By James F. Duffy
Temple University Ambler
“The students in the first two graduating classes were, in the true sense of the word, pioneers. We were venturing into a completely new field for women and had no way of knowing what opportunities the future might hold for us.” — Louise Carter Bush-Brown in 1964, recollecting her own time at the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women
The seeds that would one day become Temple University Ambler were sown in the most unlikely setting back in 1905.
Jane Bowne Haines, a graduate from Bryn Mawr College, had taken a tour of Europe, visiting several colleges of gardening in England and Germany. When she returned to the states, she was determined to create a similar institution here.
It was in 1910 that Haines, then 41, who had inherited a love of horticulture from her Quaker family, came across the 71-acre McAlonan farm in Ambler during a horse and buggy ride. With financial support from friends, in particular fellow graduates from Bryn Mawr, she purchased the property and founded the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women in 1911 — the only school of its type at the time in the United States.
“Believing thoroughly in the principle of horticultural training for women, and that the time for founding such an institution is now come, a number of people have associated themselves together with the purpose of opening, in the near future, a school for the practical training of women in gardening and kindred subjects. The purpose of the school is to offer educated and earnest minded women who have a love for the country life and an aptitude for country pursuits, practical training in horticulture,” Haines said in a speech to her friends and backers in 1910. “The first students in the school will have much of the fun, for to them will be given an insight into the foundation of things; the laying out and planting of the gardens and grounds, and the creating of custom and precedent so dear to all schools and colleges. One principle above all others we will keep before us and would particularly enforce — the trained hand with the trained mind, which means mastery and success.”
Classes began on February 11, 1911, with Mary D. Collins serving as principal and Miss E.D. Varley as the only instructor. Of the five students who first enrolled, three completed the two-year program.
Haines had a “hands-on, learning-by-doing” philosophy clearly evidenced by the instruction the earliest students received at the time. Orchard care, farm tool use, lawn and shrubbery care, care of livestock, botany, chemistry, vegetable and kitchen gardening, bee keeping, poultry raising, carpentry, and agricultural bookkeeping all fell under the blanket term of “horticultural instruction.”
Classes were held from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week, 10 months out of the year. And the students had a hand in everything, including some finishing carpentry work in the first greenhouses in 1912. The three women who stuck it out waited until 1915 for official commencement ceremonies to be held.
A recollection by Louise Carter Bush-Brown on the day Miss Edna Gunnell arrived at the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women:
“When we returned in the autumn for our second year (1915) we learned that Miss Edna Gunnell, an English woman, had been appointed Head of the Floriculture Department.
Miss Gunnell arrived a week after the term had started and I recall so clearly the day she came. I happened to be near the office at the time and was asked to take her over to her room in the new Academic Building.
That evening after she had retired we were intrigued to see a pair of shoes outside her door, where-upon we hastily called a student conference. What should we do? Should we just leave them there or should we polish them? At last someone suggested that we polish one of them and leave the other unpolished in order to get her used to it gradually. This, we decided, was a good solution.
The shoes were never put out again.
Miss Gunnell had the distinction at that time of being the only woman graduate of the famous training school at Kew Gardens, near London, and I shall always feel that it was one of my greatest privileges to have had that wonderful year under her direction.
The breadth of her horticulture knowledge, her marvelous techniques, and her determination to keep standards high made her an inspiring teacher. She was satisfied with nothing short of perfection and to this day I am proud of the way I can rake a piece of ground for a flower garden or in preparation for the sowing of grass seed.”
Louise Carter Bush-Brown, who would direct the course of the school from 1924 to 1952, was part of the second graduating class in 1915. In a recollection for the 50th anniversary of the Horticulture School for the Pen and Trowel, the Department of Horticulture alumni newsletter, Bush-Brown evoked images of the day she arrived on campus — an experience decidedly different from the mad dash to purchase books and arrive for classes on time that students go through today.
“I can recall so clearly that September day in 1914 when I arrived at Ambler and was driven in a little rattle-trap taxi to the School of Horticulture. I was intrigued with the tollgate at which we stopped and waited for the man to come out of his little house to collect the toll,” she said. “After the driver had handed him the nickel he raised the
bar for us to proceed and we turned down the dusty road which led to the School.”
Bush-Brown recalled there were only 14 students at the Horticulture School in 1914, four in the second-year class and 10 in the entering class.
“The only buildings on the School property were the original farm house, the picturesque group of farm buildings, a house for the farmer on the slope beyond the barn, a small poultry house, the little springhouse, one small greenhouse and the little cottage beyond the vineyard which served as a dormitory for eight students,” she said. “And there was a windmill which pumped our water.”
The old remodeled farmhouse, built in 1760 and known today as Haines House, was far from adequate for actual instruction. The instructor stood in the doorway while teaching due to lack of space in the single room. The school uniforms at the time were not the height of functionality either when it came to working in the gardens.
“Our School of Horticulture uniform at that time was a very full khaki skirt which reached to within six inches of the ground and a jacket to match,” Bush-Brown said. “In the spring of 1915, the entire student body totaling 17 took part in a World War I patriotic parade and marched gallantly down Broad Street in Philadelphia dressed in this garb.”
In the fall of 1914, ground was broken for a new building across from the old farmhouse. What is today the Administration Building was
then a classroom and dormitory.
“There was a large classroom on the first floor and a cozy sitting room with a fireplace. Prior to this there had been no place where the students could gather or entertain friends,” Bush-Brown recalled. “On the second and third floors there was a room for a faculty member and accommodations for 11 students. The building was completed in April and those of us who had lived in a house half a mile down the road joyfully moved into our attractive new rooms.”
In the summer of 1915 Miss Elizabeth Leighton Lee became the Director of the School of Horticulture serving in that capacity until 1924. Jane Bowne Haines became President of the school’s Board of Directors — she passed away in 1937.
“Miss Lee was among the first women to practice landscape architecture and was well known in her field,” Bush-Brown said. “She had great dignity and personal charm and was deeply loved by many of the students who had the privilege of knowing her.”
According to a student exhibit on the School of Horticulture created in 1994, enrollment increased during World War I as special training courses were offered in food production to meet the war effort. Public opinion concerning women in the field of horticulture was changing and skepticism gave way to admiration for the energy and skill that the “Farmerettes,” displayed in their work. Philadelphia’s social elite began to think of it as a “proper finishing school” for their daughters.
“The students in the first two graduating classes, 1915 and 1916, were, in the true sense of the word, pioneers. We were venturing into a completely new field for women and had no way of knowing what opportunities the future might hold for us,” Bush-Brown said in her 50th Anniversary remembrances. “But we had enthusiasm for our work and faith and zeal. And we realized that we were blazing a new trail — that if we were successful in the positions which we held it would create new opportunities for the students of the future.”
It was under the direction of Louise Carter Bush-Brown that the Pennsylvania Horticulture School for Women truly thrived. Along with boosting enrollment, she established degree-bearing programs with the Cambridge School of Landscape and Landscape Architecture and Smith College Graduate School. She also broadened the cultural diversity of the school by attracting students from Japan, Australia, and West Germany.
In 1926, James Bush-Brown, Louise Bush-Brown’s husband and a member of the school’s faculty during the 20s through the 50s, designed the nationally acclaimed Formal Gardens, with advice from landscape architect Beatrix Farrand and the Olmsted Brothers. Students continued to plant and care for the grounds and extensive perennial beds, which remain a centerpiece of the campus today.
According to an advertisement in the 1928 Wise Acre, the yearbook of the School of Horticulture, course offerings at that time included: Floriculture, Landscape Design, Botany, Poultry, Bees, Vegetable Growing, Fruit Growing, and the Care of Farm Animals. About 30 to 40 students were then enrolled in the two-year program.
In 1929, a new campus dormitory was built with a capacity for 50 students on the site where Dixon Hall is today.
“It was a wonderful year when, in the spring of 1929, we, as students at our beloved School of Horticulture, moved into the beautiful new Dormitory which we had watched being built,” Class of 1930 alumnus Lois Woodward Paul wrote in 1964.
The auspicious day, however, was, “not without humor,” she said.
“The roads were seas of mud from the spring rains. Jackson, the farm horse, was hitched to a cart, which was filled and refilled with all our various possessions,” she said. “Miss Barber was doing her best to keep her new house clean — but how could she win when fifty students were making limitless trips from the old buildings to the new through the mud!”
The size of the new building, Paul wrote, did present some difficulties.
“Compared to our former quarters which were close, to put it mildly, we found our friends scattered at opposite ends of this spacious building,” she said. “Betty Ackroyd quickly solved this problem by buying a scooter with rubber tires. I don’t know how those who followed us met this problem.”
New greenhouses were built in the 1930s that sparked some envy among alumni.
“In 1938 after the new potting shed and the two new greenhouses on the west end had been built, one of the graduates of the previous June returned for a visit and as she was leaving she exclaimed impulsively ‘Oh! Mrs. Bush-Brown, I feel that I came two years too soon!’,” Bush-Brown recalled. “‘How do you think I feel, Alice?’ I replied. ‘I feel I came 24 years too soon.’”
Bush-Brown and her husband co-authored America’s Garden Book in 1939, which became the number one selling general garden book in the country. During her tenure as school director, they also published The Farmer’s Digest, a publication through which to share the research and knowledge of the faculty and students with the general public.
Lillian Krelove, a Hatboro resident and graduate of the class of 1941, handled subscriptions for The Farmer’s Digest during her second year as a student. Tuition was $495 a semester at the time.
“I knew all of the states alphabetically,” she said with a smile.
Krelove has a recollection about almost every member of the class of 1941 and a good part of 1942. She clearly recalls a student who used to steam up the bathroom by taking baths that were just too long, and her graduation ceremony in the Formal Gardens, and other students taking care of livestock in the barn.
While several of the students who attended the Pennsylvania Horticulture School for Women came from wealthy families, Krelove was a “working student.”
“We would get up at about 7 a.m. — there was a bell, and if you didn’t want to get up it was your tough luck. Everyone had to run to the bathroom in the morning because there were only two bathrooms,” she said. “I’d get dressed and have breakfast. We’d have to get up a little earlier because we worked in the kitchen that first year and boy were we well fed!”
Krelove said after breakfast during both years, “we’d take Botany in the greenhouse.” Classes also included Floriculture, “our most important subject.”
Krelove said she had a roommate, Rhoda Specht, now Rhoda Tarantino, who worked with “Dr. Ruth Patrick,” a botany instructor, “who got a whole group together and cleaned up the Schuylkill River.” Dr. Patrick, now 94, is world-renowned and considered a pioneer in the field of limnology. She holds the Francis Boyer Chair of Limnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
“When they started there was no fish at all, but she cleaned it right up,” Krelove said.
Essentially students were either Horticulture or Landscape Design majors, Krelove said. There was also a farm management major that worked with the animals at the school.
Krelove said if students at the time wanted to visit Ambler Borough, “we’d just walk down there.”
“There were about five or six of us that would go,” she said. “We were hail and hearty kids.”
As it did during World War I, enrollment again increased during World War II as women came to classes to learn how to preserve fruits and vegetables from their “victory gardens.” Spirits on campus were high during the post-war era as May Day festivities, first celebrated in 1930, became elaborate pageants of courtly ceremony and dress. Alumni have said that campus had an almost “Camelot” air to it.
During the 1940s, the nearby Blakiston property was purchased, adding 116 acres to the Horticulture School property. According to the 1994 student project on the school, a new wing was added to the barn, now the gym, to house blue ribbon Jersey cows. Interest in equestrian sports was also at an all-time high and stables were built. Students often boarded their own horses at the school.
“There were maybe 40 people total on the entire 187 acres. Back then we didn’t know it was that big — we used to ride horses and never knew the land we were riding on belonged to the school,” Krelove said. “There was a little house in which the field gardener worked and there were still crops then. Where Cottage Hall and Bright Hall are now, there was just grass and dirt.”
The Hilda Justice Memorial Library was opened in 1951 to house a collection of 16th Century herbal volumes that Louise Carter Bush-Brown had donated to the school. She retired as director a year later.
During her tenure as director, students went on to successful careers in varied fields at institutions such as Longwood Gardens, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Morris Arboretum, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, Colonial Williamsburg, the New York Botanical Garden, and the National Arboretum.
During the year and a half search for a new director after Bush-Brown’s departure, enrollment dropped and the school finances fell into the red.
Jo Davis Malessa, a Class of 1955 alum who majored in both Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Design, with a minor in Agriculture for good measure, said there were about 25 students in her graduating class. Her time at the Horticulture school came during the transition between Bush-Brown and Jonathan French, though, she said, both Mr. and Mrs. Bush-Brown were still very active on campus when she came to the school in 1953.
“I had Mr. Bush-Brown for Landscape Architecture and Landscape Architecture Design. When I came to school I think Mrs. Bush-Brown was still the director,” she said. “She was a very tough act to follow. We were not terribly friendly to Mr. French.”
When Jonathan French became director in 1953, it was of a troubled institution. By 1957, enrollment would fall to just 28 students.
Malessa said her courses and life on campus did not reflect the turmoil that might be taking place behind the scenes. Though she did remember a “dressing down” several of the students received from Mr. French.
“I don’t remember what our transgression was. I think it was around exam time and we were letting off steam,” she said with a laugh. “One of us asked him when things got uptight what he expected us to do. His answer was to pick up a good book and read it — it was not a good answer at the time.”
Malessa said she carried a full slate of classes while at the Horticulture School, course that included Liberal Arts programs such as English Literature and Public Speaking.
“You didn’t know exactly what you were going to do when you got out into the world. You were expected to be able to go out in the workplace and present yourself,” she said. “You were expected to be able to write. You could end up going out and becoming a horticulture columnist. You were prepared in every facet — it wasn’t just about digging in the dirt.”
Like Krelove, Malessa also took on student jobs, such as cleaning out the horse stables early in the morning and working in the greenhouses in the afternoon. She also worked as a gardener for an estate off campus.
“I remember you were never allowed to wear your field shoes into the dining room. You were always expected to wear a skirt or a dress for dinner,” she said. “It was an all-girls school and it could have become easy to get very lackadaisical about the social graces, but they never allowed that to happen. Sure we wore jeans and had our shirts untucked, but never in the dining room.”
The Horticulture School was going through changes in Malessa’s time, though on the surface it might not have been as noticeable. She went on to become a horticultural therapist at Friends Hospital.
“It was a very new field at the time. We were part of the pioneer process,” she said. “I loved my time (at the horticulture school). I learned a lot and developed fast friends.”
In 1952, the school had received provisional accreditation as a junior college and was admitted to the American Association of Junior Colleges. In 1957, the Pennsylvania States Council on Education gave the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women permission to change its name to Ambler Junior College and to grant the Associate in Science degree. Under the junior college, programs were made available to men for the first time.
But strides in the curriculum offered did not help the school’s bottom line. Without support from a larger institution, the Pennsylvania Horticulture School for Women would have likely shut its doors forever.
It was in 1958 that Temple University first entered the picture and established a relationship with the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women that would evolve into the Temple University Ambler of today.
Krelove said she felt Temple’s involvement in the school provided a level of support it had never had before.
“The place was so unique. I came back almost every year,” she said. “I always came back for the Harvest Home celebration. We’d bring plants for the plant sale. Sometimes in the spring, Hans Zutter would auction off other plants.”
Krelove has also managed to keep in touch with many of her fellow graduates over the years. There is a clear recollection of a snowy night during her time as a student that readily, and appropriately, comes to mind.
“I remember one thing. It had been snowing all night long and we were out walking,” Krelove said. “Somebody had pulled a tow truck into the driveway and it had gotten stuck. By morning, the snow was up over the roof. It was from somewhere called, I believe, Rosemary Garage, but all you could see was ‘Rosemary.’ ‘Rosemary,’ I said, ‘that’s for remembrance.’”
Temple University Ambler's exhibit, "Progressive Women in Horticulture: A Driving Force in Philadelphia - 1904 through 1924," a comprehensive salute to a group of women that changed history, won Best of Show in the Academic Educational Category at the 2005 Philadelphia Flower Show with a perfect score of 100 from the judges.
Learn more about the award-winning exhibit here.