Syracuse Rose Society member secures long-lost rose for E.M. Mills Memorial Garden

Seventy-three miles, that’s the distance between the home of James Kahler in Little Falls New York to the E.M. Mills Memorial Rose Garden located in Thornden Park on the Eastside of Syracuse.

Visit the garden and you’ll see around 4,500 roses that are cared for by members of the Syracuse Rose Society (SRS). Kahler, the 3rd Vice President, has been an active volunteer since 2011, joining the organization after seeing an informational booth at the New York State Fair.

Established in 1911, the SRS is the oldest continuously operating rose society in the country.

According to the research of Lois Stack, the SRS was the brainchild of Dr. Edmund Mead Mills. An avid gardener and known minister in Central New York, Dr. Mills’ personal garden consisted of 400 plants of 129 varieties.

Twenty community members attended the first meeting that February, establishing Mills as president. To build excitement, the group took out an ad in the Syracuse Herald announcing their intentions to make Syracuse the “Rose City of the Empire State.”

The Syracuse Herald, 1911

By the end of May, 1911, the city of Syracuse had set aside three acres of land for use by the society in Kirk Park, where 2,500 rose bushes were planted.

By 1915, the garden moved onto the campus of Syracuse University where it continued to thrive.

Dr. Mills, who lived nearby on Comstock Avenue wrote in the 1916 edition of the American Rose Annual that “In the block where the writer resides the man who does not grow roses is the exception and not the rule.“ In addition, the editor added: “Dr. Mills has practised very fully what he here preaches. The Syracuse Rose Society, of which he is president, had 266 members in 1915, and is growing lustily. It furnishes the most notable instance in the United States of how readily the interest of our people in rose-growing can be awakened.”

By 1922, the gardeners had outgrown their space at Syracuse University and plans were made to move to the city’s newly acquired Thornden Park.

The success of the Syracuse Rose Society was not lost on others outside of Central New York. In 1923, Dr. Mills was named President of the American Rose Society (ARS) and his role in the Syracuse area diminished as his duties required his presence in California.

Marker noting the dedication of the garden to Dr. Mills in 1924

In July 1924, the SRS decided to name their newly planted garden at Thornden Park in honor of Dr. Mills, who traveled in for the ceremony that took place nine years before his death at the age of 84 in 1933.

Fast forward to August, 2014.

James Kahler, at that time a fairly new volunteer for the SRS, is reading the Summer 2013 edition of the Rose Hybridizers Association Newsletter that details the rediscovery of a Dr. E.M. Mills rose in California.

Kahler was shocked. “How did we not have this rose,” he asked.

The rose itself was first introduced by the American Rose Society in 1925, the 2nd year of Dr. Mill’s run as president of the ARS, but was soon forgotten.

The story explained that after years of hunting, Kim Rupert of California, a known rose hybridizer, had found the rose growing in Rosariet Himmelstalundsskolan, a public garden in Norrkoping, Sweden in 2007.

After five years of negotiations, quarantine and delivery, Rupert was able to secure the plant for his own garden.

Jim Kahler speaks with a visitor at the 2016 Rose Day. Photo provided by SRS

When Kahler read that the plant had recently arrived in the United States, he went to work to secure the rose, “We just had to have it,” he said.

Kahler contacted Rupert who referred him to the Burlington Rose Nursery in Visalia, California who had possession of the original plant imported from the Netherlands. After completing the selfless leg work, a bud from the rosebush was received in the winter of 2014.

Kahler treated the plant in his basement until it was ready for planting the following summer, adding a prize jewel to Syracuse’s existing set.

On June 14th, Kahler will gladly drive those seventy-three miles to see the rose he helped bring to the hometown of its namesake. On that day, he and other members of the SRS will celebrate ‘Rose Day,’ an annual event held by the SRS and the City of Syracuse Parks and Rec Department from 12:00pm-2:00pm.

If you have a chance, stop by and tip your hat to Kahler and remember these words quoted by S. Reynolds Hole, an English priest who Dr. Mills so admired, “He who would have beautiful roses in his garden must have them in his heart.”