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Historically Speaking :

Leonard Coates — Pioneer Nurseryman

by Robin Shepherd . Photos by Morgan Hill Historical Society

In 1875 , Leonard Coates wrote an essay entitled “ The Theory of Horticulture ,” a passionate exploration of what would ultimately become his lifelong vocation . A year later , 21-yearold Leonard bade his native England farewell and booked passage on the steamship Greece bound for America . He settled in Morgan Hill , became a nurseryman , and made a lasting impact on the evolution of agriculture in Santa Clara Valley .

Now , thanks to his granddaughter , Susan Farris of Morgan Hill , we can learn about his pioneering work from journals he kept over the course of his career .
An early journal entry reveals some internal debate about his destination after arriving in America : “ Florida was known as a producer of oranges and alligators ; California , for Big Trees and Gold . The latter won ; its romanticism appealed .”
Traveling by train to California , Leonard was unimpressed by the midwestern plains and prairies . Then the rugged , snowcovered Sierras came into view , and on the other side , the splendor of California . He was awestruck by the orchards , gardens , and fields of corn , the sights and scents of the vegetation , and the fast-flowing American River . His journal entry read : “ Never shall I forget it , but words ( at any rate , my words ) cannot do it justice .”
Leonard arrived in San Francisco with no specific qualifications or connections . There were few job prospects in the wake of the Gold Rush . Just as his money was about to run out , “ an old sea captain ” advised Leonard to seek farm work north of San Francisco . He did so and had the good fortune to land a job with E . P . Heald , founder of Heald Business College and owner of nursery and vineyard operations in Napa Valley .
Despite a lack of practical training in horticulture , Leonard applied himself to learning the art of plant propagation from Heald ’ s foreman . Evidently his hard work and keen interest in plants made a good impression . Heald offered Leonard a loan to purchase seed and rootstocks plus use of his land and equipment , and by 1878 the industrious young Brit was in business for himself . Days were spent in the fields , while nights were devoted to cutting and wrapping rootstocks , often working by candlelight until 3:00 or 4:00 a . m .
and corn . Gradually he secured orders for his rootstocks and trees . Along the way , he got help from experienced nurserymen like Dr . John Strentzel ( John Muir ’ s father-in-law ) and others . Leonard wrote to family and acquaintances in England about his new life in the American West : “… any account you may have read or will read extolling the country and especially its products , chiefly fruit , then remember that it is next to impossible to exaggerate the glories of California .”
By the time that commercial fruit tree planting took hold , Leonard had grown his business and was able to fill good-sized orders . When the boom in grape planting began – California needed grapes that could withstand the semi-arid conditions – Leonard sold his business and bought a vineyard in Fresno . He made a bold move to take the work of grape vine grafting into his nursery operations and succeeded .
In 1904 , he sold the vineyard and moved to Morgan Hill to establish a nursery business and build a home for his family . He built propagation and lath houses there to support growing operations of 300,000 plants . His property was located just off West Dunne Avenue where Hillview Convalescent Home now resides , surrounded by a variety of stately fan palms and eucalyptus trees that Leonard planted more than 100 years ago . From there , he expanded growing operations with acreage in Santa Cruz and Brentwood , and a sales yard and floral shop on the Alameda in San Jose .
He bought a “ flea-bitten cattle pony ” named Billy and went from farm to farm making friends , sharing his knowledge , and making a solid business case for the value of fruit trees and plants to supplement traditional farm output such as livestock
After working in various Napa and Sonoma orchards , Leonard had come to believe that he could cultivate a fruit superior to the petite French prunes that had dominated the market . He was again successful , receiving credit for development of
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