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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Fruit Tree Ramsey

by Clay Coppedge
When Frank T. Ramsey was 16 years old, he quit going to school and became a partner in his father’s nursery business in Burnet County near the community of Mahomet. His father, Alexander M. Ramsey, wrote down a list of fruit tree varieties that he had for sale and put his son and business partner on a horse. Frank traveled all over Texas, taking orders for trees and collecting native flora along the way.

The seeds of Ramsey Nursery, one of the first in the state of any consequence, had been planted before A.M. Ramsey and his family ever set foot in Texas. A.M. Ramsey was living in Mississippi in 1858 when he shipped some peach seeds to his brother-in law in Burnet County and asked him to plant them. A.M. Ramsey arrived in 1860, just as those first trees were beginning to bear fruit.

Four of those original trees became stock for the first nursery which was described in its early days as “one of the pioneer undertakings in the growing of orchard fruit in Western Texas.” The growing of orchard fruit in pioneer times often had to be abandoned for service against the Comanches which, combined with conditions following the Civil War and the vagaries of weather, made it hard to earn a living but A.M. Ramsey persevered; the Ramseys had 5,000 trees for sale when young Frank set out on horseback to take orders.

Frank Ramsey took over the business in 1895 when his father died. A year before he and his father had moved the business to the outskirts of Austin for the better transportation facilities and schools for the growing Ramsey family. People used the first two initials of Frank’s name to dub him “Fruit Tree” Ramsey. The thriving peach, fruit and vineyard operations in today’s Hill Country owe a lot to his perceptions and the perseverance of generations of Ramseys.

Ten years after Frank took over the business, the nursery was growing and selling a million trees a year, mostly peach, plum and apricot varieties. As the city grew, Ramsey began selling more ornamentals. Owing to the fact that he had used those long trips on horseback when he was a teenager to gather as much native flora as he could find, the nursery specialized in native plants. He sold red yucca, morning glories, native persimmons and others. A 1929 article in “Farm and Ranch” magazine read in part: “To Frank Ramsey perhaps more than to any other one man must go credit for the introduction of the greatest number of native plants to cultivation,”

Just as importantly, Ramsey came up with many domestic fruit varieties of nectarines, peaches, berries, apricots, seedless persimmons and a fig called the Ramsey fig. He bred shrubs and was one of the first to grow the Chinese jujube tree in the area. Ramsey liked tinkering with machines as much as he liked breeding plants and he had a patent for a perpetual motion machine. He invented an orchard plow but didn’t bother with a patent; he included in his catalogs detailed instructions on how to build one.

He wrote about horticultural topics for both scholarly and popular publications, and also fancied himself something of a poet. He occasionally included a poem or two in his catalogues and published a book of poetry titled “Tis Sweeter Still and Other Poems.” One of his poems is said to have moved Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney to tears. He was a fiddle player, storyteller, and volunteer fireman and served on the hospital and school boards.

Frank “Fruit Tree” Ramsey died in 1932 and the business survived until quite recently. Of course, the “outskirts” of Austin where the Ramsey nursery was located is a lot closer to downtown than the Austin city limits, but some reminders still exist. Ramsey Park, part of the land where the nursery was located, is named for him.


© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
March 22, 2011 Column
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