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June 17, 2019

5/1/2019 12:10:00 PM
Tulips in the Valley
Area residents remember - Back in the Day

By Janna Gage
The first tulips in Skagit Valley were grown commercially on a forty-acre farm on Samish Island about 1905. Bulbs were imported from Holland to improve this crop and the valley’s bulb industry flourished. Early farmers were critical of the bulb growers for putting the rich valley land to such trivial use when it was excellent for cabbage seed, oats, hay, hops and barley. The bulb industry soon proved its value as more bulb farmers settled in Skagit County. They were an industrious and quiet bunch and I’m sure never foresaw anything like a “Tulip Festival.” Perhaps the astute merchants in La Conner did though.
The Civic Garden Club in La Conner needed a fundraiser. President Molly Alexander, who owned Puget Sound Seed Company, proposed a flower show. The first flower show was held at the Civic Garden Club building on South Second Street in La Conner in 1945. It ran for one weekend. “Quite a few people came,” reported Roberta Nelson, “but we thought we should do more advertising next time.” 
Cecil Solly, a Seattle KIRO radio broadcaster and gardening expert, was also a good friend of Molly Alexander. He told her that he would get some people to their next flower show. He succeeded beyond all expectation when the next flower show was overrun with a thousand vehicles and visitors. The following year the Garden Club moved the flower show to the Legion Hall (now Maple Hall). But it became clear that they needed a space with more parking. The town was gridlocked and the citizens were outraged. They couldn’t even get to the post office or drugstore! The fire station was located at First and Commercial. What if they couldn’t get the fire truck out?
A new gymnasium had just been built at La Conner High School and even though there was much to-do about the floor and its protection, the flower show was moved to the new gym. Parking was available on the football field. More importantly, visitors would not be interfering with traffic and business on First Street.
Artist Laurie Wells painted beautiful scenic backdrops for the walls of the gym. He designed gentle slopes of moss and ferns above the bleachers and even constructed a waterfall. It was like a fairyland when you entered the cool, sweet smelling interior of the gym. People flocked to the flower show and followed Laurie’s carefully laid out pathway among the hundreds of plants and flowers, across the footbridge over the waterfall stream, and then exited to the concession area in the new cafeteria.
Someone had the idea to hang some paintings by local artists on the walls of the cafeteria where the concessions were sold. So, an art show became part of the flower show. Every event needed a princess or queen in those days. Colleen Peth was crowned the first Queen of the newly named Tulip Show in 1957. Her handsome escort was basketball star Gail Thulen.
The visitors who came for the Tulip Show also found their way out to the tulip fields in bloom on the flats. It wasn’t long before business owners realized there was opportunity beyond the Tulip Show. Dunlap Hardware in La Conner placed an ad in the 1959 Tulip Show program advertising “collector items such as seashells and rocks.” Red Reynolds’ Hole in the Wall “Browse Shop” advertised “antiques, glass ball floats and curios.” La Conner Drugstore had an ad for “flashbulbs and film.” All were harbingers of the future that awaited La Conner.
The 30 women who comprised the La Conner Civic Garden Club worked for a frenzied two weeks, along with landscape artist Laurie Wells. Of course, the help of family members, friends and high school students was needed to get the job done. They gathered moss and ferns, located young fir trees and transported yards of wood chips to prepare a breathtaking panorama of seventy varieties of tulips, native plants, pathways, a 15 waterfall and an operational Dutch windmill pumping water. Then there was all the destruction, clearing and cleaning up after the one weekend flower show. 
In 1962 the World’s Fair was held in Seattle. I don’t know if that accounted for the large number who came to the Tulip Show that year, but attendance topped all records. Over 6,000 people arrived in town, were guided to parking spaces on the football field, meandered through town, drove down country roads past the tulip fields and gridlocked every intersection.
By the late 1960s the Tulip Show had become a little too much for the members of the La Conner Civic Garden Club. It was time for new people and events to take over. The Kiwanis Club was barbecuing salmon at Hillcrest Lodge. There was a street fair in Mount Vernon and farmers were opening their barn doors to petting zoo customers and artists. The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was on its way.
Today’s month-long tulip festival had very modest beginnings. It all started in 1945 with the Civic Garden Club in La Conner when Molly Alexander said, “How about a flower show?” Good job ladies!
Valley historian Janna Gage is co-owner of Seaport Books. She has written extensively on La Conner area history.

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