Two things come to mind when I think of roses: my mother’s garden and fussy old rosarians.
When I was a kid, we lived in a modest blue-collar suburb. Each identical house had an identical floor plan, an identical concrete driveway, and an identical tiny lot. National Homes promised the growing middle class three bedrooms and a bath for paltry sum of $10,000 and every home in the subdivisions were essentially identical: one story, aluminum sided, with an attached garage. Sure, the buyer could customize a little. Siding and shingle colors could be selected and those with a sense of style could even add fake shutters to flank the aluminum-framed windows. Real customization was in the hands of the owners in the days before neighborhood associations and everyone thinking their business extends into your backyard and for my mother that meant planting foundation gardens. I can remember an old cabbage rose that grew behind the tool shed in a forgotten corner of my mother’s garden. It was a rangy beast with formidable thorns and fat blooms that weighed down the canes. In the summer they’d nod drowsily, scenting the air with a soft sweetness that defined roses in my mind. The old cabbage rose wasn’t fussy, weeds ran riot around its feet and a snowball hydrangea fought with it for space, but it survived and even thrived on the neglect. That garden became a patchy jungle host to a thousand childhood fantasies, most of them involving Micronauts, green army men, and Star Wars figurines and interstellar battles for right and justice.
The second thing that comes to mind is Aunt Bea. Well, not the Aunt Beabut women of a particular era that probably never really existed. Roses seem to be the purview of grandmotherly women and librarian-esque men. They wear wide-brimmed gardening hats and don dove-colored gauntlets while they prune away damaged canes and apply pesticide with a piston sprayer. They struggle against the ravages of aphids and the forces of nature to cultivate the perfect tea rose. They are stern teetotalers, go to church twice a week, and might play piano in the parlor during the evenings (though nothing racier than Mendelson). In short, really dull people.
Until now, these two visions of the rose served, I never needed to refine them because I don’t grow roses. Life isn’t content to leave one’s preconceptions alone, though, and it constantly presents new experiences that require rethinking what you thought you knew. That was the case when we were invited to attend the First Annual Purdue Extension Rosefest as the guest of friend and master gardener Monica Taylor. In the run up to Rosefest, I thought I should do some research so I hit the books.
Firstly, roses are ancient with fossil evidence showing their existence 35 million years ago. Species grow across the northern hemisphere with cultivation most likely starting in China about 5000 years ago. Romans used rose petals as confetti, for medical purposes, and as a source of perfume and their popularity has waxed and waned with the whims of gardeners since those times. They have been the symbol of piety, purity, and war through their varied history and even been used as legal tender in Napoleon’s France. Today most novice gardeners grow shrub roses: low maintenance repeat bloomers that can be stuck in a garden and practically forgotten. We even have one of these in our modest garden, a leggy beast with long, arching canes that grab viciously at the passerby and flowers that, owing to its location, can be described as threadbare at best. Back in the late 1800’s similar, reblooming species were introduced from China spurring interest in hybridizing in those who grew roses. Soon there were roses that bloomed longer, could endure colder temperatures, that had stronger scents, that climbed, that were shrubs, and all in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Reading about the efforts to create reflowering roses in the early 1900’s opened a door on a forgotten memory of a day trying to escape the pressures of parents, school, and the general tragedy that was the teen years. On this particular summer day I’d left the family cabin seeking the solitude and solace of the woods. I don’t remember the reason, but I was in a particular funk and angry at the world and I made my way up through the woods and into the several-acre field that sat atop a neighboring bluff. I’d only gotten a few paces into the clearing when thorny canes caught my pants and shirt and no matter how I fought and tore, I couldn’t get loose. I was forced to stop, calm down, and take in my surroundings. I’d waded into a patch of Rosa multiflora, a sprawling ocean of arching canes and swells of white flowers. The gentle fragrance filled the air and for a minute I stood there taking in the sight and smell. Once I calmed down the thorns seemed to let go and I was free to go. That rose was doubtless an escapee from one of the many homesteads that dotted Southern Indiana in the 1800’s; a refugee from the garden of some pioneering gardener’s attempt to bring civility to the rough and wild backwoods. Rosa multiflora runs wild in Indiana, mingling with greenbriar and blackberry brambles to create formidable no-man’s lands in which chipmunks, mice, and small birds shelter. The pennants on these castles of thorns are the drifts of white roses, markers of the nobility settlers sought and failed to cultivate.
In a way, that civilization of the wilderness with roses started with Thomas Jefferson who grew roses at Monticello, providing an example for the gentleman farmer of the early 19th century. In 1811 John Chapney, a South Carolina merchant, introduced the first American hybridized rose, “Champney’s Pink Cluster”. It would be 1844 before the first American rose nursery appeared and with it the first manual on growing roses. In 1867 the first hybrid Teas would appear when Chinese “Tea” roses were crossed with hybrid perpetual bloomers. The name “Tea” was given to the resulting rose because the fragrance was thought to resemble that of tea. You can blame this period whenever you buy a hot new rose, bring it home, enjoy one year of flowering, and the next spring get a run of the mill maroon flower. The cause is the grafting of a hardy rootstock called the “Dr. Huey” cultivar of Rosa wichuraiana which grants cold resistance.
In the 1870’s the great-great granddaughter of the event I attended today was held in Massachusetts and I wonder how closely they bear a resemblance. Today, in spite of the heat, we milled about the Hendricks County Fairground exhibition garden with iced tea and cookies while Monica regaled us with her encyclopedic knowledge of the rose. We enjoyed the aged elegance of hybrid teas and old world garden roses, the cascading blossoms of climbers and drift roses, and heard the stories of Peggy Martin (who lost everything in hurricane Katrina except for the rose that bears her name), Dr. Griffith Buck, and David Austin.
What struck me most about the show was its informality. I’d expected a lot more fuss, bother, and stuffiness and I gather some rose shows are every bit the nose-in-the-air affair, but this one was very low key and friendly. The exterior garden was small, but meticulously maintained by gardeners who really know their stuff and my favorite moment of the show was standing among the blooms enveloped in their scent. Roses have a presence and force of personality. It’s not quite on par with that of a several-hundred year old oak tree, but it’s still there, pulling you back to the soil and linking you with the Earth’s pulse. I might have been a rosarian in a former life, or maybe a crusty Scottish gardener blustering about an estate, brooding over the condition of the allee or the Italian garden. After the garden display we went into the exhibit hall to see the competition. This show wasn’t juried , instead those who attended voted from a selection of categories to select the winners. The categories were: bouquets, single blooms, sprays, scent, and there even was a group of photographs. Nice, small show that was perfectly viewable in a morning.
Improving Riverside, As the Railroad Would Have it
"Where shall we stroll, my dear - to the Abattoir, the Garbage Dump, the Coal Pocket, or the Gas Tank?"
There are times when you can compare a comic's content to reality. Back in 1917 when this bit ran in Life Magazine, The NY Central Railroad was proposing development along the Hudson River at 69th Street. Almost a hundred years later, the railroad is gone and only the scars remain. I snagged the photo below to show what the remains of the railroad look like today.
Day three of the
Scott Joplin Festival took us out of the world of ragtime and to the 1920’s
retreat of a rich Missouri lawyer and businessman John Homer Bothwell. He
arrived in Sedalia, MO in 1871 where he set up a practice and married Hattie
Jaynes, the sister of his partner, but his bliss would not last. Two years
after they married, Hattie died due to complications shortly after giving birth
to a stillborn daughter. Bothwell would never remarry and go to his grave
childless. Instead, he entered politics, serving four terms in the Missouri
state legislature and making an unsuccessful run for the governor’s office. It
would be his position as president of the West St. Louis Water and Light
Company that would make his fortune, though and he stayed with the company
Beginning in 1897,
Bothwell set to work on a retreat – a place where he could escape the hustle
and stress of business and fade into nature which he loved. He was known to
wander the roads and trails, sometimes being mistaken as a hitch hiker by
motorists. In 1928 Bothwell Lodge was completed and it became his full time
home. Like the man whose name our hotel bears, we vacated Sedalia for the
For us, with the
benefit of a modern highway and car, it was barely was a fifteen minute jaunt from
town to Bothwell’s getaway. We headed out before the town really woke up and
were under the boughs of the forest before the first piano ivory had been
tickled. This part of the state is rolling and rocky, with bluffs and cliffs
here and there. Bothwell Lodge sits at the edge of one of these cliffs, a house
that seems to spring from the Missouri limestone. We spent most of the morning
walking the grounds, taking in the sights and taking photographs.
The Lodge is a
model of the man who built it; an eclectic jumble of parts that go together
even though they don’t seem like they should. Bothwell started out with a
small, one room cabin, but when he found that guests were always vying for
space he expanded, adding a tower, office, and several guest bedrooms and
connecting the house itself to a cave system as a form of improvised air conditioning.
He had a library with thousands of books covering subjects from religion,
business, and politics to woodworking, book collecting, and novels. He
travelled the world, supported charity, helped to build a local hospital,
donated to local school children, and generally was an upstanding citizen.
At the age of 70,
Bothwell died from Bright’s disease, spending his waning days in a hospital bed
that had been moved to the lodge’s sleeping porch. He would have heard the
birds singing and maybe an errant bee from the hive he kept in the wall of the
upstairs office and his last breaths would have been perfumed with the scent of
the woods on the late summer breeze.
two of the Sedalia Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival has come and gone and, as with
most day twos, some of the glow wears off and you begin to discover little
irritations. Our room at the Bothwell is a wonderful example of the
expectations of the 20’s traveler, but it’s also a reminder I’m not a 20’s traveler.
For one, the bed has proven to be the equivalent of sleeping on one of those
bags stuntmen fall into when diving from the top of a building. For
travel-weary, aching backs it’s less than ideal. So, today my post will be
short, since I’m nearly falling asleep on the keyboard, I just hope the lousy internet connection uploads this in less than an hour.
This morning we
went to a seminar entitled The Ragtime
Life where ragtime master Max Morath. Max may be familiar, he’s been
banging the ivories longer than I’ve been alive and worked with the great Eubie Blake,
wrote and starred in the PBS American Experience series, and if none of that rings any bells he did play piano on one show of someone
you might know – one Captain Kangaroo. His description of what it meant to be
there when ragtime went from being “old timey music” nobody listened to, to the
soundtrack of The Sting was really
eye opening. I thought being a musician was something that just happened, an
outgrowth of being really talented and driven, but there is a lot of compromise
and plenty of trials along the way.
Next I got to
watch Kelly and Bob interviewed about their experience at the first Joplin-fest
back in 1974. Nice playing paparazzi for that event, it was fun to listen to
both of them talk through their part at the beginning of this festival.
Well, now it’s
off to bed. Tomorrow is our day away from seminars. We’re heading to Bothwell
Lodge for a tour of the mansion and a little hiking to compensate for the
cookies and barbecue we’ve been indulging in over this week.
I’m writing from Hotel Bothwell in Sedalia, MO – Queen of the Prairie and
one-time home of ragtime genius Scott Joplin. For my dear Kelly, this is a trip
down memory lane. Her parents have been ragtime enthusiasts for decades and
they brought her to Sedalia as a child to attend the annual Scott Joplin
Ragtime Festival. For me, on the other hand, it’s another first and further
proof that the proverbial old dog can, in fact, learn a trick or two, new or
otherwise. I knew I liked Joplin the first time I saw The Sting and heard Easy
Winners, Solace, and The Entertainer.
Thirty-some years have passed and I’m still discovering things I love about
the culture, music, and fashion of the ragtime era. So, when Kelly suggested we
travel to Sedalia for what might be one last Joplin Festival with her parents,
there was no way I could say “no”.
We set off from
Indy this morning at an hour that really doesn’t qualify as early, rolling out
of town around seven o’clock and clearing the city before rush hour was over in
the company of rain. The trip west, at least across the planes of Illinois was
uneventful in spite of Google Maps best efforts to convince us Sedalia, MO is
located in Tennessee. We eventually sorted out our route and arrived at Hotel
Bothwell by four o’clock, only shortly before the streets were taken in for the
opened in 1927, a classy seven story hotel in a small town with all the modern
conveniences and, supposedly, it’s haunted…so we may be sharing our room. That
remains to be seen. What I can say is staying in a room from the 20’s puts you
in touch with just how overboard our expectations and addiction to gadgetry has
gotten in our modern age. It’s a room that a queen-sized bed makes feel
crowded. Back when the hotel opened the average traveler would have one, maybe
two bags relying on the in-house laundry service to keep him in clothes, they
would have slept on a twin bed, and had no computer or cell phone to plug in to
the wall…in fact, phones were in the lobby or in wall sconces in the hallways.
I killed a little
time walking around the town square, taking in the sights around the courthouse
and trying to imagine what the town must have looked like in Joplin’s day. He’d
played the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but by 1894 he was living in a tiny
Midwestern town that couldn’t offer him the professional opportunities he would
have in the big city. Now the courtyard has a memorial to the soldiers who took part in World Ward I, a statue of a dough boy with bayonet and grenade, a war that didn't end until after Joplin's death. Now there's a Howitzer from World War II and boots and a M16 from Vietnam. All around the courthouse were the relics of war, yet nothing of the man who helped create a style of music that's influenced everything from bluegrass and country to rock and rap.
Afternoon turned to evening and we rested from the long drive for a while and then walked a block
to the Liberty Theater for the night’s concert and heard some of the best
ragtime pianists around; listened to tunes like Easy Winners, Black Lightning Cakewalk, and American Beauty; and generally had a great time. Tomorrow, dancing
and ragtime dance lessons, more music, and more pictures.