Friday, April 28, 2017

It was Tulip Time in Chariton --- first

Pella's annual Tulip Time (May 4-6 this year) is still a week away, but I think it only fair to point out that this bulbous flowering festival of our friends to the northeast is, in relation to Chariton, a Johnny-come-lately.

Tens of thousands of colorful tulips were blooming every spring in north Chariton --- long before Marion County's floral ethnic extravaganza was even a collective gleam in the eye of Pella's Dutch. 

You may recall the story --- Pella's first Tulip Time was held during 1935 and so few of the flowering bulbs had been planted the preceding fall that carpenter George Heeren had to carve 125 4-foot wooden facsimiles that then were brightly painted to make it clear what the festival was all about. Bulb planting didn't get under way big-time in Pella until that fall.

Back in Chariton, however, The Leader was able to report six years earlier in its edition of May 7, 1929, under the heading "Immense Tulip Bed," as follows:

"Residents of this city, many of them at least, are not aware that in Chariton is one of the largest tulip beds in the state. At the home of Mr. and Mrs. Pete West, corner of 12th Street and Park Avenue, is to be found a tulip bed containing 17,000 plants. Over 2,000 blossoms have been cut so far this season. In addition to the large bed there are a number of smaller tulip beds, scattered over the lawn, so that there are over 20,000 plants. Nearly every known variety, some of them very choice and rare, are to be found there.... In addition to the tulips, Mr. and Mrs. West have some unusual and beautiful shrubs and trees."

Two years later, in its edition of May 20, 1931, The Leader reported that "the greenhouse and yard at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Pete West, 12th and Park, has presented a magnificent scene this spring, 30,000 tulip plants were in full bloom, one large bed being of extra fine imported bulbs of the Darwin and Breeder varieties. There have also been large quantities of spirea, deutzia, narcissus, iris, pyretheum, double white Persian lilacs and lilies of the valley. Hundreds of bouquets were sold for Mother's Day. Flowers of other varieties are coming into bloom and the supply is never exhausted."

And again, in The Herald-Patriot of May 5, 1932, under the headline, "It Is Tulip Time at West's Gardens, Twelfth and Park," --- "A reporter for this paper paid a visit to the West Flower Gardens, Twelfth Street and Park Avenue, yesterday, and found, even this early in the season, a wealth of blossoms beautiful to behold. The tulips, thousands of them in various hues, are in full bloom, and are well worth a trip to the gardens to see. Then there are other spring flowers, narcissus, lilacs, daffodils, jonquils, geraniums and others."

The catch here, of course, is that West Flower Gardens was a private enterprise and no one in Chariton saw any future at the time in capitalizing on the floral fame that gardening entrepreneurs Pete and Grace West had brought it. So when the business closed during the early 1940s, Chariton's tulip tradition died with it.

Today, there's no trace of this once-spectacular enterprise; in fact, I'm not sure at which corner of the intersection of North 12th and Park it was located. Halferty Park (North Park at the time the Wests were gardening) fills the southwest corner of the intersection. West Flower Gardens, wherever they were, would have been next-door.


West Flower Gardens had grown out of the gardening passions of Grace (Palmer) West and her husband, J. Riley "Pete" West, and filled the grounds of their home. Grace was the only daughter of venerable Chariton merchants Thomas and Ann Palmer. Pete also was the son of a venerable merchant family and had been in the grocery and construction businesses before the couple turned their garden into a profitable business.

During the spring of 1932, they were advertising cut tulips for Mother's Day at 50 cents a dozen as well as bouquets for 25 cents and up and sprays, for $1 and up --- all delivered free of charge to any part of Chariton if the total bill was 50 cents or more.

Also for sale were tomato and cabbage plants at 5 cents a dozen and two dozen aster plants for 25 cents. Sweet potato plants were available for 40 cents per 100.

As the season progressed, whatever was growing in the gardens was cut and sold --- masses of iris and peonies in late spring, gladiolas and more during the summer and, in the fall, asters and chrysanthemum. Bulk fruit also was available in season, too, but the Wests took winters off.


Pete West died at age 77 on May 26, 1938, and Grace soldiered on, operating the business and supervising the gardens until 1944, when her health failed. She died at home on Aug. 9, 1945, age 81.

The Wests had no children, nor do they seem to have had any interest in selling their gardens, so the business and the gardens died with them --- and then vanished.

The tulips here are blooming this week on the grounds of the Lucas County Historical Society.

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