Article: Notes From The Past

NOTES FROM THE PAST; THE SWAIN NELSON NURSERY

By Roger H. Stevens

(As published in The Landscape Contractor, January 1994)

Like some ancient Tree, the Swain Nelson Nursery stands tall in the memories of those who still remember the almost legendary firm that once dominated the Chicago area landscape. Much of the work done by the firm remains today, and its influence lives on through many of the firms started by those who once worked for Swain Nelson Nursery.

Old Nursery

Born in the 1800s with the strong hands of Swain Nelson, who immigrated to the United Slates from Sweden, the nursery was the first of the big nurseries in Chicago. Swain was a talented landscape architect and won the competition for the design of Lincoln Park in Chicago.

A lot of the landscaping in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff and some of Winnetka and Wilmette were all done by Swain Nelson. The buildings where their headquarters and their shops were located are now used by the Glenview Park District. And the building that was actually their office is used for community activities such the United Way.

Some or the more memorable work done by the firm includes the Century of Progress Worlds Fair in 1933. Bob Brickman, Kankakee Nursery whose father worked for Swain Nelson during the Fair, says the Swain Nelson Nursery was so big, they were even doing work in England. “They owned a whole part of the town here, and had a boarding house where they imported guys from Sweden Borgen Church,” says Brickman, who attends the same church attended by the Swain Nelson family, the Sweden Borgen Church.

The boarding house is still standing, although it has been remodeled and is now the Mansfore Church. The church bought that piece of property, and part of the boarding house was fixed up as a residence for the Minister.

“Swain Nelson was very instrumental in a whole part of this town,” says Brickman. “In fact, there is a nice subdivision called Swainwood that he developed.”

Brickman says many people who once worked for the Swain Nelson Nursery left to establish firms of their own. These include the Synnestvedt Company, Round Lake, Hendrickson the Care of Trees, Jake Simonson among others. “Grundstrom was a foreman for Swain Nelson” says Brickman, adding with a feigned accent, “he was one of the old Svedes.”

Brickman says Swain Nelson is also legendary today because “they did a whole bunch for old Jens Jensen.” Jensen, a landscape architect, is famous for his natural school of landscape design.

Unfortunately, the firm went bankrupt shortly after World War II. “I’m told that the year they actually went bankrupt, they did over a million dollars in landscaping,” says Brickman. “And, in the 1940s, that was lot of landscaping. They were doing all of the really big things where they would move materials on sleds with teams of horses in cold weather and did big estates. But, I’m told they also did some gardens in England and different places.”

Alvin Nelson, the great grandson of Swain Nelson, says he is too young to remember much about the firm, though he knows Swain Nelson worked on many of the parks in Chicago. Nelson is not sure if Swain Nelson Nursery did any business in England, but he knows they used to ship trees by train east to areas such Ohio and beyond. “They also did the landscaping for the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island,” he says.

Nelson owns a small company called Audubon Workshop, a mail order business that sells products for wild birds: bird houses, feeders, baths, books, records, and catalogs. They have been in business 30 years and have customers throughout the country.

Nelson remembers stories about the work done on many of the parks around Chicago. “They would dig a tree in the nursery one day and put it on a buggy. The next day they would take the horse and buggy from Glenview down to Chicago. The third day they would plant the tree,” says Nelson. “It was all done by hand, not these big machines that just come in and lift it up and put it on the truck.”

Swain Nelson Nursery Building

According to Nelson, just before World War, they started a housing development on part of the land and called it Swainwood. “It was somewhat unusual in that they sold lots, and with the price, they got landscaping and maintenance for several years.” He says. “It got really well established and is probably one of the nicest areas in Glenview to this day.”

An unusual part of the history of Swain Nelson Nursery is that the firm began doing a fair amount of machining and optical work for military use in the 1940s. “They were building bomber sights and other things,” says Nelson. This was unusual, but Nelson say it was done partly out of patriotism and also because there was not much work for the nursery at the time.

“When the war ended, those contracts were stopped dead in their tracks, and so they looked around for something that they could use the talents and the machinery they had set up for war work,” says Nelson. Nidar offered to have them make a shotgun sight; it required machining and optics, so it was a natural for Swain Nelson.

“It was an interesting product and sold extremely well,” says Nelson. The problem was they were losing money on everyone they sold, hoping to make it up on volume. I think that right after the war, around 1946, they sold about 50,000 of them. My dad ended up with a whole bunch or these parts-in-progress in his basement, and one of the first things I did when I was growing up was to put them together and sell them to people who had seen them on somebody’s shotgun and wanted one and wrote in or called in to ask about it.”

Nelson believes the nursery never fully recovered from the crash of 1929 when they had a lot of land and many trees and stock on the property. “But you couldn’t sell the tree for what it cost you to dig it,” he says. “It was really hard and since that time, until they went through bankruptcy after WWII, they were pretty much trying to keep things alive. As a youngster working in the nursery, I remember some of the pine trees which bad been let go by that time were 30 and 40 feet tall.”

Nelson believes the nursery developed a dominance in Chicago because or Swain’s landscape design and his contacts in Chicago. “This is particularly true where he was instrumental in fighting for the property along the lakes to be developed as parks.” says Nelson.

Harold Anderson began working for Swain Nelson Nursery in 1929. “When I came they were very sophisticated,” remembers Anderson, now retired after working 34 years for J&B, which owns many of the large shopping centers in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S.

He remembers Swain Nelson Nursery having a department for everything. “In those days the pools and the rock gardens were very fashionable, and they had a department for that. They had a tree department, a nursery department, a landscape department, and an architectural department.”

Anderson also remembers well the turmoil that surrounded the company during the depression. “When they bought the 500 acres east of the railroad which ran along their property in 1922, things began booming,” he says. “They plowed and disked with horses 24 hours a day, hurrying to get the whole thing planted. But when the ‘Crash’ came, we were standing with an awful lot of trees”.

Fortunately, some trees were still selling, he says. “We sold carload after carload of elm trees to the Detroit park district.”

Anderson stayed with Swain Nelson until 1941, working as a landscape foreman. His brother Art was the nursery superintendent. “That was when it came apart. The demand for money came and they had to sell out,” he says.

He remembers Gus Grundstrum offered to finish many of the jobs left uncompleted. “He made an agreement that if he could rent the equipment, he would finish the jobs that they had started. And that put him in business. He was a very, very shrewd businessman and a very likable fellow. He started his own nursery up near Wonder Lake.”

One of the more memorable times he had with the Swain Nelson Nursery was during the World’s Fair in 1933 when he helped landscape several restaurants. “I remember they moved in an old house as an exhibit. They completely remodeled and landscaped it all in three hours. They had a bride and groom having their picture taken walking in.”

Something Anderson wishes he had a photograph of, but remembers clearly, was the moving of two trees. “I believe that we moved probably about the two biggest trees that I’ve ever seen moved in my life,” he says. “All by hand.”

They were 24 inch diameter elms. “If I remember right, we had 22 ft. balls on them,” he says. “And we moved them from Glenview Nursery up to Lake Bluff on a low trailer pulled by a couple of trucks. It was the dead of winter and the roads weren’t all that good. We felt we needed two trucks, one in front of the other, to pull them.”

He remembers many good people who worked with him at the nursery, such as the draftsman who was a captain in the Hungarian Army and a professor of landscape architecture in Budapest, Hungary. “I learned so much from him that is still in my mind. He was a nice guy, but he was tough and taught me an awful lot.”

It was a sorry day when he saw they were going out of business. “To me it would be like all of a sudden our government was gone,” says Anderson. “Maybe I was just at the right age then, but I learned so much that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”

The thing he remembers most is that Swain Nelson Nursery changed his life and that its influence remains with him even today. “They were a class all their own,” says Anderson wistfully. “When their truck pulled up in front of their house, it was always clean and every thing was tip-top. “It was like Marshall Fields stopping at your house.”

He says he can remember being criticized when he first started out as a landscape foreman. “I was called in the office after I had finished a couple of jobs that day. The superintendent had driven by and noticed it looked like it was newly planted. We had forgotten to rake all the footmarks off the grass. After that, I knew when we finished a job, if should look like it had always been there.”

There is no doubt the influence of the Swain Nelson Nursery is far reaching and long lasting. It is a testament to the strong backs and personable nature of Swain Nelson and his descendants that we should still be able to see their work today. There will probably never be a nursery quite like the Swain Nelson, but its legacy can inspire us all.