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HISTORY | VIOLETS

Sweet Violets BY TOBE CAREY

William Saltford and his brother George brought violet cultivation to Rhinebeck from England in the 1880s. In 1902, George published How to Make Money Growing Violets, which helped popularize the growing sensation. Soon violet houses were sprouting in backyards and on farms throughout the c o u n t y. T h e winter b l o om i n g flowers w e r e featured at HarvardYale football games and the National Horse Show. The industry provided a valuable cash crop for local residents and employed over 20% of Rhinebeck’s population.

Violets were the favored flower for Christmas, f o r Va l e n t i n e ’s Day and for Easter. At the height of popularity, more than 400 violet houses dotted the Dutchess County countryside. The largest “Violet King,” Julius Vander Linden, owned 64 violet houses. Violet growing was hard work. The flower beds had all their soil removed and replaced each year to prevent pests from overtaking the delicate plants. Greenhouses had to have their temperature carefully regulated throughout the long winters to prevent the plants from freezing or overheating.

By the early 1900s, Dutchess County was known as the “Violet Belt” and Rhinebeck was the “Buckle on the Belt.” By 1912, millions of blooms were shipped by train from Rhinecliff to cities and towns throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Champions like Eleanor Roosevelt helped to spark some renewed violet popularity, but the increased costs of heating and hand labor plus competition from other corsage flowers contributed to a continued decline in violet sales. By the late 1970s the last of the large commercial violet growers closed up shop. Today, only one row of cultivated Dutchess County violets recalls the glory days of viola odorata. In Milan, Fred Battenfeld, continues to grow Frey’s Fragrant violets for Valentine’s Day and as delicious culinary additions to salads and cakes. He’s determined to keep alive a small part of a once vibrant Dutchess County History. These deep purple violets are a reminder of the glorious award-winning blooms like Marie Louise or Swanley White that once made Rhinebeck celebrated as “The Violet Capital of the World.”

Picking was done by hand and required reclining on a wooden bench placed above the violet beds. Bunching and tying the blooms was a precision job and an experienced picker could gather up to 5,000 blooms a day. Children were released from school to help pick at the height of the Easter violet season. By World War I, fashions began to change and fragrant violets lost favor to other available flowers. In 1927, a scandalous Broadway show, The Captive, involving a plot about violets and 22 GREEN DOOR | SPRING 2013

lesbian lovers, further depressed sales with the general public.

Sweet Violets is a 40-minute documentary film that tells the surprising story of the vibrant industry that once provided a quarter of the commercially grown violets in the United States.

FOR MORE INFO sweetvioletsmovie.com

PHOTO CREDITS - TOP OF STORY: “DUCHESS DE PARME” SEASIDE PLANTS; SNOW COVER: DONALD PITCHER; PICKING: CARL PERUTZ; “STANELY WHITE’: CAROL GROVES; BOTTOM: TOBE CAREY

Violets have a long and celebrated history. Their beauty, fragrance, medicinal, and culinary uses are legendary.

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