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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.