In The Beginning

History of the American Conifer Society: Part One

by Jim Morris, ACS Historian

Early this year I was writing an article for our county history journal and the story required researching how a Calocedrus decurrens would have arrived in Georgia in the 1830’s. Seeking information from the American Conifer Society introduced me to your President, Tom Cox, and the lovely Evelyn Cox, Editor of this publication. During that interaction I wandered too near, was sucked into the boundless energy vortex surrounding them, and ended up being recruited as your ACS historian. No pressure, but, by the way, this year is ACS’ 25th anniversary and you need to tell the membership what we are celebrating! Protesting that I literally do not know a Tsuga from a Pinus seemed meaningless to them I had some research skills, time to spare, and a willingness to listen to others. Since then I have dived into the minutes and other records of the ACS Board of Directors, read a good many of the American Conifer Society Bulletins, the predecessor of the Conifer Quarterly you are reading, and have begun interviewing folks who have far more information about ACS than I. Between now and the 2008 ACS Annual Meeting I hope to write an article for each issue of the Conifer Quarterly with the objective of telling you some stories about how the Society got started and what it has accomplished over this quarter century. Though today’s story is about the founders’ efforts to start the organization, I hope not to tell a linear story in the future editions. Subsequent articles will highlight some issues on which the Society has made a difference in the conifer community, and may highlight a few of the people who propelled us to succeed. If I mess up, or if you have an angle I should know about for the next article, call or email me I’m in the ACS Membership Directory.

In October 1982 a group of enthusiasts gathered at the home of Joel Spingarn on Long Island and determined to start a Dwarf Conifer Society. They divided into two committees. One was chaired by Robert Fincham and was tasked to draft the society’s name, purpose and bylaws. He was assisted by William Schwartz, Ted Lockwood, Harold Epstein, Layne Ziegenfuss, Michael Collins, Michael Kristick, Ridge Goodwin, and William and Maxine Schwarz. The second was the advisory committee, chaired by Joel Spingarn, who was assisted by Ed Rezek, Joe Reis and Layne Ziegenfuss.

The groundwork was completed in December and the first meeting took place January 20, 1983, again at Spingarn’s home. At that meeting the Board of Directors was appointed and included Ed Rezek, James Cross, Peter Deltredici, Jean Iseli, Richard Bush, Robert Fincham, Ted Lockwood, Susan Frost Martin, and Joel Spingarn.

The first president elected was Robert L. Fincham. Tom Dilatush was Vice President (East) and Richard Bush was Vice President (West). Jean Iseli was Secretary and William Schwarz was Treasurer.

American Conifer Society was accepted as the name of the organization and its stated purposes, . . .are the development, conservation, and propagation of conifers, with an emphasis on those that are dwarf or unusual, standardization of nomenclature, and education of the public.

The four paragraphs immediately above are adapted from the first article in Vol. 1, No. 1 of the American Conifer Society Bulletin, an article written by Robert Fincham, the new President. And that is how we got started on the path to where we are today. You can see that the interests of the group broadened to all conifers from the initial Dwarf Conifer Society objective. There had been false starts in organizing similar groups in the past, undoubtedly inspired by the success of the 1931 Conifer Conference sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society of England. Subsequently, Col. Montgomery of Connecticut was only able to attract 40 potential members of a proposed society and withdrew. In 1939 three men attempted to start a Hemlock Society but nothing came of the effort. Why did ACS succeed?

One reason for our success may be the dogged determination of some of the founders. That, coupled with their willingness to assume personal responsibility for tasks necessary to get this fledgling organization up and running made the difference. An example may be the first President, Robert Fincham. No George Washington, he was the first, second, third and fourth President! He was willing to do the work and his companions respected his ability to get the work done. During his tenure the Society grew from 200 members to 673. He was also the first Editor of the Bulletin, the predecessor of the Conifer Quarterly you are now reading. Being a good leader, he knew how to delegate. The second Editor was his wife, Diane. Even though he eventually turned over the residency to another, his devotion to ACS continued. It is notable that during the ACS 2007 Annual Meeting in Seattle he and Diane hosted members to a tour of their Coenesium Gardens.

Jean Iseli was on that first Board of Directors and you will recognize the name from the annual ACS Jean Iseli Memorial Award. The award is granted to an applicant who best supports, the development, conservation and propagation of conifers, essentially, the mission of this Society. The award was established shortly after the death of Jean in 1986. Jean’s brother, Andre, filled his vacant position on the Board and eventually served in many other capacities, including ACS President. The initial annual award was $500 and came from a fund that totaled only $9,120 in 1991 when the Board allowed Andre to take control of investment of the fund under the condition that he would personally guarantee the $9,120 corpus of the fund. His stated objective was to increase the fund to $100,000. The annual award is now $1500 and is a testament to Andre’s commitment to ACS and to his brother’s memory.

Also on the original Board was Susan Frost Martin. The issue of Conifer Quarterly you are holding lists her as Technical Editor. She chaired the first annual meeting of ACS, eventually co-edited the Bulletin, chaired the Iseli Award Committee, and served in innumerable other capacities for these 25 years. Her husband has supported ACS just as long and now runs the national office.

This article cannot be exhaustive about those who drove ACS to succeed and I hope not to offend those whom I have not focused on. My thesis is that this organization was built on the hard work and dedication of a few who love conifers and devoted untold time and effort to preaching them to the rest of us. ACS is also nurtured by those loyal members who participate by attending annual and regional meetings, those who teach and those who learn all things conifer, those who plant and transplant and develop and conserve and propagate, and even by those who kick back and relish reading the latest Conifer Quarterly in their high-rise condo without a foot of dirt to plant in. We have become the conifer big tent there is room for all. But we should pay particular reverence for those founding members who started it all in 1983 and followed through in their various capacities. More about that next time when we concentrate on the publication you are holding and how it has developed over the years.

View Part Two: The Publications