For the horticulturally challenged, a rose bush can be the source of some pain and agony. A temperamental beauty, it is given to wilting spells and yellowing mood swings. When it is in good spirits, it is likely to be preyed upon by undesirable elements of the insect and animal world.
Such quirky behavior apparently did not faze gardeners in 19th century Madison. Then, a handful of rose enthusiasts, largely estate owners in the area, decided that a few beds dedicated to these flowers would not do. The greenhouses they built for large-scale cultivation started an industry that survived for over a century, hitting its peak in 1950.
Alfred M. Treadwell was the first of these estate owners, in 1856, to put up some greenhouses on his property off of Woodland Road. Over the next few decades, other estate owners followed suit. They included Judge Francis S. Lathrop who owned the property now known as Giralda Farms and Thomas J. Slaughter whose estate “Dellwood” was also located off of Woodland Road.
Lathrop was the first one to begin commercially marketing his roses and his success prompted others to do the same. Roses from Madison started finding their way to markets in New York aided by a reliable train service that began in 1938. Since they were wealthy men with other sources of income, the early rose entrepreneurs were termed “amateur growers”.
But by 1896, according to some estimates, there were approximately 45 rose growers in town. An excerpt from an article published in the Winter 1995 issue of New Jersey Country Roads Magazine provides a sense for how fast the industry was expanding at the time: “Greenhouse glass in Madison alone [in 1896] covered 505,740 square feet. Four short years later, in 1900, the number of growers was nearly doubled.”.
Long, rectangular greenhouse “ranges” were soon a familiar sight in many parts of town.
Apart from the trains that would carry boxes of roses to the city, there were other factors that led to the growth of the industry. Madison’s soil and climate were well suited to rose cultivation and the early growers brought in skilled gardeners and horticulturists from Europe, often from Great Britain, who lent their expertise to the business.
Among this group of trained horticulturists were people such as Charles Totty who arrived in Madison from England in the mid-1890’s to work on the sprawling Twombly estate, currently the site of Fairleigh Dickinson University. In 1903, according to Frank J. Esposito in his book titled “The Madison Heritage Trail”, Totty started his own range on Ridgedale Avenue near Florham Park.
He was an innovator who liked to experiment with creating hybrids and a division of his business was dedicated to creating new winning varieties of roses and other flowers. “Totty had a reputation for doing a lot of grafting”, said Cathie Coultas, the President of the Madison Historical Society.
Coultas’ own grandfather, Joseph Ruzicka, was also a prominent rose grower who owned two large greenhouses in town. Located close to one another on Shunpike Road, Ruzicka operated them with help from his two sons-in-law. The one was the Ruzicka Rose Corporation that Coultas’ father managed while the other one located down the road in Chatham Township was run by Coultas’ uncle, Robert Nichols.
Of her memories of a childhood spent in a rose growing culture, there are a few that stand out for Coultas. She recalls going into the huge, walk-in refrigerators used to store roses to “cool off” and helping with the floral decorations for events that the family business catered to such as, during one year, a big “Debutante’s Ball” in town.
Other greenhouse descendants have similar nostalgic memories. Karen Pellow, whose grandfather, Jerry Troianello and his cousin, Alfonso were greenhouse owners, said she mostly remembers “the smell of roses in the cutting room” as well as “peacocks, fig trees, and lemon trees” in the area around the greenhouses.
All in all, said Nick Sena, the son of Peter Sena who was the foreman at a range owned by W.W. Vert on Ridgedale Avenue, “it was a hard working and healthy environment” with the whole area buzzing with rose growing activity. Though Nick Sena, now 85, did not work in the greenhouses as an adult, he has childhood memories of helping his father on the Vert range.
Still, a closer look at that period reveals that the industry had a thornier side. Working with roses was back-breaking work. Sena talks of spreading fertilizer such as “tankage” (animal matter) and dried blood by hand. Roses had to be cut on a daily basis and graded before being packed meticulously in special crates bound for the city. Maintenance of the greenhouses included replacing broken panes and whitewashing others to shield the plants from harsh sunlight, tasks that were often physically dangerous.
Roses were also sprayed with materials that posed obvious health hazards. Raw nicotine was often used, Sena said, to keep pests such as red spiders at bay. “We had no masks”, he said. When workers fell ill, he said, “they always blamed [it on] something else”.
Pellow said that her second cousins, the children of Alfonso Troianello, “were all recruited in the greenhouses”. They grew up resenting this, she said, because it deprived them of having a normal childhood.
A few years ago when the Madison Historical Society got some descendants of greenhouse families together to record their memories, this resentment surfaced, said Coultas. Between school and working in the greenhouses, she said, the children “didn’t have much of a life”.
In other ways, however, the rose growing industry was a center of opportunity and innovation. Many of the immigrant Italian families who initially worked in the greenhouses and lived in outhouses eventually became successful owners themselves. And technological innovations such as those introduced by Nichols in Watchung Rose Corporation allowed the players to retain a cutting edge in a highly competitive environment.
Ultimately, however, it was impossible to compete with cheaper imports from places such as South America, Israel and even domestically, from warmer climes such as California.
In a speech to members of a local club in February 1968, Nichols lamented his company’s trailing position in the now global race: “At Watchung, we have boasted of our 150,000 square feet of glass but a recent trip to San Francisco revealed ranges up to 1,500,000 square feet of glass. Quite a let-down!” He concluded with the warning: “Suburbia has been banging on our doors for some time and may eventually break through”.
Break through suburbia most certainly did. And after a century-long domination, the rose industry finally crumbled.
Coultas’ family sold their greenhouses by the end of the 1960’s as did the Troianellos. Much of the area where their and other greenhouse tracts stood are now occupied by housing developments, public parks, and even a major state highway.
A few held out a little longer. Randolph resident Tony Losapio said his father Ralph Losapio worked in the Madison rose industry for close to 50 years, starting at Totty’s and ending his career at Heyl Roses in Chatham Township.
While at Heyl’s, the younger Losapio said, his father put in place a sales model that he had devised earlier at Totty’s when the industry was beginning to show signs of decline. Under this model, he said, they developed relationships with and sold to North Jersey based florists, thus getting a better price for their flowers than they would in New York’s wholesale markets.
The strategy worked but was hard to sustain in the long term. Eventually, in 2001, owner Art Heyl sold his property to land developers who planned to build condominiums on it.
A few remnants of the rose growing era survive such as the ruins of greenhouses belonging to the Stemmler Family in what is now Summerhill Park.
But the industry’s lasting legacy may be the ubiquitous name that is found attached to so many Madison area businesses: Rose City.