As it has for the past century, everything was coming up roses in Thomasville, Georgia’s historic downtown district this weekend.
The first Rose Show was held in 1922 in this small (population: 18,500) town, just a 30-minute drive north of Tallahassee. While attracting the rose culture crowd in its early years, its popularity exploded mid-century, when it expanded into a more populist three-day festival that now includes an antique car show, golf tourney, 5K run, outdoor market and “Shop & Sip”, as well as displays dedicated to orchids and more pedestrian blooms.
The highlight, a parade that at one time could attract 70,000 people, was canceled this year because of COVID-19 concerns. But attendees were invited to a Friday night interactive “Historic Parade Experience” to enjoy photographs from the past and meet the current Rose Queen and her court.
Because of a few quirks of nature — and good marketing — Thomasville combines small-town living with a sophistication one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in rural Georgia.
The Red Hills region is a “unique environment” explained Ephraim Rotter, curator of the Thomasville History Center. “This chunk of land between Thomasville and Tallahassee is a breakaway piece of the Appalachian Mountains that is completely different physically from all of the environment right around it.”
It became a popular retreat in the late 1800s for wealthy industrialists who wanted to escape the cold northern winters. Doctors and others claimed the area’s pine tree resins could relieve consumption and other breathing problems.
“Thomasville did some very clever marketing, taking out ads in, like, the New York Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and promoted Thomasville as a winter resort,” Rotter said.
And while Thomasville wasn’t at the end of the railroad line at the time, it was far enough to stay warm without venturing into Florida, which at the time was virtually undeveloped and full of malarial mosquitoes.
“Thomasville considers itself — and fairly, I would say — the cultural capital of southwest Georgia,” he added.
Much of that can be attributed to those uber-wealthy visitors who amassed huge tracts of acreage and built large mansions as vacation homes. While some bought antebellum plantations “that were absolutely based on the labor of enslaved Black people … many of them have no connection to enslavement,” he said. “They were purchasing farmland — and in a lot of cases just woods — to build their new homes.”
The visitors brought along their taste for the finer things in life, as well as a love of culture and shooting sports. The town also would benefit from the charitable largesse of the well-heeled. Its medical center is named in memory of John D. Archbold, a Standard Oil executive whose son provided the seed money for construction.
Thomasville boasts a small, but bustling downtown filled with historic buildings housing storefronts and a collection of popular restaurants that are worth making a drive from Tallahassee.
Rotter attributes Thomasville’s fascination with roses to two intersecting reasons.
First, a species known as the Cherokee Rose occurs naturally in the habitat, which would have caught the eye of snowbirds. And those rich visitors hired landscape designers who “went very heavy on roses,” Rotter said. Rose pride caught on with the natives and the rest is 100 years of floral history.