History of Our Society


Beginnings of the

Portland Dahlia Society

by Jeanette Benson



On October, 11, 1928, thirty-seven dahlia growers (29 amateur and 8 professional) from Oregon, Washington, and
one from California signed a form requesting to become charter members of the proposed permanent dahlia society.
They thereby pledged themselves to abide by the provisions of the constitution and bylaws of that organization. The
name given to this fledging society was the Columbia Valley Dahlia Society.

Those first members came from Corvallis, Milwaukie, Newberg, Oswego, Portland and Troutdale, Oregon. Four were
from Vancouver, Washington and one was from San Francisco, California.

EARLY SHOWS

It must be noted that from the society's inception until 1931 no information is available other than a few yellowed
photographs of dahlia shows held in the tenth floor auditorium of the Meier & Frank Department Store. Shows were
held in that location from 1931 until 1935. At sometime between 1932 and 1934 the name of the society was changed
to Portland Dahlia Society.

The Shows of the 1930's, though held inside the department store's auditorium, were set up under a very large
tent-like canopy. It is impossible to define what the floor covering was under each section of the exhibits. Rocks were
used all around the sections to hold the coverings in place and to define the section areas. What an undertaking it
must have been to set up those shows! One is left to ponder who collected all those rocks, stored them between
shows, transported them downtown, and how many trips were made to get them all up to the tenth floor and back down
again.

During the 1935 show a "Dahlia Queen" was crowned by Mayor George L. Baker. On hand for the coronation was
Aaron Frank, one of the store's owners, and Tommy Luke, a prominent Portland florist. The queen unfortunately, will
forever remain anonymous. The notation on the back of a photo refers to her as "the dahlia queen and also one of the
clerks."

The show location was eventually moved from the Meier & Frank Department Store to the Masonic Temple, which
continued to be home until 1978.

INFLUENTIAL MEMBERS

John and Cay McEvoy joined the society in 1949. John became an avid exhibitor and worthy opponent to any exhibitor
who competed against him. He served a total of fifteen years as club president; Cay served twenty-seven consecutive
years as club secretary. John is credited with getting the Southern Oregon Dahlia Society started in 1957 and the
Wahkiakum County Dahlia Society (in Cathlamet, Washington) a year later. Over the years John donated hundreds of
pounds of candy for society fundraising activities. John passed away on July 11, 1993.

An annual tour of members' gardens on the last Sunday in September was started in 1952. Two gardens were
selected for the morning visits and two others for the afternoon. The McEvoys provided their home and expertise for
the luncheons; the food was provided for a small fee to help defray expensed. After over 40 years, those tours still
continue; the only change was a change in the venue of the luncheon to the home of Henry Sjoblom in 1988. Other
annual festivities include annual Christmas parties, which are always well attended.

The Portland Dahlia Society was one of four charter societies of the Pacific Northwest Dahlias Conference when if
formed in January 1954. P.F. Kershisnik from Portland became the initial editor of the Conference's official bulletin,
The Pacific Dahlia, which was a bi-annual publication. John McEvoy served as the publication's business manager.
Frances McDuffee, another Portland member, became its second editor in March 1957. She served in that capacity
until 1959 when she took on the task of associate editor.

During the 1960's, some of Portland's members began showing some real success with seedlings. Frances McCarter
McDuffee, Bing Chamers, John Jenkins, Henry White, Isobel Ritchey and the Jas Mar Gardens all had listings in the
American Dahlia Society Classification Book. One dahlia, JAS MAR BJ (M SC Yellow) which was introduced in 1963 is
still being grown in the Portland area.

A NEW VENUE

In the fall of 1963 (against the advice of many) the Pacific International Livestock Exposition in Portland risked a flower
show as an added attraction to its mammoth exposition. Larry Bateman, one of Portland's leading commercial growers
(with the help of his wife, Lucy) was named superintendent of the show. Starting small with this experiment, Larry
limited the flower show to the exhibition of dahlias and chrysanthemums only. However, the show was so successful
that the society was asked to stage an expanded competitive show. The Exposition made a total of $900 available as
prize money to the exhibitors in that first show but increased that amount to $1,000 in 1964. Upon Larry's death, his
wife Lucy became the superintendent. The Pacific International successfully continued until 1975.

On a personal note, when I first joined the Portland Dahlia Society as a rank novice in 1972, two of the charter
members were still members of the society. Interestingly, they were both commercial growers; E. Henry White, and
Frances McCarter McDuffee (who had retired from the commercial dahlia business but who was still quite active with
the club).

Henry White started his White Dahlia Gardens in 1912. His catalog was a home-grown enterprise, since Henry
admitted that he was a frustrated printer. He produced his catalog on a small pilot press, six by ten feet. Between 1913
and 1915 he "hired the catalog out," but in 1916 he and his brother decided to produce it themselves. They first used
and old foot pedal model (bought for nearly nothing) and later upgraded a couple of time to slightly improve models.
Henry set the type letter by letter when he relaxed in the evening with his radio.

Henry's formula for growing dahlias was "just bone meal them in the beginning and let them alone. But do water them."
If someone came to buy some dahlia tubers but didn't express an interest in variety names, Henry would consider them
less-than-serious dahlia growers and just might refuse to sell to them. Mr. White passed away on August 5, 1992 at
the age of 90.

In 1925 Frances McCarter (later McDuffee) and her husband owned Rex Dahlia Gardens. The name of the business
was changed in 1934 to Portland Dahlia Gardens and was changed again in 1948 to Swan Island Dahlias. In 1952
Frances' son Dick McCarter and his wife Shirley took over the business. The McCarters sold the business in 1963 to
Nick and Marge Gitts, who with their family still own the business. Swan Island Dahlias today is the largest dahlia
business in the United States.

In 1978 the society moved its show to the Jantzen Beach Mall where it continued to be held until 1985. The mall
changed ownership and management in 1986 and the new management decided it wouldn't allow that type of activity
in the mall. That last minute decision caused cancellation of the 1986 show.

In 1987 the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in Canby, Oregon became the new home for the club's annual show. The
dates were changed to Labor Day weekend to coincide with the Swan Island dahlia festival and open house. A gem
show takes place at the same time at the fairgrounds to round out the activities. All three events have mutually
benefited from the arrangement.
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