Grown from the past

Gardens inspire and delight at Genesee Country Village & Museum



Many of us remember fourth-grade school field trips to the Genesee Country Village & Museum, the seemingly faraway (for most) living history museum filled with wonders of the nineteenth century. The museum is heading into its 2018 season, and there has never been a better time to visit. Every day, visitors enjoy hands-on activities, lively conversations with costumed guides, and even museum-inspired beer. As we head into the long-awaited summer season, the museum’s gardens come to life. They are, in their own right, a beautiful and engaging reason to visit GCV&M. It’s in Mumford, only thirty minutes from Rochester, and is heading into full bloom.

The museum’s many gardens blend into the landscape in such a way that they—like the entire historic village—appear as though they have been present since the nineteenth century. It’s hard to believe that, in reality, all of the buildings were moved to the site and all of the landscapes were created to appear as a Western New York settlers’ village would have appeared between 1790 and 1900.

When founded by Genesee Brewing Company President John L. “Jack” Wehle in 1966, the land the museum now occupies was wild hunting and fishing grounds. Wehle and his team worked tirelessly for years to collect historic buildings from around New York State and move them to the new Genesee Country Village, as it was then called. There are now sixty-eight historic structures at the museum’s 600-acre complex. The gardens, too, were created from scratch, to historically and accurately reflect those that would have accompanied the homes and businesses. Today, as the museum gets back to its roots with president and CEO Becky Wehle at the helm (she is Jack Wehle’s granddaughter), the museum has become even more engaging, with a focus on interactive events and experiences, and historical accuracy. The gardens, too, are undergoing revitalization.

Head historical gardener Emily Conable oversees the massive project of managing the museum gardens and, this year, is rethinking a few of them to more accurately reflect the time period the museum represents— from early pioneer farmsteads of the then primitive Genesee Valley circa 1790 to the regal Victorian homes dating from 1860. Conable, who has been with the museum for a period of roughly thirty years, and her team of volunteers and staff curate gardens to reflect the many facets of ninteenthcentury life. All of the gardens are open for visitors’ enjoyment.

“The gardens are part of the whole picture of Rochester and Western New York, and Rochester was a horticultural hub,” says Conable. “People were growing fruits and veggies and making things, so that’s a big part of the story of these people.”

Like many aspects of our daily lives, we can take for granted our blossoming spring surroundings. The tulips colorfully dressing our walkways, the fragrant, beloved Rochester lilacs…these plants we know and love, the ones we easily buy and plant from  garden centers and big box stores, are not all native to Western New York. GCV&M tells a piece of the story of how they got here, the ways in which flowers and plants were a sign of wealth and fashion, and how plants were a daily part of people’s lives and well-being.

When settlers of European descent began populating this area, the native flora was unfamiliar to them. They learned to forage for and then cultivate local plants for daily use like dyeing fabrics, cooking meals, and preparing medicinal cures.

“The people who came into Western New York were sophisticated people, they were doctors and lawyers and tradesmen, and they wanted access to the same materials they had in Europe,” says Conable. “So as fast as they could build the roads and bring things to this area, so did they study the local plants to harvest their benefits.”

These settlers learned from the local Native American Haudenosaunee people, too, including finding local cures for Genesee Fever—a malaria-like disease threatening people of the Genesee Valley—and native foods and herbs.

As modern civilization grew, so did the sophistication of settler’s lives, especially those with financial clout. New plants brought to the Genesee Valley through Erie Canal shipping and travels to Europe and Asia were considered exotic and were planted in very specific ways to show off their fragrance, color, and shape.

At the Livingston-Backus House (c. 1827) from Rochester’s Third Ward, Conable is now working on a project to return the formal gardens to reflect 1850, the year the house interior represents. At this time, many new and exotic plant varieties, including dahlias, would have been available to the wealthy home gardener. Conable is working to include plants that would have been brought back from the Lewis and Clark expedition and by other explorers, and to properly showcase these new plants as they would have been during the time period.

The Hyde House—the well-known c. 1870 octagonal-shaped visitor favorite—showcases another formal garden full of blooming perennials. This garden appears more freeform than that of the Livingston- Backus House, following curving lines and shapes.

The utility of gardens and plants in daily life is demonstrated in the museum kitchens and edible and medicinal gardens. At Jones Farm, the c. 1820 kitchen garden features hardy, edible crops like carrot, radish, and cabbage for use in cooking. It’s part of a museum-wide focus on growing food that’s then prepared in the museum kitchens for demonstrations.

The Shakers, a religious sect founded in eighteenth-century England, were well-known for their seed production and sales as well as for their medicinal uses of plants and herbs. Calendula, or pot marigold, is grown at the museum and can be made into a healing skin salve. The garden also features lavender, feverfew, and sage. 

Conable says more and more she’s meeting visitors interested in incorporating some nineteenth-century style into their home gardens. “I think there is a renewed interest in getting back to the land,” she says. “[The museum gardens] show people other ideas. It’s good to look at others’ gardens, see plants you’ve never seen before, fruits trees you’ve never thought about, and you get ideas. For anyone who goes through the gardens, you see things and you appreciate them differently.”

Knowledge gathered at GCV&M can help even the beginner gardener learn to grow herbs for use in the home kitchen. Or can help with the planting of butterfly gardens—a type of wildflower garden that incorporates milkweed and other blooming native plants to help the declining monarch butterfly and bee populations. These are easy to care for and plant in a suburban setting.

Fruit trees, too, are prolific at the museum and demonstrate yet another use of plants and trees for both decorative and edible uses. The summer and fall fruits of quince, apples, cherries, and grapes can be enjoyed right off the tree or vine,or made into jams and preserves. Conable assures visitors that growing fruit at home does not need to be intimidating and is actually an easy way to bring a piece of the nineteenth-century home garden into our twenty-first-century lives.

For an even more immersive horticultural experience, arrange a group tour of the museum’s gardens or book a daylong “Gardening Experience.” You’ll be connected with a guide, provided with a period-appropriate costume, and spend the day learning all about harvesting, drying. and using a variety of herbs. Visit gcv.org for more information on these and other upcoming events.

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