The Worcester County Horticultural Society, the third oldest active organization of its kind in the country and Tower Hill Botanic Garden’s parent organization, was organized on March 3, 1842.

What was life like back then, 176 years ago?

President John Tyler

John Tyler was the 10th president, having assumed the duties in 1841 after president William Henry Harrison died of an illness.

The Oregon Trail was in its early stages, with Tyler and others pushing for territorial expansion and Manifest Destiny. The Gold Rush was still a decade away.

The U.S. had just 26 states, half of which permitted slavery. In the Bay State, the founders of the Worcester County Horticultural Society would have remembered growing up in a Massachusetts that also included the land of Maine (they separated in 1820).

There was no telephone, dynamite, electric lighting, sewing machine, anesthesia, motorized vehicle, “Walden,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Leaves of Grass,” or Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” The first form of photography was invented in 1839. The first system capable of refrigerating water to produce ice was invented in 1842.

Henry David Thoreau published “A Walk to Wachusett” in 1842, and it’s interesting today to gaze from the summit of Tower Hill toward Wachusett Mountain and imagine Thoreau strolling through those woods.

To further picture the time, reflect on the books “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain, and the Oscar-winning movie 12 Years A Slave, which were set in the 1840s. (Old Sturbridge Village, just a half hour drive from Tower Hill, offers a glimpse of life in the 1830s.)

Typewriter invented by Charles Thurber

The Worcester Horticultural Society’s founders were beginning their group at a time of rapid technological advancement. Rubber was being perfected in Woburn (1839), the first typewriter in Worcester (1840), and the first sewing machine in Boston (1845). Worcester, which would be incorporated as a city in 1848, was a growing manufacturing community throughout the 19th century. It’s population was 7,500 in 1840, but grew to 17,000 over the next decade. (Worcester is now home to 181,000 people.)

The first National Women’s Rights Convention would convene in Worcester in 1850.

John Davis was governor of Massachusetts when the Worcester County Horticultural Society began. He was a founder and active member of the society and his portrait hangs today in Tower Hill’s 18th century farmhouse, which dates back to when the property was a dairy farm.

Botanical Drawings by Alexander Von Humboldt

The cultivation of plants in 1840s was a tradition passed on through generations, including from our founding fathers and plantsmen, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Alexander Von Humboldt, a German explorer and naturalist, published books on the importance of plants throughout the first half of the 19th century that influenced those establishing horticultural societies around the world.

Worcester County, the largest in the state, had the most farms and a strong agrarian culture. In the fall of 1840, the annual cattle show of the Worcester Agricultural Society, which included 24 professionals, merchants and public officials, staged a fruit and flower display, which was received with rave reviews. The success of the show inspired the original two dozen men to create the Worcester County Horticultural Society in 1842.

The continued success of the Society created a demand for a building to house offices, a library and exhibitions. In 1851, the Society’s first headquarters was built in downtown Worcester and year-round shows highlighted the produce and gardens of this thriving agricultural community.

Horticultural Hall

By 1928, the Society had outgrown its Front Street property, so land was purchased to build a new headquarters, Horticultural Hall, at 30 Elm St. in Worcester. In 1983, the Society turned its sights toward cultivating gardens. In 1986, leaders took the bold step of purchasing 132 acres atop a drumlin in Boylston and set its focus on creating a botanic garden at the historic Tower Hill Farm overlooking the Wachusett Reservoir.

Today, Tower Hill Botanic Garden features a year-round display of the finest plants for cultivation in New England. Carefully planned gardens and collections of ornamental, edible and native plants, plus trails that enhance the natural features of this beautiful 171-acre property and a robust program and event schedule make Tower Hill a year-round destination. But the seeds for what Tower Hill is today were sown 176 years ago with the formation of the Worcester County Horticultural Society. Our world is much different than theirs was, but we share a passion for plants that is timeless.