sixty acres near Brenham from J.E. Shepard which he paid for with products from his nursery.

During the 1870s the reputation of Rosedale grew, and Watson purchased additional acreage adjoining his original homestead. His foremost introduction was the Rosedale arborvitae, an evergreen shrub, which he sent out in 1874.

In 1876, Watson's ad in the Brenham Daily Banner proclaimed that, "The Gardens, Grounds, and whole Nursery Stock, are free for inspection at all times to the public." As well as ornamental plants, he stocked "A large and choice selection of Apple, Pear, Peach, Nectarine, Apricot, Quince, Almond, Chestnut and other Trees."

Celosia at Firemens Park, Brenham
Celosia at Firemens Park, Brenham

Some of Watson's sons helped him in the business: David H. Watson who developed the "Nona" (named for David's wife) and the "Watson" plums, John and Stanley who owned and managed Rosedale after their father's death and perhaps Archie Watson and W. E. Watson. Other helpers at Rosedale were of a high caliber, among them Wm. A. Yates, John T Herbert, William W. Haupt, D. R. Eldred, William Falconer and William and James B. Baker. William Falconer, who worked at Rosedale from 1874-1876, was trained at the prestigious Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England. He left Brenham to head the herbarium at Harvard University. William Baker was the son of a Methodist preacher who had immigrated from England; William was later joined at Rosedale by his younger brother James B. Baker. The Baker Brothers soon struck out on their own, and moved to Ft. worth in 1884. Baker Bros' earliest success was founded on a sport of the Rosedale Arborvitae developed by Watson in 1874. (The son of James B. Baker continued to run this business for many years).

Because of William Watson's preeminence in his chosen field, he was elected president of the Texas State Horticultural Society in 1889, and hosted its third annual meeting at Rosedale.

In The Initial Report of the Texas State Horticultural Society for 1886-1889, edited by George W. Curtis of Texas A&M College, the Brenham meeting is described in considerable detail. An invitation from the citizens of Brenham and William Watson of Rosedale Plantation to hold the third annual meeting the the society in 1889 was accepted at the second annual meeting held in Denison. five hundred dollars in cash subscriptions was donated by the citizens of Brenham for premiums which were paid to exhibitors the final day of the exhibits.

Appreciation was expressed by the society to the Brenham firemen for the free use of their beautiful grounds and splendid pavilion for meetings and exhibits. Parades and water battles were also presented by the firemen and added greatly to the general interst of the meeting.

The Ladies Art Department was made a special feature of the exhibits - the result being that the immense pavilion was filled with collections and single specimens of oil and watercolor paintings. Jellies, preserves, photographic art and lavish displays of flowers, fruits and vegetables all contributed to the exhibits.

Border in Firemens Park, Brenham
Border at Firemens Park, Brenham

According to the published report, the Brenham meeting was the most attractive and successul in the brief history of the society. The educational sessions of the meeting were described as containing "wonderful amounts of information" and were printed in the report.

President William Watson was described as a modest man highly respected by his contemporaries. Curtis was lavish in his praise of Watson, his elegant home (Rosedale), and the unbounded hospitality displayed by him and his wife. Watson was host to at least 12 house guests during the meeting. The grounds of Rosedale were described as having almost every variety of fruit and ornamental tree known to the horticultural world.

The Brenham meeting conclued with a grand banquet held on June 28, 1889 at Eldridge Hall. An elegant seated dinner for more than 200 persons was graciously served. The evening was terminated with sincere expressions of appreciaton to the citizens of Brenham and william Watson for hosting such a memorable event.

William Watson died of heart failure the morning of August 19, 1897, and is buried beside his first wife and children in Prairie Lea Cemetery. He requested in his will that his wife Carrie keep Rosedale intact and will it in turn to whomever of their children she saw fit. David H. Watson, born in Washington County in 1859, was the eldest and probably the most capable, but he died a year after his father. Thus Stanley Watson assumed the helm,with his brother John acting as his general manager.

William A. Yates, another of Rosedale's graduates, also went into the nursery business. Another Englishman, he had come to Brenham in 1881. He had a larger nursery stock at "High View" adjoining Rosedale, but sold mostly fruit trees, a few ornamental shrubs and varieties of roses. The rose listngs in his catalog of about 1909 include many old garden types, especially the big Tea roses, of which he lists 42, most of which are now lost.

A few of the known teas are The Bride, white (1885), Bridesmaid, clear pink (1893), Bon Silene, deep rose (1839), Catherine Mermet, salmon pink (1869), Devoniensis, white and blush center (1858), Duckess de Brabant, light rose (1857), Etoile de Lyon, golden yellow (1881), Maman Cochet, silvery rose (1893), Marie Van Houtte, pale yellow (1871), Safrano, apricot (1839), and white Maman Cochet (1896).

Yates, in the introduction to this catalog, promised to raise only superior and acclimated stock, and not any "which would likely result in disappointment and loss to the purchaser." He avowed, "I do not send out any stock I would hesitate to plant myself and believe this to be a rule every nurseryman should strive to live up to."

Yates became county (Extension) agent after the first World War, and advised on the landscaping of Washington Park in 1919, when "Halbert", "Success" and "Stewart" pecans were planted along the river. Yates died in 1940, to be buried beside his wife Odelia in Prairie Lea.

His death marked the end of an era - two generations of British immigrants had labored to bring fruits and flowers to the people of Brenham, Washington County and Texas.

Note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Horticulturist in July, 1982. Pamela A. Puryear (dec'd) of Navasota assisted with the preparation of this article.

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