by Robert Marlin
Anyone new to Tyler within the past twenty years may not understand why this article will be so nostalgic to longtime residents. For the uninitiated, there was a time when cut rose blooms were sold from “honor stands” throughout the area. These stands were basically simple wooden structures, with an umbrella to provide shade for the roses, which were sitting in metal tubs of water. The cut blooms were wrapped in white florist paper, one dozen blooms per wrapper. The cost was fifty cents per dozen roses. Patrons could select from among the bundled rose blooms and drop their payment into a jar or metal box that was provided as a till for that purpose. Surprisingly, the amount of money left in the till usually matched the number of bundles that had been left for sale. These honor stands could be found all over the county: outside the entrances to local stores, at street corners, at gasoline service stations and other “high traffic” areas frequented by both residents and visitors to the city. When Interstate 20 was built, honor stands were placed at the intersection of Highway 69 and I-20, thereby introducing Tyler Roses to travelers driving between Dallas and Shreveport.
Tyler’s reputation as the Rose Capital of America dates back nearly ninety years. Although the first recorded sales of East Texas roses occurred in 1879, the primary cash crop in this area during the late nineteenth century was peaches. In 1889 alone, Smith County harvested 104,283 bushels of peaches. However, San Jose scale, a major peach blight, struck in the early years of the twentieth century. By 1914, all the local peach orchards were destroyed by the blight. That was what caused local farmers to switch to growing roses, which were well-suited to the sandy loam soil of East Texas. That marked the beginning of Tyler’s rose industry. The first train boxcar of Tyler rose bushes was shipped in 1917. Rose production rose to approximately six million plants in 1936, producing approximately one million dollars in revenue. By 1945, between ten and fifteen million plants were sold valued at $3.5 million, the output of some 200 nurserymen with 1,500 employees growing commercial roses. Smith County contributed approximately 80% of the total crop. At its peak in the 1950s, the East Texas industry was comprised of almost 300 rose growers producing more than twenty million plants annually.
From the twenty million plants produced, each plant could harvest two-dozen blooms. What many people new to the region don’t know is that Tyler’s rose industry was not about the blooms. What local farmers were producing were the rose bushes themselves. The cut blooms were basically a by-product from the bushes that were being shipped all across the United States for use in gardens. The cut blooms provided additional income to the growers, which were principally family-owned farms. The three factors most responsible for creating Tyler’s reputation as the Rose Capital of America were the Tyler Tap Railroad, which eventually became the Cotton Belt. The railroad made it possible for local growers to get their plants to markets all across the United States. Another factor was local farmers selling their rose blooms from the honor stands, which helped many visitors to Tyler learn about the roses firsthand. And finally, the establishment of the Texas Rose Festival in 1933.
Tyler attorney, Thomas Ramey Sr., was instrumental in starting the festival and served as its the first president. He got the idea after making a visit to the Century of Progress International Exposition, also known as Chicago World’s Fair, in May 1933. There, he saw a display of roses and commented to a gardener standing there what beautiful roses he had. The gardener responded by saying, “These come from a place in Texas that grows the world’s prettiest roses, a town called Tyler.” Two months later, Ramey got a call from Russell Rhodes, the manager of the Chamber of Commerce, who had been approached by Marion Wilcox, and other members of the Tyler Garden Club, who wanted to publicize the rose growing industry in Tyler. Ramey related the incident from his recent trip to Chicago and proposed that the ladies create a local event that could do two things: show off the City of Tyler and to market the local rose growing industry. Three months later, at the height of the rose blooming season, the first Tyler Rose Festival was held at Bergfeld Park. The festival proved to be successful, attracting tourists from outside the city while quickly becoming Tyler’s most significant social event. By 1936, its name was officially changed to the Texas Rose Festival.
During the depression years of the 1930s, the East Texas rose industry was comprised of perhaps eighty families growing roses on small farms. As the industry began to flourish, coincidentally in the decade following the first of the annual rose festivals, the number of families involved in growing roses grew to more than two hundred. The industry itself can be described as a generational enterprise because the children and grandchildren of the rose growers took over managing the family farms.
Nix Roses is a classic example of the generational enterprise concept. Although C.L. Nix started Nix Roses in the 1950s, and incorporated it during the early 1960s, its heritage goes back two generations of rose growing families. Tracing the lineage of this rose growing family is akin to reading about the people of the Old Testament. Follow along with this attempt to explain who was begat by whom, starting with Clayton Pinkerton.
1st Generation – Clayton Dennis Pinkerton (1882-1962) first started growing roses in the 1920s. He was a charter member of Cooperative Rose Growers, which eventually became Certified Roses, Inc. He is the great-grandfather of the Nix clan. 2nd Generation – Clayton’s daughter Annie Mae married James Shira (1909-1988), also a rose grower and a grandfather of the Nix clan. 3rd Generation – James and Annie Mae had a daughter, Peggy, who married C.L Nix (1933-2020), who started Nix Roses. C.L. and Peggy had four children: 4th Generation – daughters Jan (Cook), Cyndi (Hendrix), and sons Cary and Jamie Nix. Both C.L. and Cary Nix served terms as president of the Rose Research Foundation.
C.L. Nix went to college, first at Tyler Junior College where he played basketball for the legendary coach Floyd Wagstaff. Then, he played for John Stevens at Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College, where he became the first All-American ever from SFA. C.L. majored in education and would make his career teaching world history, government and social studies. His career in
education began in 1957 when he was hired as basketball coach at Whitehouse High School. He retired from teaching in 1989. The original high school gym was named in his honor, and when the new high school was built, they also named that gym in his honor.
For C.L. Nix, growing roses was more of a sideline than a full-time vocation. After he started dating Peggy, whom he met while at TJC, C.L. started working in the rose fields for her father, James Shira. He eventually started Nix Roses and later began raising cattle, as a way to supplement his teaching income.
During the late sixties, change was already affecting the local rose industry. Too much rain in the area was the cause for fungus developing in the rose fields. That required farmers to spray the fields to kill off the fungus. Competition was also increasing from other rose-growing areas in the country. What became evident to many local producers was that the future for the local industry was in processing the plants rather than growing them. In the early 1990s, fewer than fifty local rose growers remained active in the business. Still, those remaining growers were responsible for producing eight to ten million rose bushes each year, which represented roughly 20% of the entire rose crop in the United States. Today, the industry is controlled by six or seven families who have gone into the processing business in place of growing the bushes. However, Tyler is still the Rose Capital of America, perhaps more so than ever. The move from growing into processing, results in between eighty and eighty-five percent of the entire market being processed in Smith County. There are still local bushes processed in Smith County, but the majority of bushes processed are shipped in from Arizona and California.
“When I was a kid growing up, I dreaded the end of the school year,” Jan Nix Cook remembers, “because it meant getting up at sunrise and going to the rose fields before it got too hot to work. When other kids were out riding their bicycles or going swimming, we were out working in the rose fields. Growing roses is hard work, back-breaking work. Roses require constant attention to get them ready for market. It takes two years to get a bush ready for market. While those young plants are growing, they need to be budded by hand. Cutting the blooms is tough, but budding is hard work, and it is difficult to find people who want to do that.”
Budding is the process by which a stem bud from one rose is slipped under the skin of a hardier rose, and the bud is allowed to take over. Once the rose is growing on hardy roots, it becomes a hardier rose itself. It must be done by hand, which results in the person doing the budding getting scratched or stuck by thorns. That explains why it was a chore that no one likes. “Another job I had was wrapping cut flowers in the white paper, which is actually deli paper for sandwiches, by the way. As I wrapped, Cyndi, Cary and Jamie were either cutting roses or bringing cut flower stems for me to wrap. We called that process ‘toting.’ One more of our jobs was to fill small brown paper envelopes with Floralife, a powdered substance resembling flour or powdered sugar to prolong the life of the flowers. We called that chore ‘sacking dope,’ a term that obviously raised eyebrows if we told our friends we couldn’t go out to play with them because we had to sack dope,” Jan says laughing at the memory.
Cary points out that telling his memories of working in the rose fields are based on the attitude he had about the chore back then, as a child. “Today, I am actually quite proud to say that I have worked in the rose fields. It is an experience that is limited to relatively few people.” His siblings agree, but emphasize that, “More importantly, I think that experience gave us a much greater appreciation for our family’s role in an industry that put Tyler and East Texas on the map. Our family was directly related to Tyler becoming the Rose Capital of America. I’m proud of that connection.”
Although Jan and her sister Cyndi stopped working on the rose farm when they graduated from high school, Jan’s involvement with the rose industry did not end then. When she would come home from Texas A&M as a college student, one of her duties was to go around to the various honor stands her family operated and collect the money that had been placed in the till from the sale of the cut roses. In 1975, Jan was honored to be chosen as the Duchess of the Rose Growers for the Texas Rose Festival, “It was the same year that one of the out-of-town Duchesses was the daughter of Governor Dolph Briscoe. Needless to say, other than the Queen Nanette Oge, the daughter of the Governor received more attention than any of the rest of us participating in that year’s festival.”
Cary also points out that his father often claimed that, “Nix Roses was, ‘King of selling cut roses.’ There were a lot of growers who had honor stands on the Highway 69/I-20 corridor. We had stands, too. Dad liked the idea of selling the cut roses and he would hire a bunch of high school boys on just about every weekend during the growing season and take them to Dallas, Shreveport, Baton Rouge or Houston for the day. He’d drop them off with several tubs of flowers on street corners or at a service stations and pay them ten cents for every dozen sold. Those boys could work all day and earn up to forty dollars.”
The price for a dozen cut Tyler roses started at about fifty cents a dozen. By the early 1970s, it was raised to seventy-five cents. “I can remember in about 1971, selling roses in Turtle Creek in Dallas for a dollar a dozen,” Cary says. Today, Nix Roses are still being sold in Tyler for three dollars a dozen. Tony Gonzalez pulls into the parking lot at The French Quarter on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and sells Nix Roses out of the back of his van. These are the last of the Tyler cut roses still being sold in the city. Tony has been working for the family since about 1980.
Although Cary and Jamie Nix had worked for their dad in the rose business their entire lives, they took over the business in the late nineties. “Our dad took it back in 2010 and kept the farm going, mainly just to have something to do after he retired. In the last five or so years, the business was really beginning to slow down,” Cary explains. “My brother and I got out of the business. Nobody in the family was interested in taking it over, although my oldest son Chad thought about it for a while. Growing roses is about the biggest gamble around anymore,” Cary laments.
The current crop was planted in 2019. Sadly, C.L. Nix passed away in October 2020, before his final crop of rose bushes was ready to harvest. His children, however, are committed to bringing in this final crop of roses before completely shutting down the business. This current crop will have its final blooms in October. Sometime in November or December, the plants will go dormant. Then, the final bushes from Nix Roses will be harvested in the early winter and sold to a local processor. One of the last of the few remaining local rose growers will cease to exist.
There is a bittersweet nostalgia associated with closing the business. That is especially true for members of the Nix family. For the last of four generations of rose growers, it will be the end of an era. “Tony Gonzalez is the last employee of Nix Roses. One of the reasons Daddy kept the business going as long as he did was, in part, to keep Tony working as well. It’s sad to think that Tyler roses will not be sold anymore. After all these years, when something like this comes to an end, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss,” Jan says. “Our family had a great run as part of the Tyler rose industry. All of our family is proud to have been a part of such a unique industry that made a major impact on East Texas. We have been part of the economic heritage and a part of the cultural heritage of East Texas. How many families can say that?”