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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

The Browns: Elora’s outstanding horticulturalists

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


Over the years, Elora has boasted more than its share of outstanding gardeners and horticulturists, both amateur and professional.

The members of the Brown family rightfully belong at the head of the list. For more than a century, the words Brown and horticulture were synonymous.

John Brown came to Elora in 1854, at the age of 23. Like many arrivals in the Elora area, he was originally from Aberdeen, Scotland. For almost a decade, he worked as a common labourer for various employers in the village.

I have not been able to discover where he learned horticultural practice. Although he did not operate a nursery, local officials recognized his knowledge and ability with plants, and hired him as caretaker of the Elora cemetery when it was created in 1863.

The Elora cemetery is still an attractive location, but when it was laid out in 1863, it incorporated the latest thinking in the design of public areas.

There were no public parks in 1863, and cemeteries were situated beside churches or in small plain plots of land in the country. The Elora cemetery, with its curving roadways, undulating terrain, and horticultural plantings, sought to integrate man-made order and nature. It served as a park as well as a cemetery.

As caretaker, John Brown was responsible for the initial plantings in the cemetery, which included trees, shrubs and flower beds. Many of his trees can still be seen there.

The caretaker’s position was a full-time one. Brown had the leading role in the layout of the cemetery, but it is likely that architect John Taylor had a hand in the work, and probably Charles Clarke as well. Clarke was reeve at the time, an enthusiastic gardener himself, and well-read on the latest ideas in design of public spaces.

By 1870, John Brown’s labours had made the Elora cemetery a showplace, and one of the attractions for visitors to see. On warm days in the summer, families would go there for picnics. John Brown had spent much time seeking a wide variety of plants and trees, and he grew much of the plant material himself.

In 1871, Brown took over the nursery operation of Alex Shields between John and Irvine streets. Shields had concentrated on fruit trees, but Brown was more interested in flowers, particularly annuals, some of which he used at the cemetery. He also sold bedding plants, and there is evidence that he sold cut flowers as well. He never advertised cut flowers, but listed himself as a florist on the 1881 census.

John Brown built two greenhouses during the 1870s. He grew and sold begonias, cactuses, potted roses and other species. Brown engaged in a friendly rivalry with nurseryman Alex Haig, and grew a large number of fuchsias, Haig’s specialty, in order to offer him some competition at flower shows.

However, Brown’s greatest interest was in geraniums, of which he had more than 25 varieties. He cross-bred some of these himself.

There is no record of the size or design of Brown’s greenhouses, but when one of them burned down in 1882 the loss was $350, at a time when a modest house could be bought for less than $1,000. He survived the loss (which included hundreds of his prize geraniums) and continued as caretaker of the cemetery until 1899, when he resigned due to ill health. He died in 1908 at the age of 77.

John Brown was married twice, and fathered two sons and five daughters. His elder son, John D., did not have a great interest in horticulture, and trained as a cabinet maker in the Mundell factory.

John D.’s son, Edison, did inherit his grandfather’s passion for flowers. Edison Brown operated a confectionery store and ice cream parlour on Geddes Street, with a florist business on the side.

He sold cut flower arrangements, bulbs and bedding plants as a sideline. He was the first vendor in Elora on the flowers-by-wire system. Over time, he became obsessed with gladiolas, and grew hundreds of them behind his store. His flower beds extended to Princess Street, behind his Geddes Street store.

Elora oldtimers are fond of relating anecdotes about Edison Brown. He never revealed his weight, but he was a huge man, so rotund that he could do the physical work of gardening only with difficulty. Many boys in the village earned extra money cultivating his prize flowers.

John Brown’s younger son, William, carried on his father’s passion for gardening and horticulture. Eventually his achievements earned international recognition.

His work is all the more remarkable because it was done almost entirely as a hobby. For 54 years, he worked at the Mundell furniture factory, first as a cabinet maker, then as a foreman. He did not devote his full attention to horticulture until he retired in 1949, at the age of 70.

William Brown did not develop a strong interest in flowers until his mid-30s, though, of course, he had worked alongside his father as a boy, learning the techniques of cultivation and breeding for new varieties.

His specific interests changed over the years, but he never cultivated geraniums. He had spent hundreds of hours of his youth attending to his father’s geraniums, and did not care to see any more of them. William Brown hated geraniums.

In the 1920s, he became interested in gladiolas. He developed new varieties and colours, and showed them competitively in many shows. According to one estimate, he had more than 10,000 corms at one point, which had to be planted each spring and dug up and stored each fall.

William Brown was a key figure in the founding of the Canadian Gladiola Society, and locally he inspired many other gardeners to grow gladiolas. In the 1930s, he developed an interest in peonies. His work with these flowers brought him renown, and he was elected a director of the American Peony Society in 1946. By this time he had earned the nickname “Peony” Brown.

He developed new strains of peonies, selling them to customers all over the continent. Several of his named varieties continue to be grown by peony fanciers.

Brown’s plots, containing thousands of peonies, covered about four acres, on a total of 19 lots on rented land. He used part of the CPR property, at the corner of Colborne and John streets (now Station Square), plus much of the two blocks to the east, as far as Wellesley Street.

In the early 1950s, these fields rivaled the Elora gorge as a tourist attraction, and bus loads of visitors would come to view them.

William Brown culminated his horticultural career in 1953, when he was elected the president of the Ontario Horticultural Association. During April of that year, he was honoured with a banquet at the Armoury Hall (now the LCBO building) attended by more than 300 people.

In later years he developed his speaking skills, and he became a popular lecturer across the province on horticultural subjects. All his life, he encouraged local gardeners, serving as president of the Elora Horticultural Society several times, and as its secretary-treasurer for 35 years.

William Brown scaled down his horticultural activities in the late 1950s. He died on Jan. 6, 1964. His achievements as a nurseryman and horticulturist will be difficult for anyone to equal.

Note: The Fergus Horticultural Society preserves a number of William Brown’s hybrid peonies. They can be seen at Terry Fox Park and will be in their floral glory in the next week or two.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on May 18, 1993.


Vol 50 Issue 22


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