I know the title is harsh, I’m sorry. It was only to get your attention. The kids call it clickbait. Now that you’re here, let’s chat.
I, unfortunately, have never experienced the pageantry (no snark, it truly sounded majestic) that was the Richmond Area Rose Festival. I’ve lived in Richmond, Indiana for seventeen years, you see, and the Rose Festival has not graced our streets for nineteen years. But, boy, have I heard about it. Many times. Nineteen years after the festival’s disappearance. For seventeen years.
It has always struck me as a little strange, these persistent mutterings about a festival two decades past. I rarely hear people request an event like the Rose Festival. Or better yet, efforts to drum up committees, volunteers, funding, etc, to organize such a shindig. No, just demands for the Rose Festival to come back. Exactly like everyone remembers, too.
But The Rose Festival is never, ever coming back.
First, A Brief History of the Rose Festival
Richmond and Roses
E.G. Hill and his father started a rose-growing business near what would become Glen Miller Park in 1881. E.G. Hill was a gifted rose hybridizer, becoming internationally famous among rose growers. By 1903 E.G. Hill Co. needed more land for new greenhouses. They moved from the east side of Richmond to the west side, by the Richmond State Hospital.
E.G.’s son joined his father’s business for a short time before starting his own in 1916, the Joseph H. Hill Co. The two men then started a flower distribution company, the Hill Floral Products Company, to market and sell their roses nationally. The two companies grew in fame and profits, by 1944 the west side greenhouses “comprised more than a million and a quarter square feet of glass, as well as more than a thousand acres of the best Indiana farmland.”
The companies remained owned and controlled by the family. They grew their roses and floral products until 1995 when Hill Floral Products began focusing purely on distribution. It remained a family-owned company until its 2007 closing.
Richmond Area Rose Festival
The Rose Festival began in 1972, designed to replace Fiesta Days (you don’t hear anyone calling for a return of Fiesta Days). The Rose Festival had everything a festival could want. Three (!!!) parades, carnival rides, vendors, live music, pageants, baking events with giant ovens that broke Guinness World Records, mural painting, a double-decker bus that took activities to every small community in Wayne County, storefront decorating contests, and much more. As Bev Nixon, one of the original organizers of the festival (1973-1993) put it, “The whole town turned into one big rose!”
The ’80s were perhaps the heyday of the Rose Festival. By this time, the festival was a full nine days long, including two entire weekends. The ’90s were not as kind. The costs to put on the festival increased dramatically. Before, a blanket insurance policy covered the entire festival. Starting in 1990, organizers had to get a quote for each event, plus a liability premium over the entire festival. Also, it became harder to find volunteers to plan and staff nine days of events. In 1992 concerts with big-name acts like Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw, Collin Raye, and Faith Hill graced the festival, but the damage had been done.
The 1996 Rose Festival was an especially low point. Many promoted events were canceled and amusement rides were closed. In 1997 the Rose Festival was shortened to five days and moved to Glen Miller Park. In the late ’90s, the festival continued to lose attendance. 1999 saw a name change to Heritage Festival (to distance from the stigma that had grown around the Rose Festival). In 2000, the last event known as the Richmond Area Rose Festival was held. It was a much-diminished event with only three planned activities.
Roses Don’t Work like That Anymore
If we were to have a Rose Festival parade today, we would need streets wide enough to accommodate the jumbo jets. And we know that’s not possible, amiright? (I love our new complete streets, but I can’t help myself, that’s funny). Because that’s how the roses would have to get here in 2019.
Nearly 85% of cut roses sold in the US come from South America. The flowers travel from South America by air, arriving in Miami before moving on to retail stores. Most of the United States cannot compete with the climate of South America for rose growing. Even domestically, the Hoosier state doesn’t cut it. Sunny California is the front runner in rose-growing. But, even there, production has dropped. Since 1991, sales of roses produced in the US have declined 95%.
We’re simply in the wrong hemisphere, no matter how many acres we have under glass. Richmond, Indiana cannot grow as many roses as cheaply as Columbia or Ecuador. Never again will we see enough rose production to warrant a festival dedicated to these beautiful flowers. At least, not a weeklong one.
None of This Works Like That Anymore
You know what’s not a thing anymore? Weeklong festivals. There’s a multitude of reasons for that and the book Bowling Alone explains it better than I will. Robert Putnam, the author, describes the decrease in “social capital” since 1950. The book’s website states that “the very fabric of our connections with each other has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.” Putnam presents vast data showing that we:
- sign fewer petitions
- are less neighborly
- participate fewer in organizations/clubs/civic engagements
- meet with friends less frequently
- and even socialize with our families less frequently
In other words, more people are bowling than ever—but, not in leagues. They’re bowling alone. And this book was published twenty years ago, largely before cell phones and the Internet invaded every aspect of our lives. I wonder what the data would say now.
The Rose Festival was a staggering feat of civic-minded teamwork, communication, and back-breaking effort; carried out by hundreds of dedicated individuals (“A thousand, at least, over the years,” Bev Nixon confirmed). There is simply no longer the kind of civic engagement and community feeling that would support something like the Rose Festival. I don’t say that to insult or single out Richmond—its like that everywhere. It’s a societal trend.
A Word From The Organizers
Dave and Bev Nixon organized the Rose Festival throughout the golden years (1973-1993). That oversized oven to cook oversized food? They and their team procured it. Facilitating a relationship with a sister town in Kentucky? They and their team kept things smooth for years. Need bigger, better floats for the parades? That’s fine, they started a local float company. These people were the dynamos of the Rose Festival and what they created is staggeringly impressive. They say that some of their fondest memories came being involved with the festival. Dave and Bev love Richmond, as they always have.
These days the Nixons are retired and living in Florida. I interviewed them over the phone. Once the initial pleasantries were over, Dave came right out with it: “Why do you want to know this stuff? What’s this for, anyway?” I explained the concept of the article, that I wasn’t criticizing the Rose Festival or Richmond, but more the current societal trends that make an event like the Rose Festival impossible. The Nixons immediately agreed. We spent a lot of time talking about just how much work went into the Rose Festival.
The agreement all around (but listen to them, they’re the experts) was that people don’t understand the sheer hours, manpower, and money involved in throwing public events, let alone ones like the Rose Festivals. Juggling schedules, volunteers, budgets, vendors, permits, insurance, licenses…I mean, we just have no idea. Do you know when Bev said she would start planning the next year’s festival? The Monday after that year’s festival ended. Even if Facebook existed back then, Dave and Bev would never have seen all the comments about the Rose Festival. They literally would not have had the time to be on social media.
It’s Not the Rose Festival That We Miss, Anyway
The way people talk about the Rose Festival would make one think we live in a town of horticulturists. I am old enough to have remembered the festivals of the late ’80s and early ’90s and I know I’d be missing them too. But…is it really the Rose Festival that we miss? Nobody younger than 24 remembers the Rose Festival (isn’t that a sobering thought?). All of this happened a long time ago.
That leads me to think it’s not the festival, but our youth, that we miss. Even more specifically, we miss a youth where societal civic engagement was more involved. We miss a time, society, and an economy that could support extravaganzas like the Rose Festival.
Let’s stop missing and start creating.
Try This Instead!
The Rose Festival was a wonderful, magical event that brightened our collective youth. And while it is never, ever coming back, there are many other events to support and enjoy in Richmond:
- Rose City Art Festival
- Meltdown Winter Ice Festival
- City Fit
- City Arts
- For The Love of Grapes & Hops Wine & Beer Festival
- Historic Depot District Oktoberfest
- Annual Old-fashioned Christmas Festival
- Blast at the Overpass!
- Taste of Italy Festival
- 4th Street Fair
- Richmond Shakespeare Festival
- Prophets Fest
- Rainbow Richmond Pride Festival
- Chalk Fest
- Richmond’s International Food Fest
- Gennett Records Walk of Fame
- Kidfest Moonlight Parade
- Taste of Wayne County & Business Expo
- First Bloom & Glow
If you are truly passionate about roses, donate your money and time to the Richmond Rose Garden. If you are truly passionate about huge festivals, stop clamoring for a long-dead event on social media. Support the events we have here and now with your time and money. Or start forming committees, raising money, building relationships with sponsors, scouting locations, marketing the event, writing copy, and all the other heavy-duty work that goes into creating a new event.