After a visit to the Albany Penitentiary (as a tourist, not an inmate), one could make a rather more charming side trip to a garden at what is now the corner of Knox and Morris Street.
Wilson’s Garden was promoted in the 1852-53 Albany City Directory as “a place of great resort; the principal attraction consists of green house plants and flower, which are cultivated with much skill, and in great variety.” The Albany Morning Express recommended a visit in winter to “feast your eyes as well as your noses” in the hot-houses which boasted “blossoms of all colors” and a refreshing “spring-like atmosphere.” In the spring and summer, the grounds featured roses, morning glories, hyacinths, and lilies.
A native of Scotland, James Wilson purchased a lot of land just south of the Albany Penitentiary in 1837. The parcel, bounded by modern-day Knox Street, Morris Street, Myrtle Avenue, and New Scotland Avenue, cost $1,500. A brick house was built looking south toward the Penitentiary. The property would soon laid out greenhouses, orchards, and floral beds. Later, in partnership with Jesse Buel, the publisher and enthusiastic promoter of agricultural arts, James Wilson also established a fruit tree nursery.
Wilson’s Nursery was also renowned for strawberries. James Wilson’s cross-pollination of European and native American varieties resulted in the Wilson Albany Strawberry which, according to the Albany Evening Journal, was “the finest eye ever beheld or refined taste ever tasted.” This Wilson Albany Strawberry became so popular that, Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s 1917 book, “The Strawberry In North American; History, Origin, Botany, and Breeding” reported that this “finest of market varieties” accounted for some 90 percent of all commercial strawberry cultivation in the United States by 1872.
James Wilson died at the age of 84 in 1855. His son, John, continued in the business. In 1871, he sold the property to Thomas Davidson and the name was changed to the Albany Nursery.
While Wilson’s Garden is now long gone and the area now developed with houses, Wilson’s home still stands. The brick house at the corner of Madison and Knox Street is currently being rehabilitated with respect for its origins.