The Herbert A. Cook family farm featured 17,000 carnation plants housed in eight large greenhouses on Floral Street. They shipped between 5,000 and 10,000 cut carnations to Boston weekly and a total of 300,000 yearly. Herbert experimented extensively with crossbreeding and created several new varieties including Nivea, a succulent white carnation and his prized Dorothy Mandell, a delicate rose-pink carnation.
In October 1878, Herbert A. Cook and his wife Eunice purchased a 65-acre farm on the corner of South Street and Floral Street. They moved from their farm in Marlborough, with their two-year-old son Maurice, to this beautiful stretch of land that eventually became known to everyone in Shrewsbury as Cook’s Plain. Today, the property is adorned by Floral Street Elementary School.
Herbert wasn’t raised with a formal education, but he was able to read. He subscribed to a range of agricultural journals, learning everything he could about farming and in the spring of 1879, he started working the land. He created a traditional New England farm that included a wide assortment of vegetables, abundant orchards ripe with apples, peaches and pears and a fine selection of berry crops including blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. His gardens featured products that could be grown in Massachusetts and marketed to local communities.
Herbert’s son Maurice attended the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst, MA to further his education in agriculture and market gardening. He and his classmates often took trips to hike local fields and ranges in the Pioneer Valley area to collect plant specimens.
Unfortunately, Maurice became ill at the start of his senior year and had to return home. After a brief trip to Pasadena, CA for his health, Maurice returned to Shrewsbury. In 1906 he married Carrie Harrington and built additional greenhouses. He stayed with the family farm until his death in 1931.
Herbert Cook was a progressive farmer. Early on he had built a few small greenhouses where he planted seedlings in the late winter and early spring so that he’d have mature plants to grow at the proper time. He started experimenting with growing plants in the late summer and the early fall providing him with vegetables to market after fall temperatures dropped and frost killed most vegetation. With little to no competition, the demand for fresh produce was much higher, and he was able to charge more money for his product. With the success of this endeavor, he invested in building materials and eventually constructed over 30,000 square feet of greenhouses.
Growing and maintaining greenhouses during the off-season required an innovative mindset. Herbert couldn’t simply plant seedlings and keep them warm and well-watered. During the cold weather months, he didn’t have the birds and bees he needed for pollination, and being inside he lacked wind, which was needed to pollinate vegetables like tomatoes. To overcome the challenges, Herbert gathered family members old and young and equipped each with a fine-tipped brush. Like agricultural artists, each person would dab their brush in the flower of a cucumber or squash, gather pollen and distribute it to other flowers in the greenhouse.
200-foot Greenhouse with 2,040 Hot House Tomato plants
Tomatoes were another challenge. Herbert needed wind to generate a cloud of pollen that would settle on the fruit. (Botanists know tomatoes as fruits, nutritionists like to call them vegetables.) He devised a method of tying tomato plants together with strings and other devices so that he could shake 50 plants at a time, creating a cloud of pollen to envelop the fruit.
The greenhouses needed to be kept warm during the colder months. Herbert used giant coal-fired boilers. Coal was delivered almost daily by horse-drawn coal wagons out of Worcester. But once delivered, the coal had to be distributed throughout the farm.
Fortunately, Shrewsbury was an agricultural community and there were many local farmers who needed work during the winter months, and who knew what was needed to maintain a greenhouse. Some of the farmers were paid, but many accepted bench-space in the greenhouse to grow their own seedlings. To conserve heat, Herbert constructed tunnels between greenhouses to avoid opening doors.
For transporting his produce, Herbert’s farm was perfectly situated. On the opposite side of Floral Street was the Boston and Worcester Street Railway. It was a five-minute wagon ride to a freight station located on the site of the current Shrewsbury Sewer and Water Department. The produce would travel to Boston where purveyors bought and sold it to grocers, restaurants and hotels. Produce was also shipped to the Worcester Market where portions of the delivery were transferred to refrigerated cars and sent to New York City and as far west as Chicago.
Over time as agricultural markets changed, it no longer became profitable to grow winter vegetables. The farm continued producing summer vegetables but converted the vegetable crop in the greenhouses to flower beds – specifically carnations. Carnations were a staple of the floral industry and florists needed to get their product quickly to avoid spoilage. Also, in New England, carnations needed to be grown in a greenhouse during the off-season. They installed wire grids to help the stems grown perfectly straight. With the enormous demand, the farm eventually became the largest producer of carnations in the Northeast. The Cook family continued to grow carnations at the Floral Street location until the 1960s.
Herbert A. Cook
Herbert Cook was Vice President and Judge of Fruit for the Worcester County Horticultural Society and was awarded a gold medal by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture for his pioneering efforts in greenhouse development.
He earned the Blake Medal and the Hadwen Medal for his success with cultivating grapes and was a member of the National Grange for over 50 years. He was the oldest member of the Worcester County Farm Bureau and also a member of the New England Carnation Association. He served on the Shrewsbury selectboard for seven years and the school committee for three years.