A descendant and I collaborate across the miles to research a Dreer employee

Rabbit hole awaits

One of the most common requests for help received here – family research – often results in a descent down a rabbit hole on a search that the questioner hopes will reveal some historical truth about their ancestor. That search seldom has had as satisfying an end as this one.

Last week Richard E. Shaw emailed me from his home in North Carolina to tell about a visit to Riverton he had made in October in a quest to find out more about the Dreer Nursery since William F. Dreer employed Shaw’s great grandfather, John Shaw, as superintendent of the Dreer estate in Rosemont, PA from 1900 to 1922. Another ancestor, Joseph Shaw, John Shaw’s brother, worked at Dreer Nursery in the 1910s-20s and resided in Riverton and later in Palmyra.

Wed, Jul 26, 1899, Woodbury Daily Times, Page 1

John Shaw, whose stated profession was “Gardener,” might have started his association with Dreer as an employee of the Dreer Nursery in Riverton sometime between 1883 and 1895. After immigrating the USA from England in 1882, Shaw may have been living in the Frankford section of Philadelphia or perhaps he resided at or near Riverton. From 1895 to 1900 he worked for Mr. G.G. Green in Woodbury, NJ.

Richard had already gleaned the above information from forays into ancestry.com and help from Gloucester County Historical Society Library, but he hoped to flesh out more details.

Understandably, Richard had some questions:
1) Are the records of Mr. Dreer’s 250 or so employees at Riverton during the 1880s or 1890s?
2) Did employees reside in (or near) Riverton or did some of them commute each day across the Delaware River from Philadelphia?
3) Does anyone happen to know whether the Dreer family papers and/or business records are archived anywhere, such as Riverton or Philadelphia?
4) Is there more than one cemetery in town for me to check next visit?

With Richard’s permission, I highlight here some of our correspondence to explain a bit about our research process.

Searching through our old hometown newspaper collection for “Shaw” yielded over 240 results – it’s a common surname. Halfway through, most results were not relevant. However, I found a few for John or Joseph and sent Richard a few news clippings that looked promising and answered his questions.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I wrote, “Regarding your questions:
#1 – I ONLY WISH we had Dreer employee and business records.
#2 Yes, many Dreer Nursery employees lived locally – probably most.
#3 If anyplace was given company records, Cornell Univ. makes a good suspect. There is a William Frederick Dreer Scholarship there. 
#4 There is no cemetery within the Borough. Morgan in Palmyra and Westfield in Cinnaminson are likely ones to try. 

New Era, April 14, 1932, page 3

This clipping from our historic newspaper collection showing a Palmyra residence and a burial, not locally, but in Philadelphia’s Oakland Cemetery, provided a breakthrough.

Richard replied, “Thank you so very much for navigating that rabbit hole on my behalf. I am most grateful… The Joseph Shaw obit that you shared was spot on.” 

We agreed to keep each other apprised of further developments and then Richard did the classiest thing… he used the PayPal button at left to make a donation to the Society!

His comment about the donation reads:

I am grateful for the fine assistance provided to me via email by John McCormick, helping me search for my great grandparents in the Riverton and Woodbury areas. Also for his gem of a ppt presentation about the former Dreer Nursery at Riverton.

We continued corresponding and when I found some more results, I sent him this:

Maybe nothing below. Just trying to follow breadcrumbs…

American Florist, Nov. 15, 1887, p15

(Google) searching for John+Shaw+Florist… see middle col., bottom, near GRAND PRIZE.

I thought we might be on to something with Shaw and chrysanthemum culture, so I searched further for John+Shaw+chrysanthemum and found more accounts of his prize-winning flowers in old trade journals.

The trade journals also listed other employers. Click on each image caption to view the source material.

Florist & Nursery Exchange, Volume 2, Nov. 15, 1890, p314
Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist, Volumes 29-30, 1887
The American florist – a weekly journal for the trade, 1885 , p155
The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist, Volume 26, p383






That American Florist page mentions John and Joseph Shaw five times.

Lots of searchable Dreer catalogs online. I hoped to find a mention of Shaw, but no luck.

Have you tried searching for a connection to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society or Radnor Historical Society? Radnor High School has an award named for Dreer.

After several email exchanges with attachments between us, Richard concluded with…

…your most recent email included two additional clippings I had not received, including the one from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Each of these helps fill gaps in our family information. I’m very pleased and am grateful for your assistance.

Your search unearthed much more than bread crumbs. You’ve provided several meals worth of information for me to chew on and digest. You found my great grandfather showing his chrysanthemums at several flower shows, and winning awards!. And, you’ve revealed that he was employed by G.G. Green (of Woodbury, NJ) many years sooner than I had known from previous documentation (1889, rather than 1895). So you have helped add color and close temporal gaps in my knowledge. In addition, you found that John Shaw in 1887 had been employed by another prominent Philadelphian, Clarence Howard Clark. So, in addition, you have pointed me in other directions for additional information.

And I was glad to help.

I thank Richard Shaw for his generous donation and for allowing us to share this experience with our readers.

Please know that we welcome submissions of information and images from the public.

Indeed, much of what you encounter here is the result of contributions from scores of persons who have helped us document local history.

Each one enriches this online resource and helps search engines find us. How else do you think Richard Shaw found us from Hillsborough, NC? -JMc

Published by

John McCormick

Teacher at Riverton School 1974-2019, author, amateur historian, Historical Society of Riverton Board Member 2007-2023, newsletter editor 2007-2023, website editor 2011-2023

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