Theophilus Gottlieb Roessle was born in Stuttgart in the Kingdom of Wurtemberg, Germany, on March 19th, 1811. His father was a successful market farmer and builder in the community. Like many of the children in his homeland, Theophilus received a good quality education that his father supplemented with a solid training in agriculture.
While still a young boy, Theophilus learned the peculiarities inherent in the cultivation of plants.
In 1825, while only 14 years old, Theophilus left his family and, alone, he came to America. After visiting relatives in Boston and the city of New York for a short time, Theophilus decided to explore the western frontier of the new world. He packed his bags and set out for the small rough and tumble Erie Canal settlement of Rochester, New York.
Roessle and a companion boarded an Erie Canal boat at Albany and set out for Rochester. There, they disembarked, but found that their luggage was no longer on the boat. They were told that the luggage must have been unloaded at Utica.
Unfortunately, both Roessle and his companion had left their money in their trunk. They were now penniless and neither Roessle nor his friend could speak English. To make matters worse, Roessle’s companion became extremely ill and although Roessle did everything he could to help him, his friend died.
Roessle became “very dispirited” but lacking any other alternative, he started walking back 140 miles to Utica along the Erie Canal path. Sleeping in the woods adjacent to the canal, it took Roessle several days to make it back to Utica. He reported to the canal boat office using gestures to try to communicate his problem, but his trunk was nowhere to be found. Lacking any other alternative, he continued his walk several more days covering the additional 90 miles back to Albany.
Reaching Schenectady, he diverted from the Erie Canal and walked down the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike (today’s Central Avenue) toward the capital city. Reaching the last toll booth on the turnpike, he came upon a tavern serving breakfast (possibly Stanford’s Elm Grove Inn) but having no money, he stood outside evaluating his chances to get a meal. Shortly, a farmer drove his team up to the door of the tavern and gestured to Roessle to hold his horses, while the farmer went in to breakfast.
When the farmer emerged from the tavern, he tipped Roessle a sixpence, an almost insignificant sum, but enough to pay for breakfast. This was the first money Theophilus said that he earned in America.
Arriving in Albany, Roessle met a young girl selling matches. When Roessle realized that the little girl spoke a language he could understand, he asked her where her family lived. She directed him to a small dirty room, in a small building with a dirt floor, where a husband and wife slept on straw with several children. The family was Swiss.
Roessle asked the father if he could stay for the night because winter had arrived and the weather had turned cold. The father agreed to take Roessle in for the night. In the morning, the family awoke to realize that several inches of snow had fallen during the night. Borrowing a shovel from the father, Roessle set out offering his services around Albany shoveling snow. He made a dollar and a half that first day.
His second day he made a like sum cutting and splitting firewood and then got a job lasting several days cutting and splitting wood for an old Dutch dominie (minister). While working for the dominie, his hard work came to the attention of Doctor Peter Wendell (1785-1849), a physician for over 40 years in Albany who served on the State’s Board of Regents, and Chancellor from 1842 until 1849.
Wendell made a deal with Roessle to come to work for him. The doctor offered to provide Roessle with his board, two suits of clothes and $40 for a year’s work in return for sweeping out the doctor’s office and driving the doctor’s carriage on his daily rounds. Roessle remained employed by Wendell for four years.
About 1829, the 18-year-old Roessle leased a farm on the Great Western Turnpike (now Western Avenue) and turned to farming. Using his small savings to construct a house, he took in a boarder who was an English landscape gardener names Sears. The next spring Roessle planted some flowers to be used for landscaping in addition to his vegetables.
By summer, Roessle and Sears had taken on a landscaping project for John Prentice and the work was said to be done so skillfully and beautifully that requests for additional landscaping work poured in.
Roessle began to accumulate property, one small parcel at a time. The cost of land in Upstate New York was far less than the cost of land in Europe and as Roessle accumulated more property, he cleared and plowed the land and planted more and more vegetables. Celery became his main crop.
In 1831, 20-year-old Roessle married Jane Booth, an Englishwoman. The marriage took place at the First Lutheran Church in Albany and the reception was held at the home of Dr. Wendell.
As his reputation grew, the amount of land under cultivation grew to some 116 acres. A high number of jobs, cultivated by a strong Albany-area manufacturing and farming economy, created a high demand for workers and subsequently high wages. When Roessle was unable to hire enough workers at the rate he was paying, he abandoned his landscaping business and directed his total efforts to farming.
Roessle not only sold his celery and other vegetables direct to consumers, he also wholesaled them to grocery jobbers who shipped them all over the Northeast. He not only supplied Albany but also supplied both the Washington and Fulton Markets in the city of New York, many of the riverboats, Saratoga hotels and restaurants and grocers in Schenectady. In 1835, when Roessle was still only 24, he sold a thousand bunches of celery every day during the season . In 1838, his son Theophilus Elwood Roessle was born.
In 1840, he bought a new farm on what is now Central Avenue in Colonie, where he built a beautiful new house. In the 1840s however, Roessle took a trip back to Stuttgart to visit his family and significantly diminished his financial resources. He came back more convinced than ever that the best place for a poor person to become successful was America.
When he returned he borrowed money to restart his business. That following summer he heard that there had been a major drought in New York’s Southern Tier so he bought up all the vegetables he could find and when the prices went up he realized a profit of $2,000 from the vegetables he had purchased.
In 1849, Roessle began negotiations to purchase the Delavan House in Albany. The Delavan House had been Albany’s most prestigious hotel but was falling on hard times. Roessle was owed a substantial amount by the owner of the Delavan and Roessle worked out terms to become a joint owner and soon after became the sole owner.
He made improvements of all kinds in conformance with his ideas of what an important hotel should be and restored the hotel to one of the foremost in the United States. In 1850, Roessle’s wife Jane died and he remarried Maria Wheeler Hurlburt on February 19th, 1851 in the First Lutheran Church. They had two sons Marcus and Charles.
Theophilus Roessle’s home was a large 11-room mansion located just west of the railroad overpass on the Albany Schenectady Turnpike. The entrance to the mansion (today’s Elmhurst Ave.) was on the opposite side of the street from the Elm Grove Tavern and Inn owned by Josiah Stanford (father of Leland Stanford-governor of California). The entrance was guarded by a gatehouse and reclining stone lions on either side of the road.
In 1853, the church that later became known as the Roessleville United Presbyterian Church was formed as a Congregational Church on land at least partially purchased from Josiah Stanford, who was one of the first trustees. In 1859, more land was purchased from Stanford for $200. On May 25th, 1865 this church burned to the ground, but a new building was built.
In December of that year, the trustees voted to rename the congregation the “Presbyterian Society of Pine Grove.” In 1876, Theophilus Roessle’s name first appears as a trustee. In 1879, the rules and bylaws of the church first bear the name “Roessleville Presbyterian Church.” The name of the hamlet of Roessleville probably dates from just prior to that time and indicates the importance of Theophilus Roessle to the community both as an employer and benefactor.
In 1860, Roessle published what he thought would be the first of a series of books on planting and growing vegetables. His 100-page Roessle’s Gardner’s Handbooks No. 1, How to Cultivate and Preserve Celery was published by Barker & Co. of Albany and contains a preface by Henry S. Olcott, Agriculture Editor of the New York Tribune, who tells the inspiring tale of Roessle’s success.
In 1866, Roessle bought the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George and, in 1869 he purchased the Arlington House in Washington, D.C. His son Theophilus Elwood Roessle and grandson Edward Roessle managed the hotels.
Theophilus Gottleib Roessle died on October 13th, 1890 in Roessleville. Theophilus and his son Theophilus, and their wives are buried in Lot 23, Section 41 at Albany Rural Cemetery.
In 1891, son Theophilus published a book about Roessleville, A Historic Corner in a Historic City, published by New York Engraving and Printing Company. Son Theophilus died on August 10th, 1904 in Paris, France.
Illustrations, from above: an Erie Canal packet boat, possibly, as was often the case overcrowded with immigrants (courtesy Erie Canal Museum); Portrait of Theophilus Roessle; Dr Peter Wendell of Albany (courtesy NY Public Library); a field of celery after applying blanching papers in the Venice Celery District in California in 1927 (courtesy Los Angeles Public Library); historic celery fields in the town of Colonie (Paul Hein Topographics illustration courtesy Colonie Historical Society); the Delavan House in Albany; and Theophilus Roessle’s family plot in Albany Rural Cemetery (courtesy Paula Lemire).
Dave Waite says
Peter, An excellent story about a young man who not only overcame adversity but created his own opportunities and went on to succeed in life. Thank you for sharing this so others could read about the inspiring life of Theophilus Roessle.