It was a time, not that long ago, when wholesale florist businesses and their flower farms dotted the landscape of western Queens. Their greenhouses and cold frames were a familiar site until some 40 years ago. But, the flower farms go back farther than that, back into the late 19th century when Queens was still a rural place. There was hunting and fishing in the great Juniper Swamp and the roads were mostly unpaved. In 1847 New York State enacted a cemetery law that encouraged the establishment of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens in easy reach of day trippers from Manhattan. With the cemeteries came the need for flowers and people to grow them.
Among the German immigrants that arrived in New York and started a flower business was the family of Michael Thom. He arrived about 1890 with his wife Louise, his daughter Johanna, and five sons August, William, Herman, Paul and Adolph. Also arriving with the Thoms was family friend and immigration collaborator, John Block.
From West Prussia to Maspeth
Michael Thom was born on January 6, 1843 in the town of Strasburg, West Prussia (today’s Brodnica, Poland). Strasburg was situated on the north bank of the Drweca River that, at that time, formed part of the border between Germany and Poland. He was a prosperous farmer and may have raised cattle and operated an inn.
According to the Thom family oral history, Michael became concerned that his sons would be drafted into the German army. By 1870 the newly united German Empire maintained one of the largest standing armies in the world, and conscription was a Prussian practice that proliferated. The Thoms were unusually independent minded. When army recruiters came around Michael hid his draft age sons across the border in Poland. Eventually this ruse failed.
The opportunity to move to America came in the form of one, John Block, a young German army officer. Captain Block fell in love with Michael’s only daughter, a tall beautiful woman with red hair. In exchange for permission to marry Johanna, John Block arranged for the Thom family’s passage to America.
It was significant that Michael was evidently able to dispose of his property in West Prussia. Unlike so many other immigrants who arrived with only the shirt on their back, the patriarch of the Thom family was a man of means. This facilitated his rapid acquisition of land and entry into the flower business.
The Polish Connection
In West Prussia the Thoms lived in close proximity to Poland and probably spoke some Polish as well as their native Platt Duetsch (flat German) dialect. The creation of West Prussia was largely the product of the partition of Poland in the late 18th century by its powerful neighbors, Prussia, Russia and Austria. German settlers displaced much of the Polish population creating and adding to existing ethnic antagonisms. Religious differences also contributed to the tension. The Germans were mainly Lutheran and the Poles Roman Catholic.
The Thom farmstead may have actually been east of Strasburg in another border town called Gurzno across the Wrka River from Zielun, Poland. The Thoms were reportedly very friendly with the Kalish family who lived across the border. Michael’s oldest son August, fell in love with, and later married, Anna Kalish who became very active in Maspeth’s Polish community. Once again, in Maspeth the Thoms were living among many Polish people; just as they had in Europe and many Thoms went on to marry Polish Americans.
Establishing the Flower Business
Soon after his arrival in New York Michael Thom purchased land from a local farmer between the villages of Maspeth, Newtown and Middle Village located on the high ground north of the Juniper Swamp. His land roughly encompassed the area bordered by Caldwell Avenue on the south, 74th Street on the west, and the railroad cut on the east. The north end of his land extended about half way up 75th Street to where the Long Island Expressway is today. The Thom land contained a large farm house on 75th Street. That very narrow lane became known locally as “Thom’s Alley” because so many family members lived on it.
In 1905 Michael Thom sold a lot to the New York Connecting Railroad when land was being acquired for the right of way. Railroad construction did not begin until 1910, the year before Michael Thom died.
Tragedy struck Michael’s family in 1896 when his youngest son Adolph, nine, burned to death. The child was either accidentally pushed or fell into a bon fire; no adults were on the scene and the other children panicked and fled.
The flower farming business Michael Thom built lasted for three generations, some 80 years. Upon Michael’s death in 1911 the property was divided as follows with each son starting his own flower business. His oldest son, August, received land between 74th and 75th Streets down to Caldwell Avenue. The next oldest, William, received the greenhouses on the west side of 75th Street on top of the hill. Son Herman, got the big house on 75th Street (located near what is now the south corner of 58th Avenue and 75th Street) and some land that backed up to the railroad.
As that generation died off Michael’s grandchildren took over the three businesses. August’s farm went to his son, Daniel. William’s place went to his three sons William, Henry and George. Finally, Herman’s operation went to son, Fred.
Education generally meant learning reading, writing and arithmetic. Upon turning twelve boys were expected to start work on the flower farm, but not all the American born children went quietly into a life in the greenhouses.
Flower Farming Operations
Like other types of farming, growing flowers commercially leaves little room for error. Virtually all the money the farms made was in the spring, the three short months between Easter and the fourth of July. This called for seasonal and full time laborers who mainly came from lower Maspeth.
Each flower farm had glass greenhouses that were vital to their operation. In winter boilers sent heat into the greenhouses. Alarms were set to detect a drop in temperature that could destroy the crop. In the event of a boiler failure, mobile heaters had to be set up quickly. The greenhouses needed constant repair (e.g., broken glass) and in the summer had to be shaded with white wash.
The farms also had potting sheds that housed the boilers and served as business offices. Plants had to be repotted as they grew; there were occasional deliveries of top soil and red clay pots. A big yellow truck from Pottstown, Pennsylvania (where else?) would make deliveries.
Then there were the ubiquitous cold frames or hot beds. In the spring, summer and fall most of the plants were kept outside in long troughs with wooden planking at the sides. The tops of the cold frames were open but could be covered by wood and glass panels called sash. Whether it was adjusting or taking the sash on or off the frames, or opening or closing greenhouse vents, and of course watering the plants, someone had to be always around tending to the flowers.
The Thoms also had trucks to bring the flowers to market and tractors to work the land. In the early days they used draft animals and wagons.
Fred Thom specialized in ivy and called his farm “Ivy Acres” a name he sold and that still survives today. William F. Thom’s three sons grew geraniums almost exclusively. August’s son, Daniel, had the most diverse operation growing many different plants.
Survival was the name of the game from the great depression, to equipment failures, to urbanization. The Thoms were familiar with many types of plants because during the depression they would grow whatever the market wanted. Storms and severe weather also took a toll.
The Demise of the Flower Farms
Farming in western Queens simply became untenable by the 1960s. Population growth, rising taxes, the coming of the Long Island Expressway, and the general urbanization of the area doomed the wholesale florist business. Finding people to work on the farms (“you can’t get good help”) was also a problem. And, people just do not visit cemetery plots as much as they used to a hundred years ago with flowers in hand.
Competition increased also. Growers from outside the city in New Jersey, on eastern Long Island, and elsewhere had an economic edge. The three farms in operation since Michael Thom’s death succumbed to these pressures by the late 1960s as the land was sold off to developers. Three story row houses sprung up where cold frames and hot houses once stood.
Landmarks and Memories
Today there is scant evidence that the flower farms existed at all, but a few landmarks remain. On the corner of Caldwell Avenue and 75th Street (75-05 Caldwell) stands the beautifully restored house that Michael’s son William F. Thom built just after WWI. When his oldest son Bill returned from the war he carried the brick and mortar for his father’s house. Bill had the distinction of serving in both world wars, and may have joined up in 1917 to show the German speaking Thom’s patriotism.
Moving up 75th Street from Caldwell Avenue halfway up the hill a small house juts out into the street from the right. This is the house of Lilly Thom, a Michael Thom grand daughter who refused to sell her house to developers.
In the 1950s three grandsons of Michael Thom built brick houses, two of them on Thom land. George Thom’s house stands at 58-03 74th Street facing 58th Avenue. Danny Thom’s house is further south down 74th Street also on the east side at 58-33. Fred Thom’s ranch style house is on Caldwell Avenue west of 74th Street. Another grandson, Henry Thom, may have started this trend in the 1930s or 40s by building a house at the northwestern edge of William F. Thom’s land.
The days of the flower farms and their influence on the community are gone but not forgotten. They once lent a rural air to a fast growing community. Ethnic German immigrants once made their homestead there then, like so many others, faded into the fabric of American life.
I would welcome any comments or information about the Thom family. Photos of the farms or key personalities and documentation, would be particularly helpful. William G. Thom (grandson of William and great grandson of Michael Thom) Woodbridge, VA April 2005
Most of the information herein comes from the oral history of the Thom family, but others contributed. Among them are my sister Margaret Thom Badillo (granddaughter of William); Daniel Thom (grandson of August; and Ronald Thom (grandson of Herman). Also very useful was information compiled by Charles Juratovac in his history of the Piotr Przetakiewicz family.