Today, it’s commonplace for many people across Long Island to make a trip or three to Hicks Nurseries in Westbury for the sheer nostalgia, particularly around the store’s fall, winter and springtime wonderland displays and selection. It is famous for being able to pass those memories from generation to generation, dating back to the mid-1800s, a testament to its dedication to the trade.
Hicks Nurseries has a rich history that many are not familiar with. Historian and author Richard Panchyk recently offered his knowledge of the nursery and its role in crafting the Gold Coast into a dreamy tree-filled landscape more than a century ago.
On April 13, Panchyk spoke at the Old Westbury Gardens lecture series about Hicks Nurseries and how it grew and changed over time, adapting its business model to ebb and flow with the growth and evolution of Long Island, particularly the Gold Coast, since its founding in 1853. The area was under a steady rise in development as the area turned from Quaker farming community to playground for the rich.
“Hicks Nurseries was very important to the estates that were being built at the time, from about 1900 to the 1920s,” Panchyk said. “They offered the ability to supply fully grown trees to the estate owners to create a landscape that looks like it has been there, not with seedlings.”
An instant and established landscape was the desired effect that these new estate owners wanted.
“Estate owners did not want to wait until they were 60 years old to see fully grown trees; they wanted it all, right away,” Panchyk said. “Hicks had the technology to make that happen, to move trees that were 25 years old and plant them.”
He said this was the perfect service for the estates that were being built by the dozens all along the North Shore.
Hicks worked on some of the biggest and most prominent estates.
“They weren’t Olmsteds, but they did their own landscaping and designing and they still do to this day,” Panchyk said. “They had the ability to create your garden or your estate lawn to your liking.”
Their workforce must have been incredibly substantial to pull this kind of service off.
“They had a large property, several hundred acres; their existing location is the heart of their original operations,” Panchyk said. “Back then, there was no Northern State Parkway; their property extended south to what is now a huge section of Westbury, including the Drexell Avenue School.”
Panchyk said Hicks advertised in their early days that they could move trees hundreds of miles, not just locally. They had the ability to bring trees to other states and halfway across the country. They also offered product catalogs for people to order from, especially those who did not live nearby.
“They advertised everything from evergreens to surprisingly, and back then, what we consider now to be weed trees, the Norway maple; we consider that a weed tree, an invasive species,” Panchyk said.
The 1920s was the tail end of the major building estates.
“Estate owners began shifting their focus to adding small things to their landscape, adding trees and shrubs, rhododendrons and bushes and renovating gardens,” he said.
“As the Gold Coast vanished, Hicks had to adjust its business model,” Panchyk said. “They shifted their attention to suburban customers, the people with smaller properties. Hicks shifted away from bigger trees and sold off some of its business property. They did not need the same space it once did to cultivate gigantic trees as it would for geraniums and shrubs.”
Harbor Hill is one of the largest estates that Hicks Nurseries is credited with designing although you might recognize one of their famous projects, the large beech tree on the patio of Old Westbury Gardens. That tree was established in approximately 1906, when the estate grounds were completed.
“The current day Hicks Nurseries is as successful today as it had been when it was founded,” Panchyk said.
Born in Queens, Panchyk has been a Westbury resident for 26 years. He is the author of 54 books, with more than 30 local history titles on Long Island and New York City, including Westbury: A Brief History, Westbury from Above, Hidden History of Long Island, and 101 Glimpses of the North Shore.
Visit www.oldwestburygardens.org to learn more about the lecture series.
Visit www.hicksnurseries.com/about-us to learn more about Hicks Nurseries, including photos. Open every day, Hicks Nurseries is located at 100 Jericho Tpke. in Westbury.