Early Horticultural Pursuits in Scott County, Iowa

On Tuesday evening, April 26, 1859, in the Davenport law offices of Howard Darlington, Esq., a constitution was adopted by a gathering of Scott County residents interested in forming a Horticultural Society. [1] The second article of the constitution announced the Society’s purpose: “….to promote and foster the cultivation of fruits, flowers and vegetables in our own county and a taste for ornamental and landscape gardening…” and to “…introduce and test new and choice varieties…and afterwards publicly report thereon.” [2]

The first official meeting of the Horticultural Society was held the first week of June, and as quickly as Saturday, June 18th, the first exhibition took place in Metropolitan Hall. Said the editors of the Daily Iowa State Democrat on Sunday the 19th, “[t]he quantity of the specimens far exceeded our expectations, while the quality was of a higher standard than we had any idea could be found in Scott County.” They also noted the presence of many women, who “among the sweet flowers looked more beautiful.” [3] Indeed, the number of ladies exhibiting flower and fruit specimens was close to that of the gentlemen.

Among those active in Society’s early days are names already familiar to us from our Davenport family history research. George L. Nickolls, son of the Kentucky man who had formerly enslaved Albert Nuckols, had “about thirty-seven acres of land under a high state of cultivation” on Harrison Street north of Locust, and a one-hundred-foot-long hot-house by which he could “give his plants an early start, and could also keep them from freezing in winter.” Nickolls, the Vice-President of the Society in 1859, had high hopes for producing grapes, boasting that “bunches of some of his varieties will weigh eight pounds.” [4] At that first exhibition, he presented a “box of Iowa prolific strawberries,” and at the second semi-annual exhibition, held in September, he was awarded the premium for the “Best Lot Vegetables.” One wonders if Albert Nuckols was an uncredited support for Nickolls’ success — it is unclear if and how they associated with one another after arriving in Davenport a few years earlier. However, Mrs. Warrick’s (wife of barber J.H. Warrick) award for “Best Cabbage” suggests that people of color were welcome to participate. [5]

Map of the City of Davenport and its Suburbs, Scott County, Iowa (Hogane and Lambach, 1857)

Evidence of the Killion family’s activity is always readily found in the local newspapers, and in the same September 1859 Horticultural Society Exhibition, John H. Killion exhibited two varieties each of tomatoes, potatoes, and corn, as well as squash, sweet potatoes, and crab apples. “Mrs. K. had some very choice butter,” winning the premium.

Livy S. Viele was the Recording Secretary of the Society at its inception. His seed and farm implement business was essential to the growing number of horticultural enthusiasts:

Davenport City Directory for 1858

Homer S. Finley was also an early participant in the Horticultural Society exhibitions He was in the nursery business with land to the northwest of the city and next to Ebenezer Cook’s in the west end, on the road to Buffalo along the Mississippi River.

Map of the City of Davenport and its Suburbs, 1857
Map of the City of Davenport and its Suburbs, 1857

According to Wilkie, “Mr. Finley commenced this buisness in 1839, and after Herculean efforts has succeeded in establish one of the finest and largest nurseries in the West.” [6]

Exhibitions were produced in June and September of each year for the life of the Scott County Horticultural Society, which appears to have been active through about 1890. Regular meetings were held at the Davenport Academy of Sciences.

(posted by Katie)

[1] Davenport Daily Gazette, April 28, 1859; [2] The Willard Barrows History, as republished in Downer, History of Davenport and Scott County, 1910, p. 216-217; [3] Daily Iowa State Democrat, June 19, 1859; [4] Daily Iowa State Democrat, May 26, 1859; [5] Daily Iowa State Democrat, September 22, 1859; [6], Franc B. Wilkie, Davenport Past and Present (Davenport: Luse and Lane, 1858), p. 267.

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