Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Growing Princeton Nurseries

Growing Princeton Nurseries
Written by NJ Historian

New Jersey has its fair share of firsts, notable achievements, and all-time records. One of the lesser-known records that New Jersey has held is being home to the largest commercial nursery in the United States. Located not far from the bustling present-day Route 1 corridor in South Brunswick is the small village of Kingston and the site of Princeton Nurseries, now the Mapleton Preserve.

Greenhouses at the former Princeton Nurseries.
The Flemer family owned F&F Nursery in Springfield, New Jersey. Established in 1882, the family looked to expand their property but could not find a suitable space in Union County, which William Flemer, Sr. felt was developing too rapidly. After a thorough two year search of sites in the eastern United States which brought him as far south as Maryland and west into Pennsylvania, William Flemer, Sr. chose Kingston, New Jersey in 1911. Located south of Carnegie Lake and along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, the lands surrounding the area were rich in nutrients and free of large rocks and stones. There was a nearby branch of the Pennsylvania railroad and the location, approximately halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, would made it ideal for business opportunities and a healthy market.

In 1913, Flemer purchased the sixty-five Myrick farm for $9,000. The following year, the adjoining sixty-five acre Higgins farm was purchased, followed by the eighty-five acre Van Dyke and the seventy acre Archibald Gulick farms. The consolidated property grew to 265 acres of flat, viable land for a total price of $46,500. Flemer sent his eighteen year old son, William Flemer, Jr. to oversee and run the property in 1913. William's task was to begin constructing buildings and plan for the nursery's layout and development. At that time, all of the work was done manually, without the aid of machinery and began in earnest at 7 o'clock each morning for ten hours each day.

A Princeton Nurseries vehicle.
During World War I, William Flemer, Jr. served with the Princeton Ambulance Corps. in France. Upon his return, Flemer began increasing the nursery's property. When possible, Flemer bought both the land and the houses, in order to provide housing for his employees. Most of the homes were painted a pale yellow with white trim, in an effort to unify the nursery buildings. A headquarters building featuring a hipped roof, sweeping eaves, and a porte-cochere was constructed on the property in 1917. It was designed to evoke the feel of a Bavarian hunting lodge. Its exterior was altered and “modernized” in the 1960s. A blacksmith shop, which would fabricate and repair equipment, was built, in addition to a number of warehouses for storing plants, a shipping office, a propagation house, and numerous greenhouses. An irrigation system was installed and a water system that not only provided water for the nursery and its structures, but also the village of Kingston. William Flemer, Sr. died in 1925 and left the business to his son.

After World War I, a housing boom and increase in public road and park projects led to an increased demand for landscaping plants. In an effort to keep up with demand and sales, Princeton Nurseries purchased additional farms in the area. By 1931, advertisements for the Nursery claimed they had "the largest, most extensive varieties and highest quality."

Between the Great Depression and World War II when demand for ornamental plants declined, the nursery survived by growing farm crops, fruits and vegetables, raising cattle, and using German prisoners of war during World War II for labor. William Flemer, Jr. and his son William Flemer III developed many of the labor-saving machinery used at Princeton Nurseries and patented many of the improved shade trees that were developed on-site.

A view of some of the first buildings at Princeton Nurseries.
Photo credit: Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands
The legendary Princeton Elm, which is resistant to Dutch elm disease which killed millions of American elms in the 1930s, was developed by William Flemer, Sr. and planted by William Flemer, Jr in 1920. When it was developed, Dutch elm disease had yet to reach the United States. The elms were planted along Washington Road in Princeton circa 1925 (more than half still stand today). Due to the success of the tree, the nursery grew as many as 40,000 elms per year. The Euclid Linden and the Sinclair Ginkgo were selected and introduced by William Flemer, Jr. William Flemer III specialized in breeding, selecting, and introducing new shade and ornamental trees. Many, such as the Shademaster Locust, October Glory red maple, the Greenspire Linden, and the Green Mountain sugar maple are standards by which other clones have come to be judged. In total, the Flemers developed almost sixty different varieties of shade trees.

The Flemer family developed innovative horticultural practices and technologies still in use today. At its peak, Princeton Nurseries grew to 1,200 acres comprised of land in South Brunswick, Plainsboro, West Windsor, and Franklin townships, employing approximately 150 men and women. It was the largest commercial nursery in the United States. Over half of the employees were laborers from Puerto Rico. The Flemers found that these men had a strong agricultural background and worked hard. John W. Flemer, William Flemer III's brother, became known for his treatment of seasonal workers, offering generous benefits, comparable to those offered by labor unions at the time. The workers were housed in a dormitory building and among the other old farmhouses on the property. A swimming pool was constructed for employees to use and many returned year after year.

One of the farmhouses used to house employees of Princeton Nurseries.
As development increased in the Kingston area, Princeton Nurseries started purchasing land in Allentown, New Jersey in 1962. William Flemer, Jr. died in 1985 at the age of 90, leaving the business to his son William Flemer III. The Kingston operations were gradually phased out and the company moved its entire operation to Allentown in 1995. William Flemer III passed away in 2007 at the age of 85 and after more than ninety years in business, the company closed for good in the spring of 2010. Through the efforts of William Flemer IV and other members of the Flemer family, the Allentown nursery site has been preserved as open space.

In 2005, the State of New Jersey, along with South Brunswick Township, acquired the core Princeton Nurseries property, totaling over two-hundred forty acres. The preserved property has been renamed Mapleton Preserve. The township is obligated to turn the property into a historic preservation center devoted to the preservation of the historic agricultural character of the area. Working on conjunction with the Friends of Princeton Nurseries Lands, grants have been sought and acquired to preserve and restore the propagation greenhouses. The restored former Princeton Nurseries main office was transformed into the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park Headquarters. A number of trees and shrubs developed by the Flemer family can still be found growing in the original fields in addition to original tree lines planted by William Flemer, Jr. and internal roads that have now become walking paths. An arboretum has been planted near the main entrance to the Mapleton Preserve, named in honor of the family that toiled the land and landscape of Kingston for over three-quarters of a century.

The former fields at Princeton Nurseries, now a nature trail.
Additional photos of my trip to Princeton Nurseries on Pinterest

Audio
Princeton Nurseries Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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