by Ken LeRoy
It takes time, decades of time, for a tree to accumulate enough mass to elicit from an observer, “Wow! what a tree!” To observe a century-plus tree stimulates the imagination to wonder about the times when the tree was young.
There are many such trees in Germantown. Trees that were planted more than a century ago on grounds that were developed beginning in the 18th century. Trees of age, like the Boyer street Butternut (Juglans cinerea), are remnants from another time.
Many of the impressive trees we admire today in Germantown originated from Thomas Meehan’s nursery. The Meehan family home at Chew and Phil-Ellena streets is now the Emmanuel Johnson Funeral Home. The 75 acre nursery’s rough boundaries were between Chew and the railroad (Sprague and Belfield), and between Gorgas and Upsal streets.
The nursery rows ran perpendicular to Chew Avenue. One can still imagine rows of trees represented now by the planting islands in the middle of Phil-Ellena, E. Hortter, Vernon, and Montana streets. There are still rows of Ginkgo and Cedrella trees and stone piers and old nursery offices. Meehan Street bears the nursery family name.
Meehan, an English gardener trained at Kew, emigrated at age 22 in 1848 to accept a position offered by Robert Buist at his nursery on Darby Road. Buist recommended the young man to A. M. Eastwick as “botanist, landscape gardener, and farmer” to maintain his Bartram Botanic Garden.
In addition to these skills, Meehan also was a prolific writer who published “The American Handbook of Ornamental Trees” while at Bartram’s. In 1854, Meehan purchased three acres of land in Germantown and began his nursery career.
By the time of the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, the Germantown or Wissahickon Nursery was growing more than 750 kinds of trees, shrubs, and vines on 75 acres of productive land. Meehan loved the American trees. And, as Bartram before him, shipped bundles of Sassafras, Dogwoods, Beech and Oak, Tulip and Tupelo to England and France through his agent in England, S. Mendelson.
Meehan’s nursery sold wholesale and retail. Meehan knew a good tree when he saw it. And so, when he became acquainted with the Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) displayed in a bed of Japanese plants by S.B.Parsons & Son at the Centennial Exposition, he propagated and sold the tree. Indeed, the Japanese Maple became a popular motif in advertisements for the the nursery.
Have you ever admired the century old lovely Japanese Maples all over Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill and wondered where they came from? Chances are from Meehan’s nursery. Meehan re-discovered the Pink Dogwood (Cornus florida var. Rubra) growing in the Wissahickon woods and introduced it to the trade.
A prolific writer, he published more than 100 articles for the Academy of Natural Science and wrote and published “The Gardner’s Monthly” and “Meehan’s Monthly,” popular periodicals sold by subscription with a wide distribution.
Meehan was a contemporary of Frederick Law Olmstead and, like Olmstead, believed the quality of the of the urban environment affected the well-being of the individual. And that every citizen had a right to healthy green spaces. He led the City Parks movement in Philadelphia. As a member of the Common Council, he introduced legislation to purchase land for parks. Stenton, Juniata, Weccacoe, and Vernon parks are his legacy.
Councilman Meehan was able to save the house and garden most dear to his kind heart when in 1891 Bartram’s Garden became a city park. On July 4th, 1893, at the opening of Vernon Park, he was presented with a solid silver plague that reads, “Presented to Thomas Meehan by his fellow citizens of Philadelphia in grateful acknowledgement of his services while a member of the Councils of Philadelphia, 1883-1892 in establishing small Parks in the several sections of the city for the health and enjoyment of its citizens.”
I don’t know why Meehan is not so well known and celebrated, as he so truly deserves. I do think of him when admiring an old massive tree, or exploring the remnants of his Germantown nursery. I feel connected to him – one whom I consider to be the father of city parks in Philadelphia. For it was in those parks as a boy that I was inspired by nature. Parks make the city of concrete and asphalt habitable.