“The queen is coming! The queen is coming!” cheers Chloe Paige, 4, of Tyler, Texas (pop. 83,650). The youngster bounces up and down and claps her hands excitedly, anticipating the arrival of the Rose Queen during the Texas Rose Festival.
Chloe and her grandmother, Connie Gibbs, are among hundreds at the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden for the Queen’s Tea, a time-honored tradition when the festival’s queen and her court greet guests.
“We’ve been waiting for this for two weeks, crossing the days off the calendar,” Gibbs says. “She loves princess stuff, and she dresses up all the time. She will be talking about this forever.”
For 74 years, the Texas Rose Festival has been the talk not only of little girls but all of East Texas, with events that delight visitors in fairy-tale fashion.
A festival blossoms
The rise of the rose festival, which is scheduled Oct. 18-21, has mirrored the growth of Tyler’s rose industry over the years. Both had humble beginnings that blossomed into national fame, and today the city is known as the Rose Capital of America.
“The rose festival was created as a means to promote Tyler and the rose industry,” says Jill Ramey of Tyler, the 1950 Rose Queen. “It has taught people to come together, and somehow every year we stretch taller than ourselves and get it done.”
Roses were grown in the Tyler area as early as the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that the fragrant flower became the main agricultural crop. Many farmers at that time grew peach trees, and when disease wiped out the orchards, they were forced to rely almost entirely on growing rose bushes.
The first rose festival in 1933 was a joint effort of the local garden club and civic leaders. Jill Ramey’s father-in-law, Tom Ramey, is credited as the festival founder.
“The garden club women really wanted to promote the roses, and they were looking to the civic leaders for help,” Jill says. “The women were in it for the roses, and the men were in it for Tyler.”
The dedicated group put together the first festival in just six weeks, and seven decades later more than 70,000 people annually enjoy what is now a lavish celebration, including a delightful tea with the queen, an elaborate coronation ceremony and a jovial parade.
It’s good to be queen
Many visitors are drawn to the modern-day rose festival to see the rose royalty, including the Rose Queen, the Duchess of the Rose Growers, ladies in waiting and duchesses of the court. The young women chosen to represent the festival are all college sophomores and are chosen almost a year in advance.
Lauren Jones, the 2006 Rose Queen, says she always looked up to the queen as a little girl. “It’s a huge honor to be part of something that’s been in Tyler for so many years,” Jones says. “It’s a part of history.”
The queen and members of her court each have a gown designed for them that coordinates with the year’s theme, which was “Mythology, An Enchanted Odyssey” in 2006. The individual dresses are encrusted with jewels and sequins and covered in detailed handwork. At the Queen’s Coronation ceremony, where the young ladies are presented to the public, the contingent looks like a string of princesses from childhood fairy tales.
“I wish I could be one,” says Karley Lea, 9, of Tyler. “They’re so pretty.”
Jennifer Gaston, executive director of the festival, says the event puts a lot of magic not only in the lives of little girls but also the young women who participate.
“A great camaraderie develops among the girls, and it’s amazing to see them mature and gain confidence,” Gaston says.
Even the youngest attendants get caught up in the festivities. Caroline Cooper, 8, of Dallas, an attendant to the 2006 queen, accompanied the queen throughout the four-day celebration.
“Next week will be a real let-down,” says Caroline’s mom, Ami Cooper, “when it’s back to wearing school uniforms and no hair and makeup.”
While many people think the queen’s purpose is “fluff and festivities,” according to Jill Ramey, it’s actually “a great responsibility to the city and an opportunity to give back to the community.”
While the queen and her court play a public role in the festival, Gaston says 800 volunteers work behind the scenes on the festival each year, including a group—the Strutters—that plans the parade.
“The parade is nice because it’s a free event,” says Mark Rosenleib, president of the Strutters in 2006, “and it’s a portion of the festival that the whole community can enjoy.”
Cotton candy salesmen weave through the crowds lining the streets, as floats, marching bands, classic cars, animals, and a host of local civic groups make their way down the parade route.
Hayden McCullough, 3, of Tyler twists in his dad’s arms to get a better look at the Shriners driving mini-Mustangs down the street. “This is a great little community, and this brings everybody together,” says Hayden’s father, David. “It’s great seeing everybody participating.”
An elegant flower
Since World War II, the festival has become more glamorous, but at the center of it all remains Tyler’s claim to fame—its roses.
“We can put on a wonderful coronation and parade, but the roses will always be the star,” Gaston says. “And that’s always our focus.”
Visitors who stroll through Tyler’s Municipal Rose Garden, the largest of its kind in the nation, can see and smell beauties such as the Nightingale, Rio Samba, Marmalade Skies and Moondance.
“With the arrangements (set up for the Queen’s Tea) and roses in full bloom, it’s just fantastic,” says visitor Ruth Lea of Huntsville, Texas. “Anyone would love to come.”
Larry Burks, owner of a rose-growing business, Certified Roses Inc., in Tyler, describes the municipal garden as “evolving.” New varieties are added and evaluated, while the old varieties still are carefully cultivated.
“My favorite part about growing roses is that there is always something new and different,” Burks says. “It’s amazing to go into the field and see a color you’ve never seen before.”
Burks, 54, has been in the rose business his entire career and is a tireless promoter of the flower. His most recent work involved the construction of a national rose garden in Washington, D.C. The grand opening was in October 2006, 20 years after President Ronald Reagan signed a bill naming the rose as the national flower, the result of a campaign by Burks, the Tyler Chamber of Commerce and the American Rose Growers Association.
Today, 20 percent of all roses sold in the United States come from the Tyler area, and the Texas Rose Festival celebrates this sweet success.
“Tyler’s identity is forever connected to the rose,” Jill Ramey says. “The rose has given Tyler uniqueness and made it different than all those other dots on the map.”