JARS v38n4 - Giants of the Past

Giants of the Past
Ted Van Veen, Portland, OR

John G. Bacher — Portland, Ore. 1883 - 1961    Age: 78
A European trained horticulturist who pioneered the nursery and landscape business in the Portland area. Charter Member. Honorary Life Membership 1955.

James Barto - Junction City, Ore. 1881 - 1940    Age: 59
A man deeply in love with his plants in spite of severe hardship and a tragic ending. Deceased before the American Rhododendron Society was formed.

Lester E. Brandt - Tacoma, Wash. 1904 - 1971    Age: 67
A determined and persistent student - his knowledge of the genus was exceptionally outstanding. Charter Member.

George Grace - Portland, Ore. 1897 - 1974    Age: 77
Prime mover behind the initial organization and successful growth of The ARS. Charter Member. Gold Medal 1960.

Edgar L. Greer - Eugene, Ore. 1895 - 1972    Age: 77
Noted for his warm hospitality and willingness to share plant knowledge.

Rudolph Henny - Brooks, Ore. 1909 -1963    Age: 54
A gentle person devoted to serving and giving of himself for the good of others. Charter Member. Gold Medal 1963.

Delbert W. James - Eugene, Ore. 1894 - 1963    Age: 69
Pursuit and collection of information on the genus through worldwide correspondence, books, and personal contact. Charter Member. Gold Medal 1960.

Ben F. Lancaster - Camas, Wash. 1892 - 1970    Age: 78
Afflicted with "Rhododendronitis", he buried himself in extensive, purposeful hybridizing and various works for the welfare of the ARS. Charter Member. Gold Medal 1964.

Halfdan Lem - Seattle, Wash. 1886 - 1969    Age: 83
Remembered as a big man who loved big flowers and maintained a nursery with character. Gold Medal 1963.

Endre Ostbo - Bellevue, Wash. 1888 - 1958    Age: 70
A shy, kindly man deeply devoted to the work of the ARS, and to a broader use of the "King of Shrubs". Charter Member. Gold Medal 1957.

William E. Whitney - Brinnon, Wash. 1894 - 1973    Age: 79
A man of seemingly limitless energy and radiant enthusiasm for hybridizing rhododendrons. Charter Member. Gold Medal posthumously 1975.

Theodore Van Veen - Portland, Ore. 1881 - 1961    Age: 80
His pioneer efforts in developing better propagation techniques established the feasibility of rooting rhododendron cuttings which resulted in wider use of the genus. Charter Member.

A number of years ago I was asked to speak to the Portland Chapter about Northwest hybrids. In my preparation I became deeply engrossed in the lives of the men behind the hybrids. As a consequence, I changed direction and decided to memorialize twelve Northwest hybridizers as individuals without necessarily evaluating the degree of their success in the breeding of rhododendrons.

All of the men selected had great influence in spreading the rhododendron gospel to the world. Nine of them were charter members of the American Rhododendron Society. Of the remaining three, one joined the second year, another was yet to make his home in the Northwest, and the third died before seeing his dreams of a Society come true. These men were outstanding in the help they freely gave to organizing the ARS, including plans to establish the Society's rhododendron garden located at Crystal Springs in Portland. All Twelve have passed over to the Eternal Rhododendron Garden.

The 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition triggered a horticultural revolution in Portland. Historically it proved to be an important happening which resulted in the eventual establishment of the ARS. Rhododendrons were hardly known in the West when Anthony Waterer Nurseries of England dispatched a boat loaded with these beauties for landscaping the Exposition site. After the Exposition rhododendrons were distributed throughout the Northwest, including the Portland Park Department. They adapted well and our people quickly fell in love with them.

The large 'Cynthia' plants now in the Crystal Springs Garden were donated by Paul Keyser from his home planting. Mr. Keyser, highly respected Director for many years, started his career with the Park Department about the time the Lewis & Clark Exposition closed, and it's possible the 'Cynthia' plants had been included in the Waterer shipment. Most fittingly this leads us to the first Giant of the Past.

John G. Bacher
John G. Bacher

JOHN G. BACHER - As a graduate of the National School of Horticulture, John Bacher was a well trained European horticulturist. He was attracted to Portland by the Lewis & Clark Exposition, saw opportunity, and opened the Swiss Floral Nursery in 1906.

There was a real estate boom in Portland following the Exposition. New subdivisions developed rapidly creating increased demand for landscaping. Bacher introduced new plant material and the landscape pattern characteristic of our area today. Many Portland nurserymen and landscapers received their early training as Bacher's workmen.

He was active in the founding of the ARS, contributed numerous articles for the Quarterly Bulletin, and was called on frequently for lectures. As the first Chairman of the Rhododendron Garden Committee he contributed much in expertise, time and plants. He was a teacher of horticulture in the adult education department of the Portland Public School System until he retired at 65.

Unique in our Society, he received an Honorary Life Membership in 1955. In addition to this ARS recognition he received special honors from many other plant societies and garden clubs in which he took an active part.

His most popular hybrid is 'Bacher's Gold'. Two other hybrids, named in honor of his beloved Switzerland, are 'Geneva' and 'Bern'.

John Bacher was truly a remarkable man to whom the ARS and the nursery industry, owe much gratitude.

James Barto
James Barto

JAMES BARTO - The life story of James Barto is fascinating. But it is a sad one, filled with hardship, down to the last few months of his life. His home burned to the ground with all plant records and books, while he lingered near death from cancer at the Veteran's Hospital in Portland. Yes, it is a sad story for the reader, but I feel James Barto lived a happy life fulfilled by his beloved rhododendrons.

Barto brought his young family west from Chicago in 1920 by chain driven truck requiring several weeks on the road. He carved a log cabin home out of the trees cleared on his homestead land 10 miles west of Junction City, Oregon. He worked away from home as a carpenter returning weekends to clear more land, build a home, and attend to his rhododendron collection.

He was a prolific letter writer corresponding with rhododendron people in this country and abroad. Mrs. A.C.U. Berry was most helpful to him, providing contacts for sources of material. Barto had worked some time as a forester and found in the wilds of Oregon a white form of R. californicum , now recognized as R. macrophyllum . He propagated this and sent it to many friends in the rhododendron growing world. There is a 1932 entry in my father's records, "californicum album from Barto."

Some of the finest species were in his collection. E.H. (Chinese) Wilson of Arnold Arboretum helped him. Magor, Waterer, and Hillier of England, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, K. Wada of Japan, and the Chinese Nursery of Nanking, all added to the collection.

He did much hybridizing but did not live long enough to name anything. A couple of his hybrids named by others are 'Esquire' and 'Barto Ivory'.

Who will ever know how much Barto contributed to our present day enthusiasm for rhododendrons. In a letter to Joe Gable in 1932 he said he wished he had the finances to contribute toward the formation of a "U.S. Rhododendron Association". He passed away before the ARS was established.

James Barto
Lester E. Brandt

LESTER E. BRANDT - In 1938 Lester Brandt of Tacoma became interested in rhododendrons and embraced this new interest most actively and thoroughly.

He joined the Royal Horticultural Society and arranged with one of the largest book stores in England to send him every available book and pamphlet pertaining to rhododendrons. At one time he had the most complete rhododendron library in the United States. He was a scholar conversant in five languages.

Lester Brandt corresponded with many of the growers in England and became especially well acquainted with F.C. Puddle. After WWII he sent to Cox, Reuthe, Russell, Hillier and Slocock for many hybrids to use in his hybridizing program. He joined the ARS as a charter member and served as an officer in several capacities.

His earlier hybridizing interest was in developing smaller plants such as 'Little Joe'. He worked toward yellows and his best known is 'Gold Mohur'. Some of the other hybrids are 'Blood Ruby', 'Fireman Jeff', and 'Kubla Khan'.

His knowledge of the genus was exceptionally outstanding. Although somewhat of a "loner" in later years, he was always willing to share his knowledge with those who seemed genuinely interested.

Lester Brandt was a persistent student of rhododendrons, and proved to be a good teacher. For this we are most grateful.

Joe Gable with George Grace
Joe Gable (left) with George Grace

GEORGE GRACE - Formation of the ARS is due more to the efforts of George Grace of Portland than any other individual. He was a builder by trade. From late in 1942, through 1943, and until the first ARS meeting, July 7, 1944, George traveled the Northwest stimulating interest and laying a sturdy foundation for the great Society we know today.

Part of the program for the May, 1974 National Convention in Portland commemorating the 3Oth birthday of the ARS, was planned especially to honor the four signers of the Articles of Incorporation; John Henny, President; Jock Brydon, Vice President; E.R. Peterson, Treasurer; and George Grace, Secretary. Unfortunately, George passed away on March 23 forcing a cancellation of these plans.

His garden was a show place from which he generously gave starts. Of special interest was a great collection of plants from Barto. He was a major force and contributor to a plant hunting trip by F. Kingdon Ward, and he was the principal financial supporter of the Joseph Rock expedition which proved so beneficial for our Society.

George was a frequent contributor to the Quarterly Bulletin. An excellent article of his covering the early ARS history appears in the 1950 Royal Horticultural Society Year Book. He gathered much of the material for the early ARS Year Books. Until failing health slowed him down, he was most active and did much for the welfare of the ARS.

A yellow hybrid of his, 'Carolyn Grace', was named for his daughter. He was awarded a well deserved Gold Medal in 1960.

Edgar L. Greer
Edgar L. Greer

EDGAR L. GREER - Born in Missouri in 1895, Edgar Greer moved to Colorado where he spent 32 years in the insurance business. He is the only one of the twelve Giants not living in the Northwest when the ARS was established - he retired to Eugene, Oregon in 1951.

His new home needed plant material. A neighbor with a large selection of Barto plants sold two of them to Edgar and then the interest started. A park employee told him about a large R. ponticum covered with seed pods down by the railroad station. He gathered some seed and soon had enough grafting stock to supply the country. About this time he became acquainted with Del James. Fortunately, there was a vacant lot next door, and before long Edgar was in the rhododendron business.

He was always on the lookout for something different. Running out of space, his interest turned to collecting and hybridizing dwarf material. His wife, Esther, became involved with the rhododendrons along with a young son, Harold - a real blessing. This boy was gifted with a superior memory, and at an early age could recite the parentage of most any hybrid in their plantings.

Edgar started a project of tracing back the parentage of all known hybrids. Harold is now carrying on this program. 'Kimberly' and 'Trude Webster' are among the hundreds of crosses made by Edgar.

Edgar Greer was a most kind and considerate man always willing to spend as much time with a visitor as the visitor cared to stay. He touched many lives, and the lives he touched are better because of it.

Rudolph Henny
Rudolph Henny

RUDOLPH HENNY - The untimely death of Rudolph Henny in 1963 was a severe shock and deep loss to the rhododendron world and the ARS.

The Quarterly Bulletin was largely the creation of this man. Starting as Editor with the January, 1948 issue, he built this publication singlehandedly and established the editorial content, format, and policies which have stood to the present time. Fifteen years of begging for copy to publish each quarter is a tremendous undertaking in itself.

Rudolph seldom strayed from the Willamette Valley where he was born in 1909. After graduation from Oregon State University in 1931 he settled in Lake Labish near Brooks, Oregon where he grew onions. He married Leona in 1934.

In 1936 he purchased about a dozen common rhododendrons to landscape a new home. Much impressed with these plants, he wanted to learn more about them. As a result, he gathered nursery catalogs from here and abroad, and purchased "The Species of Rhododendrons" edited by J.B. Stevenson. He established contacts in England and joined with George Grace in importing rhododendrons.

Not only did he create a publication, he created new rhododendron hybrids - over 80 named varieties. One of his hybrids, 'C.I.S.' honors Claude I. Sersanous, who served as President of the ARS for ten years. Rudolph was a gentle person of soft voice, deeply religious, loved nature and flowers, and his life was devoted to serving and giving of himself for the good of others. He was a awarded a Gold Medal posthumously in 1963.

Delbert W. James
Delbert W. James

DELBERT W. JAMES - One of the three Giants from the Eugene area is Del James, who was born in Fallon, Nevada, but came to Oregon as an infant. He was raised in Oakland, Oregon where he learned to love the mountains and out of doors.

In 1939 he married Ray and they moved into a home on the heights overlooking Eugene near Hendrick's Park. Two rhododendrons, 'Gomer Waterer' and 'Dr. H.C. Dresselhuys' grew in the yard. Their beauty inspired Del and Ray to learn more about rhododendrons.

Del heard about the Barto Gardens and paid a visit. Unfortunately, James Barto was hospitalized in Portland at the time. They corresponded, but never met personally. Later he collected many of Barto's plants. A birthday gift from Ray, Bowers' book, "Rhododendrons and Azaleas", opened new avenues of search.

Friendships were struck up with many rhododendron people, including Lem, Ostbo, Lancaster, Rudolph Henny and Brandt. Del joined the Royal Horticultural Society, starting extensive correspondence to England. Out of this came a close attachment to C.P. Raffill of Kew Gardens. From him came many long letters on cultural practices, a knowledge little known in our area at the time, and much valuable plant material.

Del's occupation as a locomotive engineer allowed time for travel and visits to rhododendron enthusiasts throughout the Northwest for exchange of culture and hybridizing practices. His selection of R. elliottii var. 'War Paint' is highly prized. Much of his rhododendron breeding work has been carried on by others.

In 1951, Del and Ray planned a trip to visit Raffill. Arriving in New York, they were disappointed to learn of Raffill's death. They went on, visiting most of the famous gardens of England, Scotland and Wales.

While waiting for the ship to return home, Del suffered the first of a series of chest pains. Although restricted in activity, he accomplished much with his rhododendrons, until the fall of 1962.

He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society in 1960.

Ben F. Lancaster
Ben F. Lancaster

BEN F. LANCASTER - Although born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1892, Ben Lancaster spent more than 50 years of his life in Camas, Washington. Similar to Barto and Grace, he was a carpenter by trade.

Like Del James, it was a copy of Clement Bowers' book, "Rhododendrons and Azaleas" loaned to him while recovering from an auto accident in 1937, which fired his enthusiasm for rhododendrons. He soon contracted a severe case of "Rhododendronitis", as he frequently called his disease. Studying this book from cover to cover, he was impressed by the great number of distinct species, as well as their wide geographical distribution.

Sensing the wonderful possibilities for creating new and more suitable plants by hybridization, he collected over 100 species as a foundation for a breeding program. He later realized it was often better to use the best hybrids of known parentage to take advantage of the selective breeding by others. Ben had some excellent objectives in his hybridizing program, such as heat tolerance, cold hardiness, indumentum, and naturally well-shaped plants. Among his hybrids are the small early bloomer 'Rose Elf and the hairy leaved 'Snow Lady'.

In 1946 he established Lackamas Gardens, and by then was a horticulture authority. He spoke frequently at Chapter meetings, his articles for the Quarterly Bulletin were most informative, and he contributed extensively to Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in planning, planting and gifts of plants.

Ben was a charter member of the ARS, and served as National Director. The coveted Gold Medal was bestowed upon him in 1964.

He maintained a lifelong interest in writing, music and poetry. One of his songs, "How Do Gardens Grow" was adopted as the official song of the Men's Garden Club of America.

Halfdan Lem
Halfdan Lem

HALFDAN LEM - Born in Norway in 1886, one of 12 children all educated by private tutor, Halfdan Lem moved to Ketchikan, Alaska in 1911 where he established a home with his wife, Anna. He was a partner in a fish processing operation.

Lem first learned about rhododendrons from a book given to him about 1925. He joined the Royal Horticultural Society and began corresponding with rhododendron enthusiasts around the world. Eventually he spent all of his spare time reading and studying the shrubs which were to become his chief interest. He secured several rhododendrons from Joe Gable and began to raise seedlings.

Through correspondence he built up a friendship with Fred J. Rose of Stonehill Gardens in Southampton. Later he was able to visit Mr. Rose in England. During WWII Fred Rose preserved many of his creations by entrusting them to Mr. Lem.

In 1934 he moved to Seattle and opened a nursery on Aurora Avenue. Here he became acquainted with Endre Ostbo and the two became good friends.

Lem was a talented, enthusiastic hybridizer whose vital interest seemed to rub off on all who came in contact with him. There are many fascinating stories told about him by those who visited his nursery. The ladies learned to stand on the other side of a plant - he had a habit of patting and pinching.

Lem was noted for making many unusual crosses. Anna said he would make crosses with the chickens if you would let him. Among some of his many hybrids are 'Anna', 'Jingle Bells', 'Lem's Cameo', 'Halfdan Lem', 'Point Defiance', 'Lem's Monarch' and 'Walloper'. He was a big man who loved big flowers. His second love was chewing tobacco.

Even during a long illness Lem continued making crosses and warmly welcomed visiting friends, often with great effort. He received the Gold Medal in 1963. His death in 1969 was a great loss to the rhododendron world.

Endre Ostbo
Endre Ostbo

ENDRE OSTBO - Of Norwegian birth in 1888, Endre Ostbo emigrated to Minneapolis in 1912, and later moved to a homestead in Montana. After serving in WWI he lived in Everett, Washington where he worked for Weyerhaeuser Company. Later he took a job as head gardener for an estate in that area. He became interested in rhododendrons in 1927, particularly the dwarf forms.

In 1937, at approximate age of 50, he left the work as gardener and started his own enterprise near Bellevue, Washington known as "King of Shrubs Nursery". He described the usual nursery at that time as "full of Blue Cypress, Junipers and cheerful Camellias". It was his feeling that some progressive steps should be taken to enrich gardens with some finer plant material.

George Grace relates it was Ostbo who advised and encouraged the Portland group to organize the ARS. He was a charter member, and in 1957 was the recipient of the fourth Gold Medal presented by the ARS "for meritorious horticultural achievement." He was most active in the Seattle Chapter. After completing his work as a judge in the 1958 Annual Show, he collapsed and died.

Endre Ostbo was an outstanding hybridizer and introduced many fine new plants. He aimed particularly at extending the blooming season. One of his prize hybrids is 'King of Shrubs'. Many of his plants were used at the 1939 Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

A shy, kindly man, he always had time to help anyone interested in rhododendrons. Those who visited him knew his generosity personally, and were captivated by the enthusiasm in his work.

William E. Whitney
William E. Whitney

WILLIAM E. WHITNEY - Another Giant from the Camas, Washington area was Bill Whitney, born December 20, 1894 in the little town of Avon, near Mt. Vernon, Washington. He was an electrician by trade, and this brought him to Camas in 1927 to work for the old Northwest Electric Company, now Pacific Power and Light, as manager of construction and maintenance. He and his wife, Fayetta, also operated an appliance business in Camas for a number of years.

Bill wanted some rhododendrons to landscape his home. Fay needed new wallpaper. On a business trip to Seattle in 1931 Bill stopped at a Malmo Nursery sale and bought 30 rhododendrons. About this time Bill met my father. With increasing visits and encouragement, he became ever more fascinated with rhododendrons and started hybridizing in 1936. He acquired property in Brinnon, Washington for a home and nursery. His collection had grown and the move, completed in 1959, had taken four years.

Bill was endowed with seemingly limitless energy. His conversation was centered around thoughts on hybridizing. He was a member of the RumDum Club, a study group which met frequently to discuss breeding. Some of the members were Halfdan Lem, Hjalmer Larson, Ben Nelson, Herb Ihrig, Karl Sifferman and Don McClure.

His nursery became a well known display garden with thousands of visitors each year during blooming season. Among his many hybrids are 'Virginia Richards', 'Hurricane', 'Ruby Hart' and 'Little Gem'.

Bill Whitney was awarded the Gold Medal posthumously in May of 1975.

Theodore Van Veen
Theodore Van Veen

THEODORE VAN VEEN - I have saved for the last, the one who to me, at least, is the most important — my father. Theodore Van Veen was born near Arnheim, Holland in 1881. He worked in nurseries there and in England. Soon after the turn of the century he came to British Columbia where he took on a series of jobs as gardener and nurseryman.

In 1916 he was employed by Pilkington Nursery in Durham, Oregon and it was there that I was born. Their catalog for that year shows an extensive list of rhododendrons in addition to a wide list of general nursery stock. In 1921 he took on a position as gardener for Elliott Corbett, a banker in Dunthorpe near Portland. About the same time he acquired an acre and was growing miscellaneous plant material. I will always remember helping him make boxwood cuttings and their sweet fragrance in the wet sand of a cold frame. I also recall helping him plant our own small fruit orchard, as well as the vegetable garden we lined out each year. Much of my spare time in younger years, until I went out on my own, was spent with him in his nursery. I knew him well.

And finally in 1926 he started his own nursery at our present location. His early work included growing deciduous azalea seedlings. About 1929 he received a shipment of 'Pink Pearl' rhododendrons from Cottage Gardens Nursery of Eureka, California which I helped uncrate. That was the real rhododendron beginning.

He was most interested in learning to root rhododendrons, a practice unknown at the time. His early experiments included a trial of electric cable heat in a cold frame, and the use of overhead misting, also was unheard of at that time. The rooting hormones he used included such things as honey, molasses and potassium permanganate.

Early use of electric heat in cold frame.
Early use of electric heat in cold frame.
First greenhouse — Dutch style
First greenhouse — Dutch style

His hybridizing efforts were never extensive, but they included varieties well known in commerce today such as, 'Autumn Gold', 'Evening Glow', 'Old Copper' and 'Anna Rose Whitney'.

He was a charter member of the ARS and donated plant material freely for Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden including a list of Rock seedlings. I am sure my father's determination facilitated the rapid spread of interest in the Rhododendron genus.

The dedication of all these men laid the groundwork for production of the millions of rhododendrons enjoyed throughout the country today. Hundreds of thousands of rhododendrons are grown in the Northwest for nationwide sales. In addition there are large rhododendron nurseries in Ohio and along the East Coast from Georgia to Massachusetts.

In summary let me share with you a brief poem I feel epitomizes all these Giants of the Past. You might think how well it applies to your favorite of the twelve.

I saw him once
He stood a moment there.
He spoke a word
That laid his spirit bare.
He touched my hand
and passed beyond my ken.
But what I was
I shall not be again.

These Giants of the Past have done so very much to make this a more beautiful America for each of us.