The original family business, F&F Nurseries, was located in Springfield, New Jersey. When it was decided to expand, one of the main reasons his grandfather (William Flemer, Jr.) chose the Kingston site was because of the railroad spur line that ran to Monmouth Junction from the quarry. (When Bill's father-William Flemer III-- was young there was passenger service on it, and he used to go to New York City that way.) There was a siding behind the packing shed. In addition to rail access, there was the canal, and good soil. Little by little, Bill's grandfather bought up adjoining farms. He was especially keen on buying properties with houses, and ultimately owned about 45 houses, most painted colonial yellow, a color he liked. Princeton Nurseries also farmed land owned by St. Joseph's and by Princeton University (including the Rockefeller Institute property).
The business was very profitable in the years before the Depression, and struggled back to profitability after World War II. Production of a lot of fruits and vegetables helped the company make it through the war years. William Flemer III and his brother John built up the company to its heyday in the 1970's and 1980's. The former is world-renowned for improved varieties of all the major shade trees, one example being the Princeton Sentry ginkgo, a male with columnar form. His talent was recognizing the winners in vast populations of seedling plants, with an eye for vigorous growth--fast and straight--and late leafing out for a longer digging season. He can also claim credit for the Snow Queen Oak Leaf Hydrangea, although his affinity was for shade and flowering trees.
Much of the business was bare-root production: very efficient, once the initial investment's made, though seasonally labor-intensive. Deciduous trees and shrubs are harvested after losing their leaves, the dirt is shaken from their roots, and they are kept cool (35 to 40 degrees, ideally) and moist till planting time.
The storage buildings were insulated, but not refrigerated. One of William Flemer Jr.'s innovations was the use of mesh baskets--shrub or tree racks--in which harvested plants could be nested, driven through the overhead doors of the building, and then lifted from the truck by overhead cranes. They could also be stored temporarily in the racks until it was time for them to be shipped or graded.
The office building was constructed in 1920 by his great-grandfather, in the style of a Bavarian hunting lodge, with cobblestone walls, diamond-mullioned windows, a big fireplace in a two-story room, and a stag's head mounted on the wall. Bill's grandfather rebuilt the office in the 1960's in the colonial style that he favored.
William Flemer Jr. entertained himself during World War I thinking about what he'd like to do with the Nurseries when he got home. He may have had a vision of Princeton Nurseries as a kind of feudal empire, largely self-sufficient, and with everyone living right there. The small building by the office was a blacksmith shop. A mechanic and a shop were dedicated to the fleet of vehicles. There was a big shingled barn for horses that was supposed to have been saved, but was torn down. (There were still a few horses around when Bill was young; they were good for cultivating, and hauling trees in from the field under wet conditions.) There were two side by side boilers, fired first by coal, and later by oil--with tanks to store a year's worth, bought at low prices. Also near the office building was a well that was the source of water for the whole property. Bill's grandfather built a water tower and organized the Kingston Water Company, which supplied the entire town for many years, at an annual cost to each household of about $8 a year. Eventually (with a sigh of relief) John Flemer sold the public portion to Elizabethtown Water Company.
The taller storage buildings were used for balled and burlapped stock, which was kept on pallets and misted as necessary. In the sixties, container production was added. The original pots were steel-recycled tomato and clam cans--which then gave way to polythelene, lighter and easier to handle. The big challenge was how to load mixed shipments of bare-root, balled, and container stock to arrive in satisfactory condition.
Composted leaves, which were available in abundance, shredded and combined with sand, were mostly what was used as potting soil. Most potting soil is manufactured, now.
The low, Dutch-style greenhouses had vents for heat escape and were used for rooting cuttings in sand. When ready, they were put in pots and placed in the sash houses. The sash houses had removable sash, to be used as open environments in summer.
Seedlings were grown where Mapleton Nurseries is now. It was a miniature nursery, kind of independent from the main operation. The area features wonderful sandy soil, and has been the source of many Indian artifacts.
When Bill was most active in the family business, about 75 year-round foreman and laborers were employed, and eight to ten people in administration. Princeton Nurseries depended on a force of 60 to 80 Puerto Rican contract workers who worked from March to December. They had free transportation and housing, a win-win situation for both parties. Many ultimately decided to stay permanently, and brought their families to live here.
Some of Princeton Nurseries' biggest sellers were evergreens and fruit trees in William Flemer Jr.'s time, and later, the Shademaster Honey Locust (a thornless tree that was a good replacement for elms hit by Dutch elm disease), and the October Glory Red Maple. Bare-root production took off in the 1950's, and was facilitated by Bill's grandfather's invention of a raised caterpillar digging machine that has become a standard in the industry.
The Allentown land-about 2000 acres-was purchased in the early sixties as a satellite nursery to grow bigger stock, much as Princeton Nurseries was initially the satellite to the original Springfield operation.
Bill concluded his talk with some slides illustrating the harvesting and loading of bare-root stock, and invited the audience to peruse photographs from his personal collection-with apologies that most were of plants, and few of people or buildings!