Believe it or not, Rochester, NY was once considered the “West” of the United States. Now that was the1800’s but still surprising when you go too long without reminding yourself of that fact. Maybe more surprising, the people over in the already tamed east called us the “Young Lion of the West”. We had the Genesee River, a railway, fertile soil. It was a perfect landing spot for many settlers, including wheat farmers. They had healthy wheat crops, the river to power the mills, and ways to transport the finished flour back east. The industry peaked in 1870 with 31 mills and a 1 million barrel output. After that it declined until it was gone. The Midwest was settled and the New York farmers couldn’t match the competition.
However, as the flour industry was growing, another much prettier business was taking hold: plant nurseries for vegetables, flowers and trees. It already existed in the area but after 1848, a number of German immigrants arrived and brought with them superior planting skills. By 1880 Rochester was surrounded by flowers. The city’s largest nursery, Ellwanger and Barry, supplied plants for the orchards of California and the Royal Gardens of Tokyo. We can thank that same business for having given Highland Park to the city, once used as a nursery, to be used as a park. This period of time is when Rochester earned its name as the “Flower City”.
The more I learn, the more I see that to have lived here, back when flour turned the flower, would have been amazing. In the same period, dozens of businesses sat on the river, Frederick Douglass was speaking and publishing for the freedom of the slaves, houses here were used as stops on the underground railroad, Susan B. Anthony was making a name for herself, the city was surrounded by flowers, and there were thousands of Germans walking around, not knowing a lick of English. That’s just to name a few things. There’s no wonder that the city was called the Lion of the West. It definitely was.
All historical information credited to:
Federal Writer’s Project Works Progress Administration
State of New York. (1937) Rochester and Monroe
County: A History and Guide. Rochester, NY: Scrantom’s.