Albany's First Garden Center Part 1

W. Douglas McCombs, Chief Curator
With the month of April rapidly passing, there’s plenty of gardening activities to occupy our time while social distancing at home. Gardens have long been enjoyed as places of respite from the stress and strain of everyday life, and the tasks of gardening—the planting of seeds, trimming of shrubs, and weeding of flowerbeds—are transportive. They carry us into a different psychological space where we become consumed by the sights, sounds, and smells around us.
Such contemplations about gardens remind me of a wonderful printed sheet in the Albany Institute's collection that lists a staggering assortment of seeds, bulbs, garden tools, and books that were for sale at William Thorburn's Seed and Agricultural Depository in Albany.
William (1803–1870) was the son of Grant Thorburn (1773–1863), an immigrant from Scotland who settled in New York City in 1794 and began selling potted plants and seeds by 1805. When William issued his impressive list for his Albany store around the year 1840, he had already been in business for nearly a decade.
According to a public notice printed in the March 26, 1831 issue of the agricultural journal The Genessee Farmer, Grant had plans to open a seed and garden store in Albany in April or May of that same year and one of his sons would operate the business. It turned out that William was the chosen son.
Located at 317 North Market Street (now North Broadway) on the corner of Maiden Lane, Thorburn's store was situated in the heart of Albany's commercial district.
The public notice mentioned that the new business would be "within a few doors of the museum." The museum Grant referenced was the Albany Museum, which occupied space on the upper floors of a uniquely designed building on the northwest corner of State Street and North Market (Broadway). A watercolor in the Institute's collection, shown below, offers a glimpse of the museum as it would have appeared when Thorburn's seed store was just a few doors away (out of sight to the right in this picture). The Albany Museum was not the predecessor of the Albany Institute but was its own distinctive museum that thrived on bravado showmanship much like P. T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City.
When Thorburn opened his seed store in 1831, another agriculturist named Jesse Buel was already selling fruit trees and potted plants just three miles to the west of Albany in the sandy pine barrens along Western Avenue. Buel had purchased more than 80 acres of land on the western edge of town in the early 1820s specifically so he could experiment with new agricultural methods. What started as an innovative family farm eventually turned into a commercial nursery where Buel sold fruit trees and other nursery stock to the general public.
Although Buel may have opened the first commercial nursery in the Albany area, Thorburn's store, which sold seeds, potted plants, bulbs, books, hyacinth vases, pots, garden tools, and other items, was closer to a modern-day garden center in sheer variety of its merchandise.
Business at Thorburn's must have been good as the store remained in operation for more than thirty years. In 1868, Volker Petrus Douw bought the business and relocated it to State Street, next door to Munsell's printing office. A rare photograph taken around 1870 shows Douw's store with plows and other agricultural equipment lined up outside and weathervanes inside the large shop window. As the sign on the building indicates, Douw continued to sell seeds, the primary product sold by his predecessor, William Thorburn.
William Thorburn died on December 28, 1870, while residing with his daughter Eliza (known as Lila) Thorburn Mehring in New Windsor, Maryland. He is buried in the New Windsor Presbyterian Church Cemetery along with his wife Eliza, who died on January 11, 1870.
In Part 2 we'll take a closer look at Thorburn's printed sheet to see what seeds, plants, books, and other garden products he offered for sale.
April 21, 2020