Behind the Vault Doors: The gardens of Hugh Roy Smith

September 8, 2021

Flowers play an important role in life. Many, if not all, of us have sweet memories of the bright red roses on your grandmother’s dinner table, the dried peony pressed in an ancestor’s diary, or the radiant orchids your spouse gives you every Valentine’s Day.

Our community has a rich floral history, particularly in Cornelius, which was once the home of gardener Hugh Roy Smith. Smith firmly believed that flowers positively impacted the morale of the people, so he dedicated his life and career to doing just that.

Hugh Roy Smith (1908-1979) grew up with a love of flowers and gardening. As a student in high school, Smith won a contest for growing the “nicest chrysanthemum,” which led to growing his interest in horticulture. After graduating from Cornelius High School in 1926, he attended Davidson College for one year, followed by pursuing his bachelors at North Carolina State College in the School of Agriculture. Upon graduation in 1932, he earned a position at the Lindley Nurseries in the propagation and landscape departments.







Original building for Smith’s Flowers and Nurseries












Aerial view of Smith’s Flowers and Nurseries

He opened his first business, Cornelius Floral Gardens, in 1933. The business later became known as Smith’s Flowers and Nurseries, Inc., and it remained open until his retirement in 1975. In 1936, he built an addition to one greenhouse and built two others, bringing the total greenhouse space approximately 7,000 square feet. Each greenhouse was steam heated and temperature controlled. His greenhouses were viewed as some of the most modern in the state of North Carolina.











Pottery Department at Smith’s Flowers in Moorseville, NC











Rosie Smith at the new show room opening event, c1960

Throughout his career, he grew and sold flowers through his shops in Cornelius and Mooresville and provided floral arrangements for weddings and pageants. He firmly believed that “flowers do something for the morale of the people,” especially since in 1933 at the time of his business’ opening, the country was coming out of the Great Depression. His son, Roy, Jr., owned and operated Smith’s Wholesale Nurseries. Smith worked with him in his retirement while also pursuing private consulting contracts.

Southern Living Show, Smith Garden, First Place

Smith’s work became nationally known through his participation in Southern Living Show exhibits where he created award-winning displays. For three years, the Smith Garden was voted First Place by popular vote. In 1966, he won the Sylvia Award from the American Society of Florists, as well as the Community Leader of America Award in 1969. He was famously known as the “Rhododendron King."











Hugh Roy Smith (left) receiving the Sylvia Award, 1966

In addition to his work, Smith was active in his community as a chairman of the Cornelius Beautification Committee and as a trustee for the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. As a charter member of the Lions Club, he helped to beautify the town and placed “Welcome Cornelius” signs around the community in the late 1960s. He participated in various floral associations and societies—he was elected President of the North Carolina State Florists’ Association in 1954 and elected to the American Academy of Florists in 1966.












Mrs. Rachel Hucks, Bookkeeper, at the new show room opening event, c1960

After his death, the Hugh Roy Smith memorial garden was erected in his honor. It was located on the east side of Highway 115 in the heart of Cornelius.










Want to learn more about gardening? Take a look at some of our other gardening collections on ArchivesSpace, or make an appointment to come view the Hugh Roy Smith Collection in the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room.


This blog was written by Sydney Carroll, archivist in the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library