Carl Axel Nobelius migrated from Sweden in 1872 and with his training and experience in horticulture he quickly obtained work as a nursery assistant, and later foreman, for the prominent landscaping firm Taylor and Sangster of Toorak. He then moved on to work for South Yarra nurseryman Joseph Harris.
However, Nobelius dreamed of having his own nursery, so whilst continuing to work for Joseph Harris in South Yarra he began looking for land where he might be able to fulfil his ambition. He subsequently purchased a partially cleared 25 hectares (63 acres) ‘allotment’ near Emerald in 1886, which he worked on, over a number of years, on his weekends.
In 1892 Nobelius left his job in South Yarra and moved his family up to his Emerald property. Whilst Nobelius initially concentrated on establishing a small orchard, he soon turned his attention to raising nursery stock and early the following year he began trading as ‘Gembrook Nurseries’, as Emerald, at the time, was part of the Parish of Gembrook.
The nursery business, which focused upon mainly supplying fruit trees on a ‘wholesale’ basis, grew steadily, and by 1899 it employed 23 workers. However, at that time the business had to transport its trees by bullock dray 25 kilometres to Narre Warren station before they could be transported to Melbourne by train. Given that these trees were lifted and transported in the winter months, this proved to be very difficult.
Not surprisingly Nobelius lobbied enthusiastically for a railway line to be built from Ferntree Gully to link the district to the outside world. This subsequently proved to be successful and a ‘narrow gauge’ line was built from Ferntree Gully to Gembrook with the first train running in December 1900.
In 1904 the Victorian Railways built a siding and gave Nobelius permission to build a packing shed alongside of the railway line. In the packing shed trees were packed in straw and hessian and tied with twine ready for transport. Below the packing shed there was a fumigation chamber, where, consignments could be fumigated before dispatch, if requested by the customer.
Gembrook Nurseries expanded rapidly after the turn of the century, and by 1903 Nobelius had one million trees for sale and employed 36 workers.
In 1904 an article in the ‘Australian Nurseryman’ reported that the nursery had 200 varieties of apples, 107 varieties of peaches, 64 varieties of pears, 60 varieties of cherries, plus a range of other fruits and ornamental trees for sale. The article also reported that there were 25,000 of each of the four most popular varieties of apples for sale.
However, it should be noted that to achieve this sale volume Nobelius not only sold trees in Melbourne, he also sold substantial numbers of trees interstate and overseas. In fact, by the beginning of the twentieth century Nobelius had established markets for both fruit and ornamental trees in the United States, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, Europe and parts of Asia.
The success of the Gembrook Nurseries was, in part, based upon the nurseries reliability and the cleanliness of its stock. This, no doubt, was due to the use of blight-free rootstocks and cultural practices such as regular weeding and the quick removal and burning of any stock damaged by pests or disease.
Most of the trees grown in the nursery were grown on rootstocks that were later either budded or grafted. A journalist at the time reported that a man, on average, could bud 2,000 trees in a ‘nine hour day’. A fact, perhaps not surprising. given that the men were paid based upon the number of trees that they budded.
As demand for his trees continued to grow, Nobelius purchased another fifteen hectares (40 acres) to the south of his existing holdings in 1906 which allowed him to increase his stock levels to one and half million trees and employ 50 workers.
In 1909 Nobelius purchased even more land to increase his total holdings to more than 80 hectares (200 acres). This allowed Nobelius to increase his stock levels to two and half million trees and employ 80 workers just before World War I. At about this time, it was clear that the Gembrook Nurseries were the biggest in the ‘southern hemisphere’.
At its peak, Gembrook Nurseries stretched from Nobelius Street north of Emerald, south across Gembrook Road to Paternoster Road, and included land that both the Emerald Country Club and the Emerald Lake now occupy.
Unfortunately, World War I saw the loss of many of Gembrook Nurseries' overseas markets, a loss from which the business never recovered.
In 1921 Carl Nobelius died and his properties were divided up and sold to two wealthy syndicates. In 1924 one of Nobelius’ sons, Arch Nobelius bought back 36 hectares (90 acres) of this land, and he, along with his brother Cliff, (who bought a share of the business in 1928), continued on with the business their father had established under the name ‘C.A. Nobelius & Sons’.
The Nobelius family continued working in the nursery business, until 1955 when they sold the business to Stan and Les Linton of Clayton. Whilst the sale of the business saw the end of the Nobelius family’s involvement with the nursery, the business continued to trade under the name ‘Nobelius & Sons Nursery’.
A point worth noting here, is at the time of the sale of the nursery, the only remaining freehold land on which the nursery operated was the four and half hectares that the current Nobelius Heritage Park occupies.
The Linton's subsequently sold the nursery to Ern Smith in 1967. This business operated as a ‘retail’ nursery, and likes its predecessor, sort to capitalise on the Nobelius name by trading as ‘Din San’s Nobelius Nurseries, Emerald’. However, eventually the nursery fell into neglect and was finally closed in 1981.
After considerable lobbying the land on which the nursery was based was purchased by the former Shire of Sherbrooke with the help of the State Government. In 1988 the land, now a public park opened as ‘Nobelius Heritage Nursery’ even though in fact it was not operated as a business. Eventually to avoid confusion, the ‘park’ was renamed the ‘Nobelius Heritage Park’.
In 1993 the ‘Emerald Museum’ was constructed and opened in the ‘Nobelius Heritage Park’. The Museum is an archival repository and display centre for a wide range of items that relate to both the history of the Gembrook / Nobelius & Sons Nurseries and the Emerald district as a whole.
The ‘Nobelius Heritage Park’ today preserves a number of historic structures and pieces of infra-structure, as well as a wide range of ornamental and native trees and shrubs that relate in some way to the history of the Gembrook / Nobelius Nurseries.
The ‘Nobelius Heritage Park’ also contains a number of different of plantings that commemorate other historically important, local, plant based industries such as the timber and eucalyptus oil industries, and the fruit, flax, lavender and rosemary growing industries.
This article is adapted from a presentation produced for the Nobelius Heritage Park and Emerald Museum by Gary Hearnes in April, 2011. It is based mainly on the historical research published in the book entitled ‘Nobelius Heritage Park : An Illustrated Guide’ by Jo Jenkinson (published by the Emerald Museum in 2002). The historical photographs used in the presentation were provided by the Emerald Museum and Chris Britton.