Roses had been around a long time when Thomasville residents decided to take the flower to another level.
The rose was the centerpiece for Thomasville’s first Rose Show in 1921.
Twenty-seven years later, a rose-themed parade was born. An overall festival with various events followed.
Thomasville’s Rose Show is in her 90s now, with the parade nearing seven decades.
The Rose Show has been held in a number of locations. The Rose Festival Parade rolled at 10:30 a.m. on the fourth Friday in April for decades before becoming a nighttime event in recent years. Some Rose Festival events have come and gone.
However, what never changes about the fourth Friday in April is Thomasville being showcased as Georgia’s City of Roses.
“Of all the things we enjoy during the annual Rose Show and Festival, one that probably goes unnoticed by many is the opportunity it provides us to market our great city,” Thomasville Mayor Max Beverly said.
The community is at its best during the Rose Show and Festival, the mayor explained.
Said Beverly, “Thomasville is at center stage for thousands of visitors who come to smell the roses and end up falling in love with the wonderful community we’re all so proud of.”
The local economy receives a boost, as well, Beverly added.
According to information provided by the Thomas County Museum of History, the first Rose Show resulted from the successful growing and selling of vegetables by local residents.
During World War I, Mrs. W.M. Harris, wife of the First Baptist Church minister, formed a garden club for the practical purpose of interesting people in growing vegetables to augment the nation’s food supply.
A collection of the county’s top vegetables was exhibited at the State Fair in Macon. The exhibit took first prize, $25, which garden club members earmarked for use in staging a rose show.
In 1921, Neel’s Department Store — at Broad and Jackson streets in the center of downtown Thomasville — offered a show site. Counters in the millinery department were cleared to make way for roses, annuals of several kinds and pot plants.
Entries were in such profusion the show covered not only millinery counters, but counters in the mezzanine, as well.
The Thomasville Times-Enterprise reported it had been feared the first show might not happen because of bad weather conditions and the lateness of rose blooms.
The newspaper reported: “Neel Bros. Store where the exhibit was held, was a veritable bower of beauty and there were flowers everywhere, upstairs and down, inside and out of the store. Where they all came from everybody was asking but the great thing was that they were there and were beautiful.”
Exhibits during the show’s early years included Japanese tea gardens, woodland fairylands, English rustic nooks with flowering trees, water wheels turned by cascades of water, a giant four-poster bed of roses, ice sculpture filled with roses and a life-size replica of Twenty Grand, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney’s 1931 Kentucky Derby winner entered by Greenwood Plantation, the Whitney family’s Thomasville Plantation.
The show has been held in a number of locations — from a Buick dealership show room to a basketball gymnasium, a tobacco warehouse, an airport hangar and an American Legion post.
World War II years nearly killed the show. In 1942, the event was held in two places: the Municipal Building for annuals and other displays and an American Legion post for rose displays.
The next year, the show was held at what was once a 5-and-10 store on Broad Street.
In April 1948, a concerted effort was made to revive the glory the show enjoyed before the war.
Several new elements were incorporated, including a festival honoring the rose with a colorful parade, selection of a Rose Queen and moving the Rose Show to a larger location.
The first parade had three bands and seven floats. The next year, eight bands and 30 floats made up the parade.
The parade was not held in 1952, but returned in 1953 with 13 bands and 28 floats.
L. Edward Kelly Jr., was president of Thomasville Jaycees, which started the Rose Queen Beauty Pageant as a Miss Georgia preliminary contest. Prior to the pageant, the Rose Queen was selected at a Thomasville High School contest.
The name of the pageant was changed later to Miss Thomas County Pageant and later to Miss Thomasville Pageant.
Kelly, former Times-Enterprise editor and publisher, said the Rose Festival was started in 1947-48 to add “oomph” to the Rose Show.
Kelly served on the Rose Festival committee for several years before chairing the festival twice.
“We brought several Miss Americas to Thomasville,” Kelly recalled. Miss America Lee Meriwhether participated in the festival and went on to become a movie and television actress.
Kelly remembers former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox riding his bicycle backward in a past Rose Festival Parade.
“The Rose Festival gives Thomasville that extra dimension as a publicity tool and should be maintained and made even better,” Kelly said.
The only time the Rose Show was canceled was in 1955, when no roses were available for display because of a late freeze. However, 2,000 roses were imported to decorate a 12-foot rose tree in the middle of the T.C. Mitchell Fountain on Thomas County Courthouse grounds.
By then, the Rose Show, parade and other activities had blended so cohesively that activities dovetailed and were staged on Fridays and Saturdays, not during the week as previously had been the rule.
In 1981, the Rose Show moved to buildings at Exchange Club Deep South Fairgrounds, and the event was expanded to include a standard flower show.
The Rosebud Parade was added for children. All youngsters have to do to participate in the downtown parade is show up. Captain Kangaroo, among other characters — real and make-believe — have served as grand marshals of the Rosebud Parade.
In recent years, the Rose Show, sponsored by the Thomasville Rose Society, has been staged in a huge white tent in downtown Thomasville.
Now in its 93rd year, the Thomasville Rose Show is among the most prestigious rose shows in the nation.
Today, the City of Thomasville’s tourism agency coordinates the parade and festival events.
“Our Rose Show and Festival sprouted from a desire of local citizens to share the wonderful outdoor beauty that had lured them to make Thomasville their permanent home,” said Karen Smith, City of Thomasville Tourism & Main Street executive director.
Smith added, “Decades later, this spring event has grown into a grand celebration of all things ‘Thomasville.’ It showcases our appreciation of the past, our love of beautiful things, and certainly our warm and welcoming people.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of a celebration of the Times-Enterprise’s 125th year, this is the eighth in a year-long series of Sunday stories about important people, places and things in the area. The next one will be published May 4.
Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 1820.