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Dr. Frank E. Bennett and the ‘Agnes' Rose
by Richard W. Cartwright

For several years now, I have been interested in heritage matters. One of the ways that I have helped to preserve a small part of our past is by collecting roses that are important in the history of gardening. There are three main reasons why I believe a rose should be saved: either because of its place in rose breeding, the length of time it has been available (from several decades to over a century), or because it was created by a Canadian. A rose which happens to fall into the last two categories, and in addition has a connection to St.Thomas' past, is the ‘Agnes' rose.
In about 1875, William Saunders (who would later become one of the most important men in the development of Canadian agriculture by founding the Central Experimental Farm at Ottawa) was a druggist living in London, Ontario. Mr.Saunders spent his spare time on a six acre farm he owned, south of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where he conducted experiments in plant breeding. He succeeded in creating new varieties of blackberries, gooseberries, and raspberries. Among his most difficult accomplishments at this time, was the successful cross-breeding of a Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa) with the ‘Persian Yellow' Rose (R.foetida persiana) to produce a rose with amber-yellow blooms. William Saunders then named the new variety in honour of his wife, Sarah Agnes (Robinson) Saunders.

Almost forty years later, the executive of the American Rose Society decided to recognize the importance of Mr.Saunders' rose, ‘Agnes'. In July of 1926, a banquet was held at the London & Port Stanley Railway Cafeteria in Port Stanley. It was hosted by the St.Thomas Horticultural Society and attended by the President of the A.R.S. who intended to present the Van Fleet Gold Medal. Unfortunately, the rose society's Secretary was delayed and the ceremony took place the next day in St.Thomas. The medal was accepted by M. B. Davis, chief assistant of the Division of Horticulture at the Central Experimental Farm, and William Edwin Saunders on behalf of his father, the hybridizer who had passed away in 1914.

But there is an air of mystery surrounding these events. Why did the Americans award the prestigious Van Fleet Gold Medal to a Canadian hybridizer? This medal was intended for an American breeder. Why was the ceremony hosted by the St.Thomas Horticultural Society? Would it not have been more appropriate to have had it in Ottawa where the rose had supposedly originated? An alternative location would have been London, Ontario, the early home of Wm. Saunders.

The American decision to recognize a Canadian shrub rose was very unusual for the 1920's. At that time, most North American rosarians looked to the British Isles and Europe for the newest creations. The fashion was for the Pernetianas of Pernet-Duchet (France) and Dwarf Polyanthas of Poulsen (Denmark). The up-to-date look in gardens featured formal beds of "refined" Hybrid Teas and Polyanthas and not the wild-looking shrub and species roses. American s favoured flower form and colour. Hardiness was not one of their major concerns.

So, what or who was the catalyst that brought about that historic event when Ameri- cans came north in July of 1926 to pay homage to the work of a deceased Canadian botanist? The most likely person was Frank E. Bennett, D.D.S., president of the St.Thomas Horticultural So- ciety from 1910 to 1927. He is another forgotten figure in Canada's gardening past and deserves to have his story told. Dr.Bennett's interests included irises, gladioli and roses. Due to his invol- lvement in the network of horticultural societies across North America, he had contacts in the United States and Canada (including Ottawa).

Frank Bennett's activities in rose culture went as far back as 1910 when the St.Thomas society offered its members a choice of five different rose varieties as a bonus. By 1913, varieties included ‘Dorothy Perkins' (Jackson & Perkins, 1901) and ‘Frau Karl Druschki' (Lambert, 1901). During this period, six Hybrid Tea rose bushes were awarded for the best rose display in the local lawn and garden competition. At the spring flower show, Dr.Bennett would exhibit in the rose class.

Interest in roses grew so much among society members that the 1915 bonus book adverti- sed over 30 varieties of Hybrid Perpetual, Hybrid Tea, and Climbing roses. During the First World War, thousands of roses, including "very rare" ones, arrived every spring in St.Thomas. For example, approximately 4000 bushes were distributed to members in one week of April 1916. Shipments from Dutch nurseries were interrupted, presumably because of the war, and were replaced by North American sources. An announcement in the autumn of 1918, stated that the society had bought out the entire stock of one of "Canada's biggest rosarians". In 1920, roses from Holland were again being delivered. The 1924 order from Beskoop (Holland) was so large that it weighed five tons and arrived in a refrigerated boxcar.

It was important to Dr.Bennett that the public be properly educated about rose culture since the society was giving away such a large number of bushes. One thousand copies of Hardy Roses: Their Culture In Canada by W.T.Macoun and F.E.Buck were sent to St.Thomas from Ottawa in March of 1915. One year later, another thousand copies were distributed to members. In the same year, 1916, a short newspaper column called the "Planting and Care of Roses" was written by President Bennett. Public speakers were invited several times with H.J.Moore giving a slide presentation on "Roses and Their Culture" and demonstrating propagation from roots and stems in 1917. Another rose expert who came in subsequent years was William Hunt.

F.E.Bennett was best known for his work in encouraging the early Twentieth Century social and horticultural trend called the Urban Beautification Movement. His many slide presentations in communities across Canada and the United States showed examples of the horticultural societies'work in St.Thomas and was used as a promotional tool by the city's Chamber of Commerce.

By the end of the First World War, St.Thomas was considered a model of public-private co-operation in urban landscaping. Vacant railway land was transformed into a central park with the planting of thousands of Rosa rugosa rubra and Polyantha rose bushes. The local depot of the London & Port Stanley Railway (L.&P.S.) was also landscaped with Polyanthas and two varieties of R.rugosa hybrids, ‘F.J.Grootendorst'(de Goey, 1918, "introduced to Canada by the St.Thomas society in 1920") and ‘Hansa'(Schaum and Van Tol, 1905). Another R.rugosa hybrid, ‘Conrad F. Meyer'(Muller, 1899) was the centrepiece of one city park. The shrub rose R.moyesii (Reintroduced in 1908?) drew a lot of public attention. Apparently Dr.Bennett was a firm believer in the value of shrub roses and in particular, the R.rugosa hybrids.

President Bennett's taste for the new and novel to Canada was shown by the varieties contained in a 1925 rose shipment: ‘Mary Wallace' (Van Fleet, 1924, "recently sent out by the U.S. Dept. Of Agriculture"), R.hugonis (c.1900) and Turke's Rugosa. R.hugonis was mistakenly described as "recently discovered by E.R.Wilson of the Arboretum at Boston". This rose, along with R.moyesii, are credited by Graham Stuart Thomas as creating interest among botanists and gardeners for shrub and species roses prior to the Second World War.

As head of the local horticultural society, F.E.Bennett was sent regularly to the annual convention of the Ontario Horticultural Society (O.H.A.), usually held in Toronto. It was at these conferences that he was able to share ideas and influence gardening enthusiasts from other parts of the province. Dr.Bennett became active in the association as a district director, competing with W.E.Saunders for the position at least twice. By 1915, he was first vice-president of the O.H.A. and two years later, he was elected president.

Eventually F.E.Bennett's reputation as a gardening expert extended beyond the Canadian border giving him the opportunity to establish contacts in the United States. In February of 1925, he was invited to address service clubs in Ohio. Later that year, he met with officials of the American Rose Society at an O.H.A. convention in Toronto. In July at the American Rose Society's annual meeting in Syracuse, N.Y., Dr.Bennett was re-elected regional vice-president and Official Lecturer for the group. He had been the first Canadian to hold these positions.

Over the preceding decade, there had been regular visits between members of the St.Thomas Horticultural Society, staff at the Central Experimental Farm and gardeners in Ottawa. During the May 1916 spring flower show in St.Thomas, W.T.Macoun of the C.E.F. had the honour of presenting trophies to the winners. The next month, F.E.Bennett was a delegate to the Civic Improvement League meeting in Ottawa. In 1917, Mrs.T.V.Crothers came from Ottawa to address the society. Later that year, the O.H.A. chose F.E.Buck from Ottawa as a judge for the St.Thomas tulip festival. J.C.Crombie, a board member in the St.Thomas society at the time, participated on a special O.H.A. committee with Mr.Macoun. The 1923 O.H.A. annual meeting was held in Ottawa with Dr.Bennett in attendance.

A published letter from Mr.Bennett detailed his visit to Ottawa in early June of 1925, slightly over a year before the historic ceremony in St.Thomas. He was escorted throughout the Ottawa area by George Simpson, president of the O.H.A. and former resident of St.Thomas. On Rockcliffe Drive, they inspected the alpine garden of Mr. and Mrs.Mathews and extended their trip to Mr.Simpson's Clemow Avenue home. Mr.Simpson was then asked to give his illustrated talk on hardy plants in St.Thomas.

Dr.Bennett was personally guided through the grounds of the C.E.F. by Mr.Macoun, the Dominion Horticulturist who worked in the Floriculture section. In charge of this section was Isabella Preston, previously at the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph. Her plant breeding work was described by Mr.Bennett as "having remarkable success". Miss Preston had been cross-pollinating Syringa villosa with Syringa reflexa.

After inspecting Miss Preston's work, Dr.Bennett was shown a grove of ‘Agnes' rose bushes which he stated were "so highly recommended by the American Rose Society". A specimen had been planted at the St.Thomas Horticultural Society's trial grounds between Alma Ladies College and the L.&P.S. Railway. Mr.Macoun promised to send five more bushes in the spring of 1926.

The Bennett letter favourably compared the characteristics and growth of ‘Agnes' to that of R.rugosa. He liked the form, colour and scent of its blooms. F.E.Bennett felt that this rose was an improvement over R.rugosa and predicted that the ‘Agnes' rose "should prove a great addition to the roses of the Rugosa group".

Dr.Bennett and the St.Thomas Horticultural Society faced big financial difficulties one year after hosting the executive of the A.R.S. The excesses of that era were reflected in the almost $4000 debt accumulated by the society. The city during this time had been giving a $1000 annual grant but only for tree trimming and not civic improvements. F.E.Bennett's spending habits were under suspicion and at a city council finance committee meeting he was punched in the nose by one of the alderman. In 1927, the society's assets were sold to pay down the debt and Dr.Bennett was forced to resign as president. He took over the lease of the society's trial grounds and operated it as a commercial nursery, "Dreamland Gardens", until 1938. A son lived in Windsor, Ont. where Mr.Bennett would spend his winters. This allowed him to become involved with the Detroit Horticultural Society where he became one of their gladioli judges.

Grandson of a St.Thomas blacksmith, Dr.Bennett grew up in the shadow of the shop. In his prime, he gave his very best inspiring his city, his province, and his country to share his intense love of flowers. He had given up his personal practice and came to rely on his sons and those who believed that the community still owed him a debt of gratitude. His health deteriorated after his wife's death in the late 1930's and he died in his son's care at Windsor in 1947. Frank E. Bennett is buried with his wife under a pink granite headstone in St.Thomas. Well into the 1950's at least, his favourite rose ‘Agnes' continued to bloom near Alma College despite decades of neglect and exposure to harsh winters.

We may never know with arguable certainty exactly when and where ‘Agnes' was hybridized. Over the past few years, those interested in heritage roses have tried to piece together the development of one of Canada's most beautiful and enduring roses.

The ‘Agnes' rose is the earliest Canadian-bred rose that is still available from nurseries. The blooms have an old-fashioned appearance with their rounded shape and cluster-flowering and have lovely amber-coloured centres. Like other antique roses, the bush produces blooms only once in the spring but if the autumn weather is right, it may flower again.

In memory of Dr.Bennett, the man who made a great contribution to his hometown, I encourage the citizens of St.Thomas to plant the rose named ‘Agnes".

The Friends of the St.Thomas Public Library would like to thank Harry McGee of Lambeth, the copyright owner. The following article first appeared in the November 15th, 1999 issue of The Rosebank Letter, an internationally distributed publication edited and produced by Mr.McGee.

© The Wm.Saunders Rose Society