An ARS Retrospective: Our First Decade, 1944-1954, Part I
Franklin H. West
(Following is the first of a five-part series on the history of the American Rhododendron Society, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.)
We were just a gleam in our founders' eyes long before we became a reality. As early as 1931 Guy Nearing wrote to Joe Gable: "We really need a rhododendron society in this country." World War II helped bring us into the world, because it interrupted most British rhododendron activities, on which our founders were quite dependent. In September 1940 Guy complained to Joe Gable that his letter to the British Rhododendron Association took so long to get there that the seeds he had hoped to purchase were all sold and the yearbook no longer available: "Under the circumstances, it might be worthwhile to launch an American Rhododendron Association, and try to keep up the interest until the British one resumes."
There were more like-minded folks in the Pacific Northwest than back East. In 1942 there was mention of a rhododendron association, but "the time was not right," according to Ruth Hansen, Secretary of the Society from 1947 until 1964. In her brief history of the ARS which was written in 1974 for the Quarterly Bulletin reprints of 1947-8-9, she wrote: "It was not until May 29,1944, that the local newspapers reported: "Rhododendron Group Formed" and "Rhododendron City Soon." One of the articles boasted: "Portland, in the heart of the greatest rhododendron growing country in America, is to become the seat of the parent chapter of an American Rhododendron Society. A group of collectors and growers met recently at the home of E. R. Peterson on West Slope (Portland) and formed the Rhododendron Society. This is the first organization of its kind in the United States, so there is a possibility that it will spread and become a national organization. Selected as officers of the Society were John Henny Jr. of Brooks, Ore., president; H. C. Ihrig, Seattle, Wash., vice-president; E. R. Peterson, Portland, Ore., treasurer; and George Grace, also of Portland, was chosen secretary." Another preliminary meeting was held June 20, 1944, from which a circular letter was written to interested people: "It was decided that the annual dues should be $5.00 and all those who, after due notice of the first public meeting, signify their intention of joining and send in their annual fees shall be charter members. The first meeting will be held July 7, 1944, at 8 p.m. in the public Service Building in Portland."
In attendance at that first public meeting were enthusiasts from both Oregon and Washington. Hansen continues: The progress of the Society was detailed by the officers. W. G. Tucker, a Portland fancier, spoke on the culture of rhododendrons; H. H. Harms, Joe Johnson and Nick Radovich all of Portland spoke words of greeting to the group, as did Endre Ostbo, prominent specialist in English rhododendrons from Seattle, Wash. John Bacher thrilled the audience with his showing of colored slides. The dwarf Lapponicums impressed me far more than the large flowered hybrids. Bacher also presented a plant of Rhododendron bureavii which was auctioned off to benefit the new ARS treasury. Bacher predicted July 7, 1944, would be a date to be remembered in horticultural history. On January 9, 1945, the articles of incorporation of the ARS were signed and sealed by the elected officers, with the exception of P. H. Brydon, Vice President, who replaced Mr. Ihrig of Seattle.
As Editor Rudolph Henny recalled it (Quart. Bull., Vol. 9. No. 3): "The founding members had met on the day of the great invasion of Europe (June 6, 1944). Present were E. R. Peterson, George Grace, W. G. Tucker, H. H. Harms, John Bacher, and John and Rudolph Henny. John Bacher declined the vice presidency and the late W. G. Tucker was extended the honor of membership card number one. The first public meeting was scheduled for September. (Hansen's circular letter said July 7.) Less than 40 persons attended in the auditorium of the Public Service Building in Portland.
Henny also reported: The Oregon Journal underwrote the cost of incorporating the new group and proffered a large tract of uncleared land as a site for a rhododendron park near the Medical School, but the rough terrain [clay soil] and lack of available water and adequate fencing made [the proposal] appear futile. Two great gardening magazines mentioned the formation of the Society and almost immediately applications for membership were received from many states.
Our first Board of Directors: John G. Bacher, Portland; Arthur O. Wright, Milwaukie, Ore.; Howard J. Slonecker, Oak Grove, Ore.; Dr. Royal Gick, Eugene, Ore.; Donald L. Hardgrove, Baldwin, N.Y.; Joe M. Johnson, Portland; P. H. Brydon, Salem, Ore.; James Brennan, Edmonds, Wash.
The Society published yearbooks edited at first by Dean Collins and later by Robert M. Gatke in 1945 (hybrids), in 1946 (species), 1947 (stud book), 1948 (azaleas), and 1949 (hybrids). In addition to rhododendron information, a roster of the charter members of the Society was included in the 1945 book. Among the charter members were, from Oregon: John Bacher, Mrs. A. C. U. Berry, Dr. Royal Gick, George D. Grace, Ruth M. Hansen, John and Rudolph Henny, D. W. James, Mr. and Mrs. Joe M. Johnson, Grant and E. Mitsch, Howard Parker (later a WWII casualty), E. R. Peterson, Dr. Carl H. Phetteplace, Merle F. Saunders, Theodore Van Veen, Sr., and Arthur C. Wright; from Washington: P. H. Brydon, Mr. and Mrs. Donald G. Graham, B. F. Lancaster, H. L. Larson, B. F. Nelson, Endre Ostbo, W. E. Whitney, and Lester E. Brandt; from New York: Clement G. Bowers, D. L. Hardgrove, and Hicks Nursery; from California: Dr. Paul J. Bowman; from Canada: E. and M. Greig; from Maryland: Frederic P. Lee; from Virginia: Powell Glass.
The tradition of an annual Rhododendron Show was begun in the spring of 1945 with a non-competitive exhibition of blossoming plants on Park Avenue in front of the art museum in downtown Portland. Nice collections of cut trusses came from Bremerton, Wash., and Eureka, Calif. Twenty to twenty-five thousand persons visited the grounds. Each variety was clearly labeled. According to John Bacher (ARS Yearbook 1946): Perhaps the most widely admired among the pinks was 'Mrs. C. B. Van Nes'. Impressive specimens of 'Loderi', 'Beauty of Littleworth', 'Mrs. C. W. Leak', 'Blue Peter', 'Sappho', 'Bow Bells', 'Unique', 'Day Dream', 'Pink Pearl', 'Mrs. E. C. Sterling', and 'Mars' won hosts of admirers. Fine specimens of the species augustinii, decorum, calophytum, falconeri, and sinogrande surprised the visitors.
The first Quarterly Bulletin was published in 1947 under Rudolph Henny's editorship, who continued in this post until his untimely death in 1963. Initially a single printed page folded in the middle, it soon grew into a first class publication under his leadership. As Alfred Martin put it: "This devoted man served without compensation during his first 10 years as Editor."
As Ruth Hansen described: The 1948 Rhododendron Show held in the old armory in downtown Portland was truly an extravaganza. A 30-foot waterfall cascaded from the balcony to the lower floor, where it meandered in a stream before being pumped again to the balcony. Hybrid and species rhododendrons were artistically placed along the banks. The show was aesthetically beautiful [but] it was a financial failure and that plunged the Society into debt, which caused much internal friction for the next two years. Our fledgling Society nearly came apart in consequence. The $1,000.00 deficit was made up by contributions from the show exhibitors.
In January 1949 new leadership was voted into office, with Claude I. Sersanous, president; Lester Brandt, vice-president; Sherman Green, treasurer; and Ruth M. Hansen, secretary. Elected directors were George Grace, John Henny, R. M. Gatke, Donald Graham, Brian O. Mulligan, and E. N. Eisenhower.
With the printing costs of the yearbooks ever rising, the membership was asked in 1949 to decide whether to continue them or make a major commitment to the Bulletin instead. The Bulletin won.
During the fall meeting of the American Horticultural Congress, 75 interested persons attended the first meeting of the "Eastern Division of the ARS" at the Essex House in New York on Oct. 30, 1949. Donald L. Hardgrove was elected secretary. This development led to a proposal for local chapters for members too far from Portland. The necessary bylaw was adopted in September 1951, by which time New York, Seattle and Tacoma were well on their own as chapters. Portland was not fully recognized as a chapter until 1955: in the interim it was the ARS. The national officers also served as Portland Chapter officers.
Claude Sersanous envisaged a rhododendron test garden at Crystal Springs Lake Island, and with support from the Society, the city of Portland passed an ordinance establishing the garden in June 1950. The secretary-treasurer now had to keep three sets of books, one for Portland Chapter, one for the ARS, and one for the test garden. John Bacher chaired the Test Garden Committee for the first five years. C. I. Sersanous was one of the major financial supporters of the project.
In 1952, at the request of the Board, C. T. Hansen designed a medal to be awarded to individuals for their outstanding contributions to the genus Rhododendron in its various phases. The first recipient of this Gold Medal was President Sersanous "for outstanding meritorious service." Early in 1953 Joseph B. Gable received the second, "in grateful acknowledgment of 30 years of accomplishment in the investigation and hybridization of the Rhododendron genus." Joseph F. Rock was the third recipient in April 1954 "in grateful acknowledgment of his horticultural work as a plant explorer and achievement in the discovery of new and valuable species of the genus Rhododendron."
By early 1954 our membership had grown to 914, and the cash surplus in the bank amounted to $9,706.33. The chapters were Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene, California, New York, and Middle Atlantic, formed in that order.
The first eight volumes of the ARS Quarterly Bulletin hold much of interest to the 1994 reader. People, places, and plants are given nearly equal attention. Chapter minutes were published, cultural practices described, the bylaws were written and revised, hybridists debated their theories (sometimes heatedly), hardiness and quality ratings were published, a plant name registry was established, propagation techniques were revealed, rules for plant awards were adopted, and the bothersome confusion resulting from giving the same name to all seedlings of a cross as given to the named clone of that cross, was resolved in favor of the named clone. Seedling grexes thenceforth had to be so labeled: "gr." Rules and regulations for flower shows were promulgated and show results publicized, two plant explorers (J. F. Rock and Kingdon-Ward) were funded and their seed collections distributed. What a splendid set of accomplishments for the first 10 years! And this was just the beginning.
Dr. Franklin H. West, Eastern Vice-President of the ARS and a member of the Pine Barrens Chapter, co-edited the book Hybrids and Hybridizers, Rhododendrons and Azaleas for Eastern North America.