This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Of Horticulture and Antislavery: The Kenricks of Newton
In the early 19th century, Greater Boston stood at the forefront of horticultural enterprise in the United States, as evidenced by the foundation of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1829, and the laying out by that organization of Cambridge’s elaborately planted Mt. Auburn Cemetery in 1831.
But the beginnings of horticulture as a business enterprise (as distinguished from a gentleman’s avocation) goes back much further---to the 1790s and to the highly interesting figure of John Kenrick of Newton.
John Kenrick (1755-1833) launched his career as a purveyor of plants and trees (primarily the latter) in 1790 when he laid out several rows of peach stones on his estate on the southwestern slope of Nonantum Hill in Newton. So successful were his early experiments in pomology, that in 1794 he founded a commercial nursery, offering the buying public as many varieties of fruit-bearing trees and bushes as were then available in the Boston area. In 1797 Kenrick added ornamental trees to his stock, including two acres of Lombardy poplars, then the most salable tree in this part of the country. Kenrick also aggressively imported foreign varieties of fruit bearing trees and bushes, until his Nonantum Hill nursery became the most extensive and varied establishment of its kind in New England region.
The Kenricks had long been a leading Newton family. Their American progenitor, John Kenrick I, settled in the town in 1658, having purchasing 280 “broad and tangled acres” on the banks of the Charles River opposite Needham in the present Oak Hill section. Here the future horticulturalist was born in 1755.
In 1775, John Kenrick acquired the acreage in the eastern part of Newton on which he later established his famous nursery----land that had previously belonged to the prominent Durant family. This estate occupied a site of great historical importance, for it was here, in 1646, that the Reverend John Eliot of Roxbury, the so-called “Apostle to the Indians,” had established the Praying Indian village of Nonantum, the first Christian Indian community in British North America. The estate’s 1732 mansion house---now known as the Durant-Kenrick House---still stands on Newton’s Waverly Avenue.
Horticulturalist John Kenrick proved himself a pioneer of a different kind in 1817 when he published a fifty-nine page booklet entitled the Horrors of Slavery, which lashed out at American society for its hypocrisy in sustaining an institution---slavery---that contravened the principles upon which the American republic had been founded.
The antislavery movement was in its infancy when this angry tract made its appearance. Kenrick was venturing on dangerous ground in embracing abolitionism. The great majority of northerners regarded slavery as a strictly local concern, which no resident of a free state had any business raising. Kenrick was in fact a decade and a half ahead of his time in advocating freedom for the slaves. As one commentator noted: “Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison were [then still] school-boys, and John Brown was a lad tanning hides in Ohio.”
While the Horrors of Slavery contains very little that is original--- consisting of excerpts from the works of earlier writers---the intensity of the author’s antislavery convictions are powerfully evident in his fiery and eloquent introduction.
[It is not] incredible [he queried] that a people, so jealous of their natural rights, could hold in the most absolute and degrading servitude, under a free government, a million of fellow beings, who have by nature, reason and justice, as fair a claim to liberty as themselves? Could it be supposed that a people, thus jealous of their own rights, could treat their brethren of a different colour as property, to be bought and sold like oxen and horses! Yet such is the inconsistency of the white inhabitants of the United States---a people who call themselves Christians!
The compiler firmly believes that his countrymen stand exposed to the righteous rebukes of Providence for this glaring inconsistency and inhumanity; that whether they shall be tried at the bar of reason, the bar of conscience, or the bar of God, they may justly be condemned out of their own mouths; and that all their arguments, and all their fightings for liberty, may be produced as evidence, that, as a people they do unto others as they would not that others should do unto them.
Kenrick’s Nursery continued to flourish despite the stance that he took on the controversial slavery issue. In 1823 the New England Farmer, the leading agricultural paper of the day, described the Kenrick nursery as “the finest in America.” In addition to its fruit and ornamental trees, by the 1820s it included extensive grounds devoted to the cultivation of red currants, from which Kenrick was producing large quantities of wine---some 3600 gallons in 1826 alone. Clearly the temperance crusade, which was just then emerging as a force in American life, had less appeal to the Newton reformer than abolitionism.
By the early 1830s there were two Kenrick nurseries on the Nonantum Hill property, for John’s eldest son, William, had established a separate enterprise on an adjoining parcel. In 1833, however, when his father died, the two nurseries were united under William’s management.
William Kenrick (1789-1872) was an even more influential horticulturalist than his father. A founding member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, William sat on that organization’s governing Council from 1829 to 1841, and was long the leading member of its Standing Committee on Fruit Trees and Fruit. A handsome portrait of William Kenrick graces the foyer of the Library of Boston’s Horticultural Hall, attesting to the important role he played in that organization’s early history.
The variety of fruit bearing trees that William Kenrick offered the public at his Nonantum Hill nursery is truly impressive. By 1832, when he issued his first catalog, he was able to list, in addition to 148 varieties of apples, 155 of pears, ninety-nine of peaches, forty-eight of cherries, and forty-seven of plums. And the number mounted steadily with the passage of time. By 1838, varieties of apple trees had risen to 228, while that of pears rose to an amazing 317.
So important were Kenrick’s contributions to pomology that, in 1835, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society presented him with a special award for his “successful efforts at procuring scions of new fruits from Europe, and for his valuable treatise on fruit trees.”
William Kenrick authored two important horticultural works: The New American Orchadist (1833), which went through seven editions, and The American Silk Grower’s Guide (1835), reflecting his absorbing interest in silk culture and the raising of mulberry trees.
But William Kenrick’s activities were not limited to horticulture any more than his father’s. He also detested slavery. A series of letters that William wrote his friend, U.S. Representative Horace Mann (also a resident of Newton) during the North-South crisis of 1849-50, attest to Kenrick’s deep convictions on the slavery issue. These letters, which now reside in the Horace Mann papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society, show the horticulturalist to have been a firm opponent of sectional compromise. He strongly supported the Wilmot Proviso (which sought the exclusion of slavery from the territories) whatever the consequences might be.
And now I beseech [Kenrick wrote Mann on March 12, 1850], if it be possible, let us have the wholesome and wholesale Wilmot Proviso.... I am persuaded it can and will be done. If not, I would prefer that things take their own way without any compromise, with no legislation at all. If God sees fit to inflict any more slavery on us---be it so---until the measure of the iniquity of slavery is full. God can, as he has oft done, abolish slavery, in his own good time, in more ways than one, and will.
While William Kenrick retired from the horticultural business in 1856, he continued to be interested in horticulture and in national affairs to the end of his long life. His withdrawal from active business did not, however, lead to the demise of the Kenrick Nursery on Nonantum Hill, which continued to be operated by brother John A. Kenrick for some years under the name Nonantum Dale Gardens.