Dear Mr. Filson: Louisville’s First Florist?

By Jennie Cole

Last week, I received an email inquiry from the Belford Museum in Northumberland requesting information on an Edward Wilson. The museum's contact person explained that in 1877, Wilson presented a clock to the local Presbyterian Church; the clock is currently at the Museum. Wilson was a local philanthropist in Northumberland in the late 1860s and 1870s, but had roots as the son of a farm laborer.

The museum's research indicated that Wilson left England and showed up in Louisville in 1836 and was our first florist! Naturally, I was intrigued and began a search of resources at The Filson to find out more about Wilson. The best sources were archives of the newspapers - the Louisville Courier and the Louisville Journal, along with the Louisville City Directories from the 1830s through the 1860s. I also had good luck using Google Books to search trade publications such as Gardner's Monthly and Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs.

Various resources list Wilson as starting his business in Louisville in 1836; one book, History of the Ohio Falls Cities and Their Counties, published in 1882, lists in the "arrivals" section of 1836, "The noted English florist, Edward Wilson, came to Louisville in 1836, bought the small business of Jacob Berkenmyer, and opened a large florist's establishment on the north side of Jefferson, between Preston and Jackson Streets. His business finally became a great success, and one of the notable industries of Louisville. He sold his stock in 1860, and his greenhouses, residence, and grounds in 1865, the whole for $25,000. It is said that the sash he bought from Berkenmyer, more than fifty years old, and the first under which flowers were grown in the city, is still in use."

I could not find a listing for Edward Wilson or Jacob Berkenmyer in the 1836 Louisville City Directory; the first public notice I found on Wilson was an advertisement in the Louisville Daily Journal from May 30, 1837.

Louisville Daily Journal Classified Advertisement 30 May 1837 Edward Wilson, Florist

Louisville Daily Journal Classified Advertisement 30 May 1837.

Wilson advertises in the papers and is listed in city directories through 1860. In the gardening and horticultural publications, his flowers are listed as prize-winning at agricultural fairs and shows, including the fifth annual Exhibition of the United States Agricultural Society, held outside of Louisville, 31 August - 5 September 1857. Wilson was also a founding member of a Louisville horticultural society in 1841. On August 25, 1860, Wilson placed a notice in the Daily Courier that he intended to sell his commercial gardens. I found little on Wilson after that point, although his wife's death was noted in the Courier-Journal; his own in 1886 was not.

The little information I found on Wilson leaves many questions from the museum - and myself - unanswered. How did Wilson, a poor farm laborer's son, get the money to travel to America and begin as a florist? What drew Wilson to Louisville, and in turn, what made him leave? Was Wilson, or Jacob Berkenmyer, Louisville's first florist? I would be interested to hear any answers or suggestions our readers might leave!

Jennie Cole

Jennie Cole is the Manager of Collection Access at The Filson. She has a MLIS with a specialization in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in History from the University of Louisville. Jennie's research interests in the Filson's collections include women's history, Camp Zachary Taylor, and Speed family of Louisville.

2 comments on “Dear Mr. Filson: Louisville’s First Florist?

  1. Christopher Padgett

    I wonder what associations Edward Wilson may have had with Charles W. “C.W.” Short. He was — during his day — one of the most prominent botanists and he lived in Louisville. When he died, he left provisions for his enormous herbarium collection to be donated to the Smithsonian (although I think it ended up somewhere else). Someone named John Wilson was a witness to Short’s will (perhaps a relation to Edward)? I recently stumbled upon it because Short’s will was in the will book on the same page as one of my ancestors I was researching. Short has a very rare goldenrod species — Solidago shortii — or Short’s Goldenrod — that was found growing around the Falls of the Ohio. It was believed extinct after the building of the Locks until Lucy Braun discovered a small patch of it in the early 20th Century. Perhaps the Filson could partner with the Waterfront Botanical Gardens on some future programming involving Louisville’s botany history. There are probably quite a few forgotten stories of this timeframe that plant and history people may find relevant and interesting today.

    Reply
    1. Jennie Cole

      Thanks for your comment, Christopher! I have been working with the Filson’s Charles W. Short collection this week and did not even think to connect the two. I’ll have to take a look. Our collection consists of his correspondence, rather than his herbarium. Edward Wilson did not have any children, but did have a sister and her family who were with him. I was wondering if a brother might also have been involved in Louisville? This is a good avenue of inquiry!
      Thank you –
      Jennie

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