DORRIE NICHOLS REMEMBERS DR. WALTER BROWNELL Ed Cunningham
On Oct. 13, 2001, Mrs. Dorrie Nichols addressed the members or the Rhode Island Rose Society. She shared her personal recollections of her grandfather, Dr. Walter Brownell, as well as a Powerpoint presentation of materials from her father's scrap book: slides, newspaper clippings, circulars, and other memorabilia. Dr. Walter Dexter Brownell was born in 1873, earned his Bachelor's degree from Brown University in 1894, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1898. He subsequently established his law practice on Providence's "East Side." Contrary to Rhode Island's "provincialism," he courted, and later wed, a young lady from Grosse Point, Michigan, Miss Josephine Darling. After several years, they began staying in Little Compton during the Summers. The young bride loved roses, and had a rose garden planted. Unfortunately, roses were "annuals" there. They died every winter, and new ones had to be planted every Spring....... And thus their interest in breeding roses began with their "need" for winter hardy roses ! Dorrie stated that their primary hybridizing goals were: 1. Winter hardiness; 2. Black Spot and disease resistance; 3. Repeat blooming in a pillar rose; and 4. Introductions of large flowers and of the color yellow to climbers/pillars; (in those days, most climbers were similar to what we think of as ramblers: clusters of small flowers in pink white, or red). They had little success until Dr. Brownell read of Dr. VanFleet's use of the old " Memorial Rose" to contribute the desired hardiness to the offspring. The Memorial rose is better known as Wichuriana, a wild Asian type of rose. Two of VanFleet's well known successes with it were "Glendale," and "New Dawn." (note: actually he bred 'Dr. Van Fleet' from which 'New Dawn' sported) From then on, Dr. Brownell started to breed one of these Wichurianas into everything he bred. He found that in addition to improving hardiness, it also improved the color of his roses! (There was a photo which showed all the roses covered with glassine bags after the doctor had pollinated them with his camel hair brush). Then came the first Brownell rose of any significance: Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James, a golden climber. They had been working for years, and were so ecstatic with it that they followed a European custom, and held a "christening" party for it that Summer in Little Compton. (The Providence Journal printed a photo of the party; included in it was the lady for whom the rose was named!). This was the first rose patented by Dr.Brownell (patent # 28). Other early once blooming pillars included Golden Glow, Apricot Glow, Copper Glow and Elegance. (R.I.R.S. Past President Mike Chute grafted and contributed the Elegance plants which now grow in the Roger Williams Victorian Rose Garden. They grew 12 feet tall this year, and bent over; they should be spectacular next June). Dorrie displayed a photo of how he both grew, and displayed, some of his pillar roses on tripods. That is why we employ them at the Roger Williams rose garden (with pillars such as R.I. Red and Golden Arctic). (Another, Golden Glow, was appreciated by the German breeder, Kordes, and utilized frequently as an important constituent of his breeding program). There are still a lot of these varieties growing in Little Compton. Some of his Hybrid Teas were "V for Victory," Curly Pink, and Lily Pons. Once the hardiness problem was overcome, Little Compton was a good place to grow roses: the rivers on both sides of the island provided lots of moisture; cool nights brought dew, and relieved heat stress; and the soil is beautiful. Photos of their summer home showed an attractive, spacious, white, wood-frame farm house. Unfortunately, they never owned that house, but, rather, just leased it. (Dorrie reports that, regretably, it has fallen into disrepair, to the point where a chimney fell down last winter). During the Summers there, Dr. Brownell could be seen among the roses, always dressed completely in white (pants, shirt, and down-turned Bermuda hat). The exception was his tie, which was the color of orange sherbert. At this point, Dorrie remarked that apart from the roses, the primary color down there was a parrot from Rio de Janeiro; it imitated Mrs. Brownell's voice perfectly, and would call out to the field "Walter,.... telephone!" Once the rose business took off more, he began hosting a "Rose Tea" at the end of June, inviting 200 to 300 people, including celebrities. A 1936 Providence Journal photo shows a famous underwater explorer in attendance, standing by a bed of the rose "Peggy Ann Landon" (daughter of a presidential candidate). The newspaper write-ups were definitely "period pieces," describing what the women serving tea wore, and how charming they looked. Dorrie, a child at the time, remembers best that the caterer made ice cream in the shape of roses ! In 1938, Dr. Brownell retired from his law practice, and the family moved to Little Compton year- round. Then, he was able to devote himself to roses full time. Previously, he had been just a breeder, not a business man. He had had only a few successful hybrids, and had depended on others (Jackson & Perkins, and Bobington in New Jersey) to actually market them. Dr. Brownell's younger brother, Herbert, went into business with him. They raised about 100,000 roses a year, and sold both wholesale and retail. Then, in the early 1940's, Dorrie's dad, Walter Dexter Brownell jr., also became involved, doing budding & propagating at his dairy farm in East Providence (roses & manure, a great combination). He soon lost most of his workers to the war effort. Thus, it became Dorrie & her sisters' "war effort," to fill in on her father's dairy/rose farm. They also worked flower shows in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, & Boston by exhibiting, and by running both display gardens & commercial booths. There is an old fort in Little Compton which guards the entrance to Narragansett Bay. After the war, Dr. Brownell was able to use its gun emplacements to store his roses for the winter. He built bins in these cold & damp underground places, dug up the roses in the Fall once they had gone dormant, and stored them grouped by variety in the bins. This facilitated their shipping when filling orders the following Spring. His awards include the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's Jack Dawson award of 1935, the Minnesota Rose Gold Award of 1949 for Queen o' the Lakes, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens Distinguished Service Award of 1953, the Jane Richter Garden Club of America award of 1954, and an honorary Ph.D. from U.R.I. in 1955. Dr. Brownell passed away at the age of 84 in April of 1957. His rose business continued for a few years, finally closing in the 1960's. His roses are on display at both the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens's Cranford Rose Garden, and at the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden in Hartford, Connecticut. His roses are still available. Nurseries which reliably sell his roses include Pickering Nurseries, Russian River Roses, and Vintage Gardens (only Pickering's are grafted). There are other nurseries in the mid-west which purport to sell them, but some of their cultivars are not true Brownells, and others have mosaic virus. Dorrie worked on the roses for her dad in the summer through high school & college. Then, her involvement with roses stopped. She now lives in Rehoboth, in the woods, with acid soil and inadequate sun. About 9 or 10 years ago, she thought, "Gee, I'd like to have some of those roses." She has gotten varieties from several sources, including from her mother's Brownell pillar bed ( sadly, her mother has passed away since this presentation). Among Dorrie's collection are Show Garden, Whitecap, Pillar # 108, Dr. Brownell, Pillar # 340 (very pink), Nearly Wild (back in commerce again, & tolerant of salt water flooding she reported!), Tip Toes (6 feet tall). One of her favorites is from her mother's bed, an unnamed rose which never got to commerce. Brownell roses' foliage tends to be very resistant to disease. Pink Princess was his first totally Black Spot free variety. Dorrie doesn't spray. In fact, she doesn't own a sprayer, or any spray. But, in spite of her location, her photos verified that her rose garden is remarkably free of disease. Dorrie does her own budding, several hundred yearly. She buds some to sell, and others to test and identify what it is that donors have given to her. Dr. Brownell produced about 100 roses, and patented 60 of them. He demonstrated the breadth of his talent by painting all the pictures which had to be submitted with each patent that he filed. Those paintings had to show the blossom in all its stages (including prickles, hips, and foliage). Dorrie has all 60 of the patents, and they have been very helpful to her in identifying possible Brownell roses that people have shared with her. Dorrie knows she will never collect all of his roses, not even all of the patented ones. But, it is worth doing all the same. They were the produce of a good man's care and devotion. For that, and on their own merits, and for what they can contribute to breeding, they are well worth remembering, preserving, sharing, and enjoying. May their tribe increase.
(reprinted from the November 2002 Rhode Island Rose Review)
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