Florence Celebrates 100 Years of “Rhody Days”

Story by Dave Masko


Painting of Legend of Florence

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Florence first Rhody Days
This painting illustrates the legend of settlers finding a ship's nameplate with "Florence" on it (above). Joaquin Miller at the first Rhododendron Festival (right).

After seemingly endless months of rain, Florence gladly welcomes its annual Rhododendron Festival during the third weekend of May at the peak of the rhododendron bloom. This festival, now dubbed “Rhody Days” by the locals, is the second old-est flower festival in Oregon (just a year behind Portland’s Rose Festival) and the third oldest on the West Coast.

May 1908 saw the first of the flowery festivals, conceived and carried out by local citizens to celebrate one of the most gorgeous displays of natural beauty along the Oregon Coast.

Lane County Historical Society records of the period note that “coastals” (as they were called by city folk in Eugene) were “looked down on.” To earn respect—and much needed tourist dollars—an idea was born. “I don’t know who or how, but someone thought we could attract visitors and tourists with our colorful rhododendrons,” explained Laura Johnson Miller in a 1975 recorded interview. Johnson Miller, at 15, was crowned “Queen Rhododendra” in the first festival in 1908. In later years, she became the wife of George Melvin Miller, one of the Florence pioneers who helped start the festival.

Founding fathers of first Rhody Festival (left to right) George Melvin Miller, James H. Miller, and Joaquin Miller.
Founding fathers of first Rhody Festival (left to right) George Melvin Miller, James H. Miller, and Joaquin Miller.

During that first festival, Miller recalls a clam bake on the beach, a big parade, and a Grand Ball, as well as a “royal fleet of boats” to carry the “royal party” down the Siuslaw River to Old Town for the official crowning of the queen. George P. Edwards was mayor of Florence at the time, and he presented the new queen with the key to the city that was carved out of rhododendron wood.

“I think I made it by just two votes,” said Miller, thinking back to the “bright sunny day when I, little Laura Johnson, was made queen. I’ll never forget it. My future uncle, Joaquin Miller, who was famous in our parts, was picked to open the festival as the Grand Marshall.” Historical records note that Joaquin Miller brought much needed respect to the event because he had just earned, in 1908, the title “Poet of the Sierras.”

In his address, Miller complimented the city on choosing the rhododendron: “I congratulate you with all my heart for having chosen this flower from your fields and dooryards. I believe that this flower, which we celebrate, has come directly from the Garden of Eden. I want you to remember that the secret of happiness and contentment is the love and appreciation of beauty.”

Over the years, there have been many other notable grand marshals, including Oregon author Ken Kesey. In fact, the theme of the 1979 Rhododendron Festival was the same as the title of Kesey’s book Sometimes a Great Notion.

Florence has seen many soul-stirring changes to its annual festival over the years, but none more so than the annual influx of motorcycle riders that began in the early 1980s.

In 2006, for example, more than two thousand bikers came to this small town to kick back and socialize while local businesses obliged by serving up lots of food, libations, and the annual floral parade down Highway 101.

The theme for 2007 is “100 Years of Reflection,” with the celebration taking place May 18 through 20 in and around Florence’s Old Town. This year’s festival includes the American Rhododendron Society’s Rhododendron Show, arts and crafts shows, an amusement carnival, and, of course, the grand parade, with numerous floats decked out with wild rhododendrons.

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