Our community has a gem “hidden in plain sight” in the Centennial Rose Garden at the Schmidt Mansion. On a warm afternoon, I had the pleasure of taking a guided tour of the garden with Gary Ritchie, who was the chairman of the Centennial Rose Committee and still oversees the Garden. Any day, between 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., take a detour as you head past the corner of Capitol Way and Custer, and swing into the Schmidt Mansion grounds. Head to the back gate of the garden and join many locals who enjoy wandering in this beautiful oasis.
Gary has been volunteering with the Olympia Rose Society since the 1980s and with a few other volunteers was responsible for turning the old cracked and weathered tennis court at the mansion into a beautiful garden. When the Olympia Community Center on Pacific, the original home of the roses, was sold, the Olympia Rose Society was given notice that the roses had to be moved.
The timing of the move coincided with the Washington State Centennial in 1989, so Gary and his organization applied for a Thurston County 89 Grant, which paved the way for the creating the new garden. At the inaugural event on June 23, 1989, Jean Gardner, who was the state’s first lady at the time, was on hand to dedicate the Centennial Rose Garden. Most of the 320 plus members of the Olympia Rose Society and Centennial Committee were present and honored for their hard work and dedication. Along with Ritchie, Joy Ayres and Marian Seely were key players in reestablishing the beauty of the garden.
Over the years since the Garden’s inauguration, the number of volunteers has dwindled significantly. Gary speculates that perhaps new folks have not become involved in great numbers in recent years because the community is not as aware of the garden and its significance as they once were. On a recent work party day, Olympia Rose Society members Marilyn Ritchie, Jack Kiley, Pat Ream and Ron Backman tended to the roses, but they could always use more community members to join them.
According to Jack Kiley, who with his wife Beage, are co-presidents of the Olympia Rose Society, “The Centennial Rose Garden is special for any number of reasons. It remains a focal point of the Olympia Rose Society that maintains it and the Olympia-Tumwater Foundation that owns it. It is an important stop for visitors to our capital city.”
One tour of the garden could change many minds and inspire more locals to volunteer. “I knew nothing about roses,” Gary said, “until I moved across the street from Ed Gerrick almost 40 years ago. He grew such amazing roses. He twisted my arm to join the Olympia Rose Society and the rest is history.” Gary is a retired research plant scientist who worked at Weyerhaeuser for 29 years. He laughed, “I often say my hobby reinforced my profession and my profession reinforced my hobby.”
When asked what changes had been made since the garden was created, Gary responded, “Well, after we discovered the first couple of years that the deer were dining on our roses, we applied for a grant from the Olympia-Tumwater Foundation to have a secure fence built.” Despite sharing the area with wildlife, the roses are flourishing with both historic and new varieties carefully arranged along the pathways. Significant historical and cultural events are celebrated in the variant shapes, colors and scents of roses.
We began by stopping at the Rosa Gallica, which was grown by the Romans and perhaps the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as well. Marie Pavey is a species from when Washington became a state in 1888, while the famous Peace Rose variety stems from World War I tributes. Some of my favorites had cultural connections. Let Freedom Ring marks the solemn horrors of 9/11 and Pope John Paul II commemorates his canonization. Betty Boop definitely fits her image and Watercolors is reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keefe painting.
The Centennial Rose Garden is a favorite stop each year when the Portland Royal Rosarians come north to celebrate Capital Lakefair with us. According to Jack, “Each year they plant a few roses that are special to their organization. Over the years an entire section of the garden has been dedicated to their annual visit.”
Whether looking for a perfect wedding venue, taking a detour from the popular Schmidt Mansion tour, or just looking for a few moments of beauty and tranquility, the Centennial Rose Garden is the place. If you would be interested in spending more time as a volunteer in the Garden, check out the opportunities at the Olympia Rose Society.