In the early 1900s, as pioneers struggled to tame the wild Oregon Coast into permanent settlements, one of the most visible signs of the changing of seasons would have been the wild rhododendrons.
Only a few examples still exist, but we know they were huge and pervasive, says Sandy Zinn, a librarian at Siuslaw Pioneer Museum in Florence.
“The bright pink ones were down all the highways and some of them were 20 feet tall,” she says. “Just big, enormous bushes. They were wild and gorgeous.”
Florence became a city in 1893, as flower festivals were popping around the West Coast. In 1907, Portland started its own rose festival, following in the footsteps of Pasadena, California, which has the oldest flower festival in the West. In 1908, Florence city leaders planned their first Florence Rhododendron Festival for May, the flower’s peak blooming season.
In a 2007 Oregon Coast magazine article, it referenced an earlier interview with Laura Johnson Miller, queen of that first Florence Rhododendron Festival. “May 1908 saw the first of the flowery festivals, conceived and carried out by local citizens to celebrate one of the most gorgeous displays of natural beauty along the Oregon Coast,” the article states. “Lane County Historical Society records of the period note that ‘coastals’ (as they were called by city folk in Eugene) were ‘looked down on.’ To earn respect — and much needed tourist dollars — an idea was born. ‘I don’t know who or how, but someone thought we could attract visitors and tourists with our colorful rhododendrons,’” Miller explained in her 1975 recorded interview.
Zinn dug up a 2003 issue of the Rhody Court newsletter that gave some history of the festival. It says the theme of the first festival was “Watch Florence Grow,” and approximately 1,000 people watched Queen Laura sail down the Siuslaw River to the city dock, where the Lord Mayor of Florence, George P. Edwards, gave her a key to the city carved from rhododendron wood. Johnson earned her title by selling more baskets of handmade goods than any of the other ladies. (In 1940, basket sales gave way to button sales.) At that first festival there was a naval parade with a band, and Joaquin Miller, “the Poet of the Sierras” and Laura Johnson’s future uncle, opened the festivities as grand marshall. The huge event also included a poem read by a young Native American girl, a clambake on the beach and a grand ball.
The Oregonian reported in 1908 that it was “highly commendable” that “the little town of Florence should plan such a carnival.” It went on to say that it’s “praiseworthy” that it should create such entertainment on such a scale, “but that its first effort should be so entirely successful is almost beyond understanding.”
This year, Florence celebrates the 110th Rhododendron Festival; and while some things have changed, some have not. The event is still in May. There’s still button sales, crowning Queen Rhododendra and King of the Coast, and a grand floral parade with a grand marshal. But there are now street vendors and food, carnival rides and motorcycle clubs. Attendance is up: More than 10,000 visitors will make it a weekend.
What’s to celebrate about rhododendrons?
Hendricks Park in Eugene has become known for its colorful displays of rhododendrons, but it was formed in 1906, before the rhododendron festival took hold. At the time, it was outside the city limits and residents Thomas and Martha Hendricks had donated the first 47 acres for the park. Francis M. Wilkins, mayor of Eugene, was friends with the couple. Wilkins helped create the Lane County Fair, which was focused on agricultural crops.
A picnic shelter constructed in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration bears the Wilkins name. It was destroyed in a 1999 windstorm and was rebuilt as a replica of the original, keeping the chimney from the original 1938 structure in place.
“The park’s got a great history,” says Michael Robert, who was head gardener at the Hendricks Park Rhododendron Garden for 25 years, and worked at the park for 31 years before retiring. “The Hendricks family thought it was important to preserve this land in its natural state. I think the Hendrickses saw that logging was approaching, and they wanted to join the national park movement which was gaining popularity at that time and have a natural park in their community.”
The Rhododendron Garden was founded in 1951 by founding members of Eugene’s Rhododendron Society. In the years after World War II, flower clubs blossomed. Portland and Eugene had societies dedicated to camellias and rhododendrons, and gardens like this one became hobby gardens of the group’s members, who needed a place to put their specimens. “They supplied plants and labor and the park supplied land and irrigation,” Robert says.
Out of many donors, Del and Ray James gave the most species to the garden. They lived in the first house as you leave the borders of the park and, starting in 1963, moved more than 1,000 plants from their home garden into the park’s garden. An area of the garden and a walkway is dedicated to Del James.
According to a 1987 article in the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society, which was written by Michael Robert, the Jameses corresponded with C.P. Raffill, curator of the Kew Gardens of England from 1945 until 1951. The Jameses introduced the rhododendron “Fawn,” which was used as a parent plant for many other hybrids, and is now located at Hendricks Park.
Another important figure was James Barto, who raised a large collection of rhododendrons at his farm near Junction City. His specimens often proved to be the first of many local collections. He died in 1940 so, sadly, never saw Hendricks Park become the rhododendron garden it is today.
Before his death, his collection was the largest and most outstanding in the United States.
In 2000, a portion of the park was converted into a native plant garden. Beneath the “sutchuenense” variety is a bench dedicated to Mary Blakely, who died in 2001 and who taught for two years at a school in the Sichuan Province. Mary and her husband, Jerry, who died in 2013, were primary benefactors of the five-acre Hendricks Park Native Plant Garden. The garden itself was planned and laid out by Chinese landscape architect Jin Chen, who had been a student and friend of Mary Blakely.