At the turn of the twentieth century, Red Hook was home to a now-forgotten industry. In fact, many Red Hook natives are unaware that it ever existed. But at one time Red Hook, Rhinebeck, and the mid-Hudson Valley were known as “The Violet Capital of the World.” Look closely today, and you’ll notice little hints that remain: the name Garden Street, the greenhouses on the Battenfeld farm in Rock City. Some people even claim that the profusion of wild violets blooming in their back yards each spring are the descendants of cultivated violets that escaped from old greenhouses.
Cultivated “sweet violets” were brought to the Hudson Valley from England by William Saltford in 1886. The mid-Hudson Valley was the perfect location for growing violets for several reasons: easy access to the major market of New York City via train, enough seasonal laborers (many of them women and teenagers), and an abundant supply of fresh soil, which was replenished in the greenhouses each year. At its peak, Red Hook had 350,000 square feet of greenhouses belonging to 40 different growers. Milan and Poughkeepsie were also home to numerous violet farms, and Rhinebeck boasted 115 growers.
The violets were hardy flowers. If stored properly in tanks of cool water, some varieties would last for up to two weeks after picking, and Red Hook growers shipped their flowers throughout the eastern United States, to the Mississippi River and beyond. However, the violets were not easy to grow. The plants were vulnerable to diseases and pests such as botrytis, “green fly” and red spider mites, and they required careful attention, particularly in the early, hot months of the growing season. The flowers were grown in greenhouses, which allowed farmers to maintain the desired temperature for the cool-weather crop. In the summer, when the plants were young, air was kept circulating through the houses by opening ventilating panels in the roof, and sometimes the glass was shaded with a coat of lime. In the winter, coal-fired furnaces kept the flowers from freezing. Because they were growing indoors, the plants had to be watered by hand. In those days before most farms had electricity, this meant using a hand pump and a watering can.
The violets were tricky to pick as well. Because every possible foot of space inside the greenhouses had to be planted, aisles between the raised beds were narrow. In order to reach the back of the beds, pickers rested narrow wooden boards on the heating pipes at the far side and the edge of the beds closest to them, and inched their way out on the boards, lying on their sides to pick the flowers. This feat required balance and cannot have been a comfortable way to spend a nine-hour shift. Nevertheless, a strong picker could collect 15 to 20 bunches of 50 blooms each in an hour. The picking season ran from mid-October through Easter. For that end-of-season holiday alone, more than a million blooms were often shipped.
Each violet greenhouse was outfitted with a packing room, where workers would add decorative galax leaves, tie off the bunches, “boot” them to keep the stems moist, and pack them in cardboard crates for shipping. Wagons piled high with violet boxes could often be seen heading down to the railway express office. Residents recalled the especially pleasing aroma of the white violets, but the aroma of manure was always close by. In a 1997 interview with the Rhinebeck Historic Society, violet farmer Richard Battenfeld recalled buying manure from New York City and having it shipped up by box car. According to the interviewer’s notes, “Everybody liked the New York City manure because it was straw-based and had very few weeds.”
The demise of the violet industry has been blamed on a number of factors. The costs of heating and labor skyrocketed after World War I. By the 1920s the violets were seen as old-fashioned, a flower one’s grandmother might wear. Women’s fashions had changed; their clothing was no longer as sturdy, and it was impractical to pin a heavy corsage of fifty violets at the waist or the shoulder. In addition, a short-lived Broadway play, The Captive, about an illicit lesbian love affair, used violets as a love token, thus giving the flower an association that, to many, seemed unsavory. The market was no longer booming, and backyard growers took down their greenhouses and gave up the business. The larger operations continued, although they, too, eventually succumbed to a continued downturn in the market. At one time, there were 400 violet greenhouses in the mid-Hudson Valley. In the mid-twentieth century, the violet enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity, but even then, around 1956 there were just 50 or 60 houses left in Red Hook and Rhinebeck combined. The Trombini family of Rhinebeck, whose greenhouses stood near the Dutchess County fairgrounds, were the last to cease operations, in the late 1970s.
Nevertheless, nostalgic Red Hook residents can still purchase a nosegay of violets in season from Fred Battenfeld, who maintains one small bed of Frey’s Fragrant violets for old time’s sake. Battenfeld’s greenhouse is otherwise filled with anemones, the twenty-first century crop of choice.
Kathy Leonard Czepiel was born and raised in Red Hook. She is the author of the historical novel A Violet Season, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in July.