A history of Rosedale

This article on Ramsey’s Nursery is from the program for the 1998 Rosedale Ramble Garden Tour. It was researched and written by Karen Sikes Collins and appears here with her permission.

RAMSEY’S NURSERY – As reconstructed from newspaper and magazine articles and as related by descendants Vincent Murray, Annabel Murray Thomas, Charlotte Carl-Mitchell and by former employees Ed Brown and Forrest Preece – From 1902 to 1906, Frank Ramsey purchased several large tracts in Rosedale from Lamar to Shoal Creek Blvd, and from 40th to 45th streets. On the part between Lamar and Medical Parkway he planted fruit and nut trees. In the other areas, he planted flowers, vines, trees and shrubs. A caretaker’s cottage was built about where Ramsey pool now sits. These acres were only a few of the over 400 acres he usually had planted in nursery stock.

A picture of A.M. Ramsey

A.M. Ramsey, Founder of Ramsey’s nursery (click image for larger version)

Ramsey’s Nursery was a pioneer business begun in 1858 at Mahomet (near Bertram) by Alexander Murray Ramsey, Frank’s father, when he shipped peach seeds from Mississippi to his brother-in-law and asked him to plant them. When A. M. and Ellen and the family arrived in 1860, the orchard was ready to bear. Four of those trees became the stock for his first nursery. A. M. sold trees all over central Texas. According to the essay on Frank Taylor Ramsey in the 1914 encyclopedia, Texas and Texans, the sheep business and general farming had been A. M.’s principal occupation for some years. But “hard winters, absence from home while engaged in scout service against the Comanche Indians, and the natural consequences of [the Civil] war left him in a poor condition financially. .. [But the] temperate, industrious, honest man who loves his business, succeeds. [His was] one of the pioneer undertakings in the growing of orchard fruits in Western Texas.” He was also a civic leader, serving as county commissioner and president of the county school board. By 1875, when Frank joined him, they had a stock of 5,000 trees to sell. A.M. would handwrite a list of varieties of fruit trees and Frank, at age 16, began traveling around central Texas on a pony to take orders.

A picture of F.T. Ramsey

F.T. Ramsey, second generation of Ramsey’s Nursery (click image for larger version)

Frank married in 1884 to Annabelle Sinclair, daughter of two Scottish-born immigrants from Canada. As their children approached school age, Annabelle wanted the children to attend Austin schools. But Frank’s business demanded lots of land and he needed to be outside the city limits, to avoid city taxes. In 1894, they bought a lot on Avenue B in Hyde Park right on 45th street (the city limits) and located their nursery business on the other side of 45th street. (Their home still stands at 45th and Ave B.) A. M. died in 1895 about the time of the move and in 1908 Frank’s son John Murray joined his father in the nursery business. By 1904,  they were growing and selling a million peach, plum, and apricot trees a year, but as farms decreased and cities grew, ornamentals also  became a high volume business. Ramsey specialized in native plants. Some that he lifted from the wild and made desirable were the coral-blossomed Hesperaloe (red yucca), cenisa, bush morning -glory, lantana, pavonia, native persimmon, Texas palm, and the “algerita.” An article in Farm and Ranch, June 8, 1929, stated “To Frank Ramsey perhaps more than to any other one man must go the credit for the introduction of the greatest number of native plants to cultivation.” Many early Rosedale residents worked for Ramsey’s Nursery, recalled Ed Brown, who was born in the nursery caretaker’s  cottage which stood about where the pool is now in Ramsey Park. When Ramsey purchased this land from C.A. Peterson just after the turn of the century, he built a cottage in the middle for a caretaker. General Jackson “Jack” Brown, Ed’s father, became caretake in about 1908. He and his wife, Mary Smith, and their children lived in the caretaker’s house until about 1914 when they purchased the rock house at 4101 Medical Parkway. Jack and Mary had 13 children, 9 boys and 4 girls. All nine boys worked for Ramsey’s Nursery at one time or another. Joe Brown  was the champion peach, plum, and apricot budder. He budded 8,000 trees in one day to set a record. Joe later started Brown’s Flower Shop in Hyde Park. Brother Ed Brown worked only as a youth (8 to 12 years old) and his jobs were scratching and tying. He would run ahead of the shaded budder’s cart and scratch the dirt away from the seedling so the budder cut cut and wedge a shoot into the seedling just above the root. Then the tyer would wrap the graft with twine, cover it with beeswax, and the old, original top would be cut off. Ed got 5 cents an hour whereas Joe got 50 cents an hour. Ed later owned and operated the  Skyland Flower Shop on North  Loop. Brother Tom was the best pecan budder – he had more grats live than any other budder. Tom worked for Ramsey’s Nursery much of his life. Brother Allen also worked for Ramsey’s for many years. Brothers Pete, Pat, Jerone, and Mike worked for Ramsey’s only as youths. Brother Lawrence worked for Ramsey’s enough years to be able to start his own business in Pleasanton. The Brown brothers mother was Mary Smith. Her family lived on the west side of Shoal Creek between 34th and 38th. Mary’s two brother, Jim and Lawrence, worked for Ramsey’s for many years. The Preece family,  long-time residents of Rosedale, also worked off and on for Ramsey’s Nursery. When carpentry work was slow, Jim Preece and his three sons, Rudolph, Forrest, and Wade, became diggers. In the wintertime when trees could safely be dug up  and shipped, the Preeces would get up before daylight, wrap hot bricks in a quilt to keep their feet warm, and drive the spring wagon south across the Congress Avenue bridge to the Paggi Field and dig pecan trees. The would dig a 3 foot deep hole with post hole diggers beside the small tree and then cut the tap root with a special tool Jim had made from the drive shaft of a Model T Ford and a 4″ chisel (a slip) curved slightly. The tree was then pulled out and laid in a shallow trench and covered with fresh dirt to keep it from drying out. Later a Ramsey Nursery flat wagon would load the trees and take them to the barn for shipping. The four Preeces got 12 1/2 cents per tree. One week they made $100 which meant they dug 800 trees in a seven-day period. The Preeces dug trees for about five years in the 1920s for Ramsey until someone undercut the price and agreed to dig trees for 7 cents a tree. The Preeces also dug legustrum trees in the Rosedale areat but those need a root ball. They had to trench completely around the tree and roll the rootbal out onto burlap which was then tied around it. Later Jim occasionally worked for Ramsey in the packing and shipping shed for 15 cents an hour. The packers often worked late into the night. The whole family, mama and girls, too, picked berries in season earning 5 cents per box. The head foreman in this early period of Ramsey Nursery was a tough Dutchman named Charlie Burkhart whose sons also worked for Ramsey. Another long-time employee of Ramsey’s was crippled Jim Parr who served as night watchman. Harvey Thorp was a caretake, Carl Doerntge worked as a nurseryman, and a Mr. Mitchell was a wagon driver. Ramsey’s Nursery sold plants.  But when plants were not dug up and sold, some bore flowers or fruit and, being good businessmen, the Ramseys tried not to wast the produce. Frank T. (nicknamed “Fruit Tree”) was one of the four partners of Hyde Park Floral Company. In one of his catalogs, F.T. wrote “I encouraged the organization of this company that it might handle my surplus flowers.” They made funeral designs and wedding bouquets and sold pot plants as well as cut flowers. Frank was a progresive nurseryman who invented an orchar plow and picture it in his early catalogs. He noted that he had not patented it and, in fact, gave detail instructions on how to make one. His employees budded trees using a one-man shaded wagon pushed backward by foot. His larger trees were dug by a double-barreled U-shaped implement pulled by eight mules which left the root mass intact. His love of plants was combined with good comon business sense and he was proud of his record as a businessman. When grandson, Murray P., began selling trees in the same territory traveled by his father and grandfather, Frank remarked that four generations had sold trees in the same section and none had been shot yet. The magazine Southern Florist and Nurseryman, January 20, 1933, noted “This firm about 1910 issued the first pamphlet in the Southwest concerning modern landscape architecture, and Mr. Ramsey was one of the first to devote special attention to this work ..” Frank Ramsey was associated with the pioneers of Texas horticulture and served as president of the Texas State Horticultural Society and the Texas Nurserymen’s Association. He was a pioneer in Texas landscape architecture and the use of native plants. Frank was more than a businessman or nurseryman. He was a poet and occasionally his catalogs would include one of his poems. He wrote a poem for Elisabet Ney that moved her to tears. He was also a fiddle player and music-lover as well as a good story-teller. He was civic-minded and served on many boards including the school board and state hospital board and was a volunteer fireman. He was a member of Woodmen of the World and of the original Austin chamber of commerce. He also had several patents, including one for a land/water vehicle and another for a perpetual motion machine.

The F.T. Ramsey family

The F.T. Ramsey family. Left to right, back row Jessie Flora, Winifred Belle, and Euphemia Ellen; front row John Murray, Annabelle Sinclair, and Frank Taylor.

The nature of the nursery business also put him in the land business. Fruit trees were so demanding of soil that only one crop was grown on a tract and then it was sold or put to another use. In 1913, Frank subdivided a piece of land in Rosedale on which he had grown fruit trees and called it Lee’s Hill. According to his advertising brochure, “when the Civil War broke out, Gen. Lee was stationed at Fort Mason, 140 miles northwest of Austin. Col. Fontaine heard him say there was one place he would like to build a winter home, and that was on the divide extending north from Austin.” The brochure went on to say, “with broad cement sidewalks and curbs, we doubt if there is a more desirable investment in Texas.” He also grew fruit trees and then sold land where the Blind School now stands and in the area of Rosedale now known as Alta Vista. In a letter written in May 1915, F. T. suggested calling “Governor Ferguson’s attention to the fact that there are a few hundred excellent farm and garden hands among the inmates of the Lunatic Asylum, who really need exercise. They could grow a great abundance of vegetables. berries, etc. for the Blind.” In 1932, Frank died and his son, John Murray Ramsey, took over the business. It was about this time that Murray’s three sisters, Jessie Flora, Euphemia (Euphie) Ellen, and Winifred Belle (Winnie), inherited the part of our neighborhood south of 45th Street which became the Rosedale A through F Subdivisions.

John Murray Ramsey

John Murray Ramsey, third generation of Ramsey Nursery (click image for larger version)

Murray, the third generation of Ramseys in the nursery business, attended UT between 1904 and 1908. He studied law and, although he didn’t graduate, he passed the bar, but never worked as an attorney. He joined the family business in 1908, the same year he married Mercy Briggs Perkins. John Murray worked with his father until Frank T.’s death by which time his son, Murray P., had come into the firm. He brought the business through the Depression and the shortages of World War II. One of his daughters remembers him as working very hard to keep the business going. Like his father and grandfather, he was not only a hard worker, but active in the community. He was a member of the city planning commission and received a citation from President Roosevelt for his service on the state draft appeal board. He served on numerous grand juries and was for many years precinct chair for his area. He was an elder in the Central Christian church and sang; his daughters talked about how he was always one of the three wise men for the Christmas pageant walking in singing We Three Kings. He was involved with several fraternal organizations including Austin Masonic Lodge No. 12, Scottish Rite, Ben Hur Shrine, and was past patron of the Austin chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. He was president of the Rotary Club and the State Nurserymen’s association, and a member of the executive council of the Texas chapter of the American Association of Nurserymen. He had one son, Murray Perkins Ramsey, and three daughters, Mercy Annabella, Jessie Mary and Helen Georgia. He died in 1944 at the age of 59.

Murray Ramsey

Murray P. Ramsey, fourth generation of Ramsey Nursery (click for larger version)

Murray P., the fourth generation, received a B.A. degree with honors in business administration from the University of Texas in 1933 and immediately became part of the nursery business. At his father’s death in 1944, he and his mother became co-owners. Murray was also a partner in the  Ramsey and Adams Irrigation Equipment Company organized in 1948. Murray P. operated the nursery until 1965 when he restricted his business to landscape contracting. Murray P. died in 1975 thus ending a four-generation, 115-year old Texas nursery business.

Ramsey family 1922

Ramsey family about 1922

Rosedale  has many living reminders of this famous nursery. The jujubee trees at 1707 W. 44th Street, the walnuts at 4416-4506 Rosedale, and ash trees in Ramsey Park were leftovers from Ramsey stock which were never dug and sold. The elm trees at 4208 Sinclair, the magnoli, Spanish oaks , and sycamore at 4504 Greenbriar, the crepe myrtle at 4703 Sinclair, and the Confederate jasmine, abelia, and pink sweethear rose at 4309 Ramsey all were purchased from Ramsey Nursery. But missing now from our neighborhood are the chinaberry, fig, peach, plum and almond treew which early residents remember. And not  a trace remains of the white mulberry trees with grew just north of 45th running east-west, the pink roses along 44th Street, the berry vines between Rosedale and Medical Parkway south of 45th, or the famous Rosedale arbor vitae (a feathery, peagree, compact evergreen) for which the subdivision and neighborhood were named.

Rosedale Arbor Vitae

Rosedale Arbor Vitae, after which Rosedale was named (click for larger version)

Rosedale Arbor Vitae is the Texas product supposed to be a cross between a Golden Arbor Vitae and a Japanese  Cedar, in natural untrimmed shape, the plant for which Rosedale neighborhood was named.