A Chance Glimpse of a Rose Births the World’s Largest Nursery

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By CJ CHASE

Before there was Greenbrier Mall, there was Greenbrier Farms, but a chance glimpse at Opal Thrasher’s roses turned Greenbrier Farms from a livestock operation into the world’s largest nursery.

When Robert Earl “Bo” Thrasher moved his family to Buck Trout Swamp one hundred years ago around 1913, trees and brush filled the marsh. Each acre required 88 man-days to clear with axes and grubbing hoes. Hand digging drainage ditches necessitated more hard labor and time. But Thrasher, who had lost an arm in an industrial accident years earlier, had a vision of a place with good soil and a favorable climate where he and his seven sons could raise cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep.

Colorful mums were one of the more than 7000 varieties of plants raised on Greenbrier Farms.

Colorful mums were one of the more than 7000 varieties of plants raised on Greenbrier Farms.

A one-time commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, Thrasher was perhaps a man ahead of his time in his understanding of climate and soil. He investigated locations in California and Mississippi before eventually settling on land in the middle of what was then Norfolk County, Virginia. He paid about $6/acre for the tract of forest and swamp. Locals scoffed at the “Yankee,” but Thrasher knew that under Buck Trout Swamp’s waters lay some of the most fertile land in the world.

The Thrasher boys named a section of the farm – primarily dairy – after their birthplace of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. But it was a chance glimpse of daughter-in-law Opal Thrasher’s roses that turned Greenbrier Farms from a livestock operation into the world’s largest nursery. At its peak, Greenbrier Farms comprised over 10,000 acres and employed over 2,000 people. According to Lindalyn Thrasher Dentel of Smithfield, a great-granddaughter of Robert Thrasher, if one were to stand on the bridge where Greenbrier Parkway passes over I-64, all the land visible in every direction was at one time part of Greenbrier Farms.

Robert Earl Thrasher (founder) with wife, all 7 sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren in 1929.

Robert Earl Thrasher (founder) with wife, all 7 sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren in 1929.

In 1919, an Ohio nurseryman spied Opal Thrasher’s roses from a railroad car. Intrigued, he returned to investigate. Both apples and roses are part of the Rosaceae family of plants, and they need similar growing conditions to thrive. He asked the Thrashers if they would raise apple trees on contract. According to Thrasher son Samuel’s memoires, his father “would not grow anything that could not walk to market,” but the boys decided to accept the offer. They found instant success. “It was such rich swampland that everything grew double its size and very prolifically,” says Dentel. The family added flowering bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinths, and soon had to rent land to meet demand. According to great-grandson Henry Thrasher, the companies paid Greenbrier Farms once per year. By the time of Thrasher’s death in 1929, Greenbrier Farms was supplying stock to major nurseries around the country.

Greenbrier Farms had 2 planes they used to ship gladiolas to florists around the country.

Greenbrier Farms had 2 planes they used to ship gladiolas to florists around the country.

Then came the Depression, and many of their buyers couldn’t make the payment. The value of the land plummeted to the point the family had more debts than assets. Unable to meet payroll, the Thrashers provided their employees and families with food and a promise to pay a bonus on wages once they had cash again. They bought groceries wholesale, and the dairy and large vegetable gardens allowed them to support themselves and their employees through the lean times. “The thing I always admired about my family was that they helped feed and house the people who worked for them,” says Dentel. Left with millions of unsold plants, they went into the nursery business, selling the plants themselves.

The Thrasher Family homestead was located at the site where Carrabas now sits on Battlefield Boulevard.

The Thrasher Family homestead was located at the site where Carrabas now sits on Battlefield Boulevard.

They also got into the gladiola bulb business at that time, and from there, the cut-flower business. They cut the flowers, then shipped them by truck and boat to the major cities along the East Coast. Twenty-thousand geese kept down the weeds in the gladiola beds. Eventually, the family added two planes and satellite locations around the country so fresh flowers could be delivered to major metropolitan areas.

With the advent of World War II, the farm’s fortunes once again changed. While the next generation of young Thrasher men went off to war, the federal government became the farm’s largest customer, using Greenbrier Farms for soil stabilization and landscaping.

Old farm main entrance sign. Chesapeake’s Greenbrier Farms was at one time the world’s largest nursery.

Old farm main entrance sign. Chesapeake’s Greenbrier Farms was at one time the world’s largest nursery.

After the war, focus shifted to landscaping and ornamental production. The Thrashers developed new varieties of plants, including the popular Croonenberry holly. Cuttings from the farm’s parent plant produced approximately one-quarter of a million hollies which went on to be sold across the country. Fields on the farm contained stock in a variety of ages and sizes, so there would be small plants, large plants, or whatever size the job required. The Thrashers only finished clearing the land on Greenbrier Farms in the 1950’s.

By this time, Greenbrier Farms was the world’s largest nursery with offices around the eastern half of the country and their headquarters in Norfolk County. They raised 7,000 varieties of plants at locations in a half-dozen states. A 1963 article in the Commonwealth Magazine, written at the same time the new City of Chesapeake was incorporated, called the business “The King of the Nurseries.” Government continued to be their largest customer, with the farm contracted for many parks and highway beautification projects, although they also supplied stock to well-known retailers such as Montgomery Ward and Sears. In Washington, Greenbrier Farms landscaped the Tidal Basin, the CIA Headquarters, the Triangle on Constitution Avenue, and the White House grounds.

Greenbrier Farms sold trees up to 40 tons.  Digging up these giants took as many as 10 employees working for 2 days.  Some of the large magnolias on the White House grounds came from Greenbrier’s Chesapeake location.

Greenbrier Farms sold trees up to 40 tons. Digging up these giants took as many as 10 employees working for 2 days. Some of the large magnolias on the White House grounds came from Greenbrier’s Chesapeake location.

However, by the 1970’s, development began to encroach on the farm, and the family eventually sold the land to developers. Those Thrasher descendents who decided to keep the Greenbrier Farms nursery business spent five years moving stock to the Hickory area of Chesapeake. Though the family has now gotten out of farming, they still rent the Hickory land for nursery stock growing.

Today, the farm’s original location is a major center of commerce and development where thousands of people live, work, shop and eat, but the Greenbrier name lives on – a fortunate happenstance for those who live and work in Chesapeake. After all, if it weren’t for the vision of a West Virginia farmer, you might be shopping at the Buck Trout Swamp Mall.

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7 Responses to A Chance Glimpse of a Rose Births the World’s Largest Nursery

  1. Shirley H. Sutton Reply

    May 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Thank for highlighting such a rich part of Chesapeake’s history. My 91 year old mother-in-law is a granddaughter of Robert Earl Thrasher and is shown in the family picture. She is very proud of her family and never tires of telling stories about growing up on Greenbrier Farms or as she calls it “The Farm.”
    Thankfully,a good friend brought your article to my attention since our part of the Thrasher family lives in Va. Beach. I look forward to showing the article to my mother-in-law and to the rest of her part of the family.
    Thank you again.
    Shirley Sutton

  2. Emily Thrasher Reply

    May 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. As a younger member of the Thrasher clan, it is great to read articles like this where I can find out more about my family history. Goes to show people that great things can start from just a small idea. Reading this article made my night!

    • mark wiesner Reply

      March 25, 2014 at 7:29 pm

      Hi Emily…Albert and Nancy Thrasher parents of David Bruce Thrasher all but raised me. They initially lived on Drew Dr. in Va. Beach right next door to me. They then moved out to the farm on Hwy 17 (George Washington Blvd) where “POP” Thrasher…David and myself built the barn out back for Patty’s Horses…I joined the navy and that was the last i saw of any of them. I truly loved “pop” and nancy as well as all the rest of them as my own family. I still have a piece of my pool cue that i used to shoot pool with pop out in the garage on hwy 17…and have a piece of deer antler that pop gave me that was his grandfather’s old walking stick handle…i have since taken the two (many many MANY years ago) and made my own walking stick out of them. using the pool cue (skinny end) and the deer antler piece as the hand grip. i would love to get in touch with bruce who still lives in chesapeake from all of the searching i have done over the years…but have no way to contact him. i would love to give this walking stick back to the family. When i first met them…Bruce was living in Portlock Va. and was working at Portlock Propellers…he then moved out to hwy 17 directly to the left of his father’s house as you look at it from the front. At one time….i lived in the little shop/bunkhouse that was out behind pop’s house to the right…those big pine trees that line the road? me and pop planted those….i see from google maps that the house is vacant and all boarded up…so sad to see….anyhow…if you know of any possible way to contact Bruce….please pass along my email address to him or my cell phone number…207-841-8573….i am living in Maine now…but will always consider the Thrasher family…my own. i even worked on the farm (greenbriar nurseries) one summer digging and balling plants/trees. i owe soooo much of my life to this great family….i could go on and on about Ried…Dan (gravelpit Dan) Dan’s children…Patty…oh my the list just goes on…i hope you are as proud to be a Thrasher as i am…considering i really am not blood…but…as close as humanly posible. it is my pleasure to send this to you…sincerely Mark (bigfoot…or Yetti (as they called me) Wiesner

  3. Catherine Ann Thrasher Usher Reply

    June 22, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    I am the great grandaughter of Robert Earl Thrasher and my late father was named after him. Having lost most of the older generation over the years, it was interesting to read your article on Greenbriar Nurseries and learn some history that I had not known. I have many fond memories of life on The Farm and the many relatives involved in the business. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. Much of what you wrote about I had forgotten and it was great to hear about my ancestors and see pictures that I had never seen before. Thank you.

  4. Pat Thrasher Reply

    June 23, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks for a good article. I grew up on Greenbrier Farm, living in the old brown-shingled house on Thrasher Road my grandfather — Albert Roscoe Thrasher — built, shaded by the oak trees he planted, riding my pony on the dirt roads with my cousins. It’s still “home” in my head although it no longer exists. I live in Delaware now, but keep a bit of Greenbrier going in my garden, channeling the old show grounds and wishing I could grow camellias.

  5. Cheki Thrasher-Smith Reply

    June 24, 2013 at 10:12 am

    What a wonderful article. I have so many memories of the farm. I’ll share a few of them…the long gravel road (Greenbrier Road) lined with hundreds of huge evergreens. The road was eventually paved into a 2 lane road. When the farm was sold and developed the road was widened & renamed Greenbrier Pkwy. Only a few of the the trees are still standing. when I was a child my mother Caroline Colonna Thrasher would pack a lunch, load my older brothers Danny, Warren and myself in the pickup truck and head for the pond in the middle of “Buck Trout Swamp” for a day of swimming! We always new we were close when we came to the first sharp curve on Greenbrier Road and turned left onto a narrow dirt road which took us to the pond surrounded by trees. It was like we had our own private swimming hole! Just off Military Highway was the Greenbrier Farm Horse Barn converted into an indoor facility. The Thrasher’s would hold meetings and have parties in the barn. I sat on Capt. Sam’s (Uncle Sam Thrasher) lap a many of time in that old barn. Momma took me to watch horse shows held on the farm. That’s where she taught me the beauty of the graceful Tennesse Walkers. My mother loved to ride her horse “High Rise” a Tennesse Walker on the farm. Every now & then daddy (Dan Thrasher / Daniel LeRoy Thrasher Jr.) rode along with her on our other horse “Driver”. My brother Warren rode his little red & white honda 50 on the farms dirt roads years before he was old enough for a drivers license. In the photo of the family members my father is pictured on his mother’s lap, Emma John Thrasher married to Capt.Roy (Daniel LeRoy Thrasher Sr.)- middle row 2nd woman & baby from the left.)

  6. Robin Thrasher Bricker Reply

    July 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Capt. Sam was my grandfather. I recognize my great-grandfather Robert in that photo since Grandpa painted a portrait of him that hung in the house for many, many years. Grandpa’s house was right across from the main post office on Battlefield Blvd. on Tintern Road. There was also a small Chesapeake airfield at the end of that road. Now Home Depot is there. But my brother Fred Jr. and I used to have to help Grandpa with his rows and rows and rows of gladiolas and vegetables that went from his house all the way to the boulevard. Grandma had chickens that she used for her morning breakfast eggs.

    Uncle Howard had a large house right next to the post office, and across the boulevard from Grandpa. It is funny how all the original brothers and cousins lived so close to each other on, or near, The Farm.

    I remember Saturday mornings on The Farm, going to the greenhouses to water the plants with my father, Fred Thrasher. We’d often stop in the office and get a Coke bottle from the machine and a pack of peanuts to pour in the Coke. Then we might stop in the commissary and visit.

    The Farm was dusty and it was huge! My brother and I would dipped our hands into the large drums of melted wax that was used to preserve the ends of the plant clippings. we never could remove that wax “glove” from our hands without it breaking.

    I remember the horse barn also, right off Military Highway. What memories of a time long past (and I am only 52!). Thanks for the article!

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