By John R. Barrows
Editor’s note: The author is indebted to Timeline contributor and noted historian Randall Gabrielan, author most recently of Lost Monmouth County (The History Press, 2021), for sharing much of his research into John Thompson Lovett, as part of a new book he’s completing on the history of the Rumson-Fair Haven-Little Silver peninsula.
On Tuesday, September 24, 1912, judges at The American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention, an association of inventors, raved about an exhibit of a new hybrid grape. John Thompson Lovett and Dr. Walter Van Fleet, of Lovett’s Monmouth Nurseries in Little Silver, N.J., won a gold medal for their presentation of Caco Grapes, a proprietary Catawba-Concord hybrid, the highest award ever given a new variety of grape. “The judge stated that it was the finest grapes ever introduced at the Institute.”
John Thompson Lovett Sr. was born April 30, 1852, in Penn’s Manor, Bucks County, Penn. He moved to Monmouth County at age 25, and entered the employ of A. Hance & Sons of Rumson, one of the leading nurseries in the state. Lovett worked there for six years before launching his own business in 1879.
According to longtime historian and author Randall Gabrielan, “John T. Lovett appears to have lacked the capital and, perhaps, confidence to succeed when opening his business in 1879, a state inferred by his first land transactions, which were two five-year leases for small plots.”
“Lovett’s insistence on careful packing motivated his erecting a two-story packinghouse,” according to Gabrielan. “He obtained from the Pinelands enormous quantities of sphagnum moss, which was used to prevent drying during shipping.” He was also a pioneer in the use of catalogues to reach customers across the U.S., and built a printing plant to produce beautiful color catalogues, such as those pictured above. Lovett also published Orchard and Garden, a magazine that he eventually sold to another grower.
Lovett’s nursery became nationally known for its small fruit production. At a time when most people considered the strawberry to be a single fruit, Lovett’s developed several new varieties still sold today including the Gandy Strawberry. His breeders invented many types of flora, such as the Cuthbert Raspberry, and the Norway Crimson King Maple Tree. “Lovett claimed to have developed a strawberry-raspberry hybrid and innovated the Loganberry, a hybrid of blackberry and raspberry,” according to Gabrielan. It was for this reason that Lovett gained fame across the country as “the small fruit prince.”
Dr. Walter Van Fleet: “Probably the greatest plant-breeder America has yet known.”
Walter Van Fleet (June 18, 1857 – January 26, 1922) was an American naturalist, physician, horticulturalist, botanist, and ornithologist. Born in New York State, Van Fleet began his career writing articles for ornithology magazines. After graduating college, he maintained a medical practice for about ten years, before abandoning it for horticulture. He focused on the introducing, cultivating, and hybridizing of roses.
In 1894, he came to Little Silver and became managing editor of Orchard and Garden. He purchased six acres adjoining Lovett’s Nursery where he built a home and a greenhouse for plant breeding, a place that became known as “Rural Grounds.” It was Van Fleet who developed the Lovett Sisters climbing rose breeds – the Alida Lovett Rose, the Bess Lovett Rose, and the Mary Lovett Rose – all of which are still commercially cultivated and available for sale today.
In 1924, the editor of the American Rose Annual said this about Walter Van Fleet: “Nowhere else in the world is there going on such a systematic and orderly attempt to obtain a better rose variety for a specific purpose… He is probably the greatest plant-breeder America has yet known.”
In 1909 Van Fleet moved to California to take a senior post within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leading the government’s efforts to develop superior breeds and hybrids. Some of the work he’d done at his Little Silver greenhouse went with him, including varieties of “apple, pear, plum, grape, gooseberry, raspberry, strawberry, chestnut, walnut, azalea, barberry, blazing star, calla, camassia, cape cowslip, columbine, deutzia, freesia, gladiolus, hippeastrum, iris, lily, narcissus, and syringa.”
Monmouth County: A Horticultural Center for Generations
J.T. Lovett’s nursery offices and several large greenhouses were located on Church St., in Little Silver, occupying the lot opposite the cemetery, which today is a condominium development.
Lovett’s Monmouth Nursery was just one of several in Monmouth County during this period. David Baird & Sons, of Millstone Township in nearby Somerset County, were peach specialists, selling 200,000 trees per year across 35 varieties, including one called “Freehold” and another called “Keyport White.” George W. Houghton, who launched Houghton’s Exotic Gardens nursery and greenhouses in Long Branch in 1858, was an early landscape designer of private estates.
The oldest nursery may have been Asher Hance & Son. According to Gabrielan, John Hance, a 1660s immigrant, became an associate Monmouth patentee and progenitor of this famed Monmouth family. The Hances soon acquired a 500-acre river-to-river tract. Asher Hance established his Rumson nursery in 1854, and by 1877 it was the largest business of its kind in the state, with 300 acres of greenhouses and plants. Their reputation was enhanced through public benefactions that included gratis decoration of the New Jersey building at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The Exposition, which showcased American accomplishment in many fields, awarded the Hance Nursery a gold medal. Asher’s son Benjamin trained as a landscape architect.
Eventually finding the nursery business to be “more work than we can attend to,” Hance sold off portions of his business to focus on farming. In 1876, Hance & Son were awarded a medal at the Centennial Exposition for their nursery display. After Hance’s death, the business was run by his wife, Ann, and a man named Albert R. Borden, but the business was in trouble and faced numerous claims in court of one sort or another. Borden was found to be “partially demented and was taken to an asylum for treatment,” and during that time the business was sold to a group of creditors and local businessmen, including J.T. Lovett Sr.
Lovett eventually purchased most of Hance’s Rumson Nursery, marking a significant expansion of his Little Silver business. Over time, Lovett’s Monmouth Nursery also included land in Deal, Fair Haven, Rumson, Middletown, Holmdel, Colts Neck, and Lincroft. By 1885, Lovett employed “over one hundred hands” at the nursery, reflecting a spring business “about one third larger than ever before.”
Lovett’s nursery supplied leading national retail chains such as Sears Roebuck, Newberry, Macy’s, and Kress. He was Little Silver’s largest employer and owned about half of all the land in town. He served as Little Silver’s postmaster and built the post office at 56 Church Street. With mail order business being a major revenue stream for the nursery, Lovett’s term as postmaster was not merely for public service.
And apparently Lovett’s business properties became known as a treat for visitors to the area.
A letter from “Prof. Samuel Lockwood” was quoted in the Red Bank Daily Register about the colorful visual splendors seen along the roads to Sea Bright through Rumson, concluding with, “In a word these many small plantations make up the one well-managed establishment known as Lovett’s Nursery.”
Lovett died in 1922, survived by his wife Julia and their six children. Irving became a physician. Lester took over the nursery business. John Jr. ran a cut flower concern, and was awarded a patent for inventing a special method for packing and preserving plants being shipped by mail. Daughter Mary was “engaged in the missionary fields in India” and her siblings Alida and Elizabeth Lovett were “attachees of the staff at Yale College.”
A Mobster’s Garden Paradise Becomes a Monmouth County Park
In 1935, mob boss Vito Genovese bought a mansion in Middletown as a weekend retreat, and set about dramatically expanding and enhancing it. Lovett’s Nursery handled the landscaping and planted the gardens according to the plans of Theodore Stout. The gardens were landscaped like an Italian villa, with weeping hemlocks and terraced pools, and Roman statuary and lava stone from Mount Vesuvius was imported for a working replica volcano (Click here to read the full story of Vito and Anna Genovese in Monmouth County).
On February 23, 1937, while Vito was in Italy and his family in New York City, the mansion burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Vito eventually sold the property, which changed hands several times before being donated to Monmouth County. Today, the well-manicured gardens planted by Lovett’s are lovingly tended to at what is known today as Deep Cut Park, a gem in the Monmouth County Parks System. Vito’s volcano can still be seen along with most of the original landscaping intact. Over the decades, however, all of the original flora planted by Lovett’s has had to be replaced simply owing to the fact that plants trees do not live forever.
The Later Years
After World War II, land for housing became increasingly valuable, and the Lovett family engaged in many real estate transactions, buying and selling tracts all around Monmouth County.
In 1963, the headquarters for Lovett’s Nursery were moved to Colts Neck, but the company ultimately was liquidated in 1969.
“After Lester’s death in 1960, several factors led to the eventual sell-off and dissolution of the firm,” said Gabrielan. “They include rising land values – with resultant tax impact – and environmental regulations, which the conservation-minded family believed were of questionable aptness. Another factor was the desire of the family to garner the value of the business.”
Today, the former Lovett house still stands at 80 Church Street in Little Silver, although it has been repurposed for business. Lovett Avenue runs between Willow Drive and Markham Place in Little Silver, and Lovett Road runs through the middle of the former North American Phalanx property, south of the Swimming River.
In 1979, the Borough of Rumson purchased a 23.4-acre site on the south side of Ridge Road that was formerly a part of Lovett’s Nursery, and converted it into what is today Meadow Ridge Park. Many of the flora from Lovett’s Nursery still inhabit the park today.
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Deep Cut Gardens Walking Tour. Monmouth County Park System brochure. Available: https://historic-sites-inventory-mcps.opendata.arcgis.com/app/37bd6358ad204d6d8748d958b41c1b8f
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J.T. Lovett Dies of Heart Attack. (1922). The Daily Record, Long Branch, N.J., September 25, 1922, P. 1.
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