Why We Are This Way

History of the American Conifer Society: Part Three

by Jim Morris, ACS Historian

This year the American Conifer Society celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary and we are looking back to honor those who made this celebration possible. When ACS was formed in 1983 the founders wrote that, The purposes of the American Conifer Society 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. This article will address how the Society grew while addressing its founders’ purposes.

The founders were all well informed about conifers. They were generally from two camps: professional horticulturists or serious collectors. They were already true believers. There were few hobby gardeners among the founders but, as we will see, they were soon to be attracted.

In furthering many of the goals of the organization, it was necessary to bolster each member’s conifer knowledge and capabilities, and to spread the word to all those less fortunate people who had yet to be exposed to coniferitis. The Bulletin (now The Conifer Quarterly) was a primary carrier of conifer knowledge; another was personal interaction among members at ACS meetings. Indeed, the first Bulletin announced the first annual ACS meeting which was to be held at the National Arboretum on July 30, 1983. That meeting attracted eighty participants and the interaction among conifer lovers was inspirational there was much conversation about how to gather the members more often, and how to meet without the necessity of long distance travel. Then President Bob Fincham says that some early ACS board meetings were conducted by 1983 cutting edge technology speaker phone, usually with one contingent meeting at his home in Pennsylvania and the other at Jean Iseli’s in Oregon.

Almost immediately, regionalization of ACS was in play and before the first year was out Director Richard Bush of Oregon had been assigned the responsibility of investigating it. The first step was to assign someone the responsibility of organizing and advocating for a specific division as regions were then known. That same first issue of The Bulletin announced that Bush was now vice-president of ACS representing the West. Tom Dilatush of New Jersey was vice-president of ACS representing the East. Richard Bush served two terms in that role and was the recipient of the ACS Award of Merit for Development in the Field of Conifers in 1997 to recognize his many accomplishments over the years. Tom Dilatush served three terms as the leader of his division, wrote many wonderful articles for The Bulletin, established the measurements and terms we now use to define conifer sizes and growth rates, and won the same ACS award in 2000.

At the ACS annual meeting in August 1986, a Western Region was formally adopted and Cindy Lou Pease was named the first provisional ACS director and Vice President, (West) pending a vote of the regional membership. Among her many other contributions to ACS, Cindy went on to become the national president in 1990.

The Eastern Region was adopted at the same time and Dave Thompson was named provisional ACS director and Vice President (East). He organized the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia in 1988 and continues as an ACS member in Ireland where he now lives.

With the acceptance of the new regions, we were divided by the Mississippi River and much more. We had to work out the many complications that come from bi-polarity. Among them were money issues, communication, coordination of meetings among regions and national so they didn’t overlap, and the division of responsibility for the various states and regions. And, of course, even half the US is still a long way to travel to seek group therapy for Addicted Conifer Syndrome. One immediate benefit of regionalization is that it opened up the possibility of more meet and greet opportunities regional meetings were closer, could be more frequent, and could dwell on plant information that was more pertinent to the local membership.

The eastern membership has always outnumbered western which should not be surprising since it somewhat reflects the national population distribution. In early 1990 there were 852 members, 611 in the east, 160 in the west, and the rest were international. Oddly, few founders believed that there was much interest in conifers anywhere other than the coasts. Most of the national meetings were on the coasts though the magnetism of certain arboreta and personalities insured that Chicago, IL and East Lansing, MI were among the locations of the first ten.

By the early 1990’s the supposition that there was little conifer interest away from the coasts was being questioned. Director Justin C. (Chub) Harper was agitating to form a new ACS region in the Midwest. He wrote an article on the possibility in the Fall 1990 Bulletin. He surveyed ACS members within 150 miles of Moline, IL but was not at first encouraged by the response. Initially he reported there was more support for a chapter than a region, but Chub is a hard man to say No to. In 1991, President Andre Iseli published in The Bulletin that creation of the Central Region was a priority of his administration and the board asked Chub to continue organizing. He put together a meeting at Bickelhaupt Arboretum in Clinton, IA and attracted forty enthusiasts. About that time Charlene Harris called Chub and volunteered to assist him with the project. Charlene had suffered an acute case of coniferitis infection during a chance visit to Hidden Lake Gardens. Almost immediately she sought therapy by enlisting her husband, Wade, to accompany her on a month long western conifer buying spree. You can read about that trip and the wonderful ACS members she met in The Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 4. Throwing in with Chub, she brought a business woman’s organizational skills and a salesperson’s energy to the effort to organize Central. In a matter of months the deal was done. At the August 1992 ACS meeting, the board officially recognized the new Central Region which included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and the Canadian Province of Ontario. Chub was named president and Charlene was named secretary-treasurer. Central quickly became a dynamo of energy and the first Central Region meeting raised the largest amount of money to that time in ACS history, $5500 at the plant auction, and was attended by 145 people. Chub and Charlene’s accomplishments are too numerous to list here but both have been featured in past ACS publications. Chub was the ACS president in 1995 and received the ACS Award of Merit for Dedicated Support of the Conifer Society in 1996. For years Charlene ran the ACS office and managed and then edited The Bulletin. She received the ACS Award of Merit for Dedicated Support of the Conifer Society in 1998.

Jordan Jack joined ACS in its first year and was president in 1998 and 1999 and has been a prolific writer of Society articles. In 1997 he was at an ACS board meeting and said he wanted to develop a Southeastern Region, essentially claiming that SE plant issues are different, and the large Eastern Region concentrated too much on northern issues. During his presidential tour of duty he almost single-handedly created the new region. The ACS Executive Secretary at the time was Maud Henne and she became the details person who helped make the presidential edict happen. The board welcomed the new Southeastern Region in 1998 and Mac Stiff was named president. Mac still credits Jordan and Maud with getting the Region operational. Maud, of course, was our most recent ACS Award of Merit for Dedicated Support of the Conifer Society winner and was president of the Southeastern Region in 2005. The SE Region is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The Northeastern Region continued to thrive and still features magnificent gardens and knowledgeable membership. No other region has developed since but several smaller divisions may meet regularly and practice conifer therapy confidentially.

The Society now has more than 1800 members with 33% in the Northeast, 13% in the West, 36% in the Central, 15% in the Southeast, and 4% international.

The characteristics of the regions differed from the beginning. It is an oversimplification to say that the western membership was more heavily loaded with growers and eastern with collectors, but that was the heart of the initial distinction. President Fincham moved from the east coast to Oregon during his five-year tenure and was in the process of establishing a nursery when he announced his intention not to run for another term as president in 1987. He stated in his President’s Message in The Bulletin, Vol. 5, No. 1, I strongly urge the election of a person who does not rely upon the sales of plants as his major source of income. There was some unfounded criticism in our early years that we were just a group of nurserymen who wanted to form a conifer society to fatten our own wallets. There were tensions among the various factions in the organization but great leadership found strengths in each faction that complement the others and the result has been a burst of conifer knowledge and development among all the membership. ACS is still a market maker for growers and collectors. But it is so much more.

ACS is a social network with gatherings ranging from the annual national conference to regional meetings, and on to the local Garden Rendezvous model inspired by Central Region’s Gary and Tom Whittenbaugh. Gary was the winner of the ACS Award of Merit for Dedicated Support of the Conifer Society in 2005. The Rendezvous model is amazingly effective in introducing members to each other and to conifer resources in small geographical areas. Other regions have adopted it and find it to be a great way to attract new members.

ACS is a gun club modeled on the witches’ broom collecting practices of Randy Dykstra, Chub Harper, David Horst, Joe Stupka, Jerry Morris and others. Joe was the winner of the ACS Award of Merit for Development in the Field of Conifers in 2001 and Jerry won it in 2003. We have been enriched with articles about their talent at recognizing, collecting, and propagating scion wood, often harvested in a conventional manner, but when necessary, sometimes collected by these gentlemen at the business end of a 30/40 Craig rifle.

ACS is a travel club that has stalked conifers throughout the U.S. and Canada during conference and post-conference tours. Under the leadership of Charlene Harris and Maud Henne, we have also visited exotic private and public gardens, arboreta, and nurseries in the British Isles, Germany and Holland during periodic ACS international tours. This summer’s ACS tour of parts of Eastern Europe will be sure to introduce you to plants you will find nowhere else.

ACS is a learning lab and art studio. Improving the science of conifer production and reproduction and disseminating that information has been a part of the mission for the society. To give you a flavor of what we have accomplished in that regard, Jordan Jack published a synopsis of The Bulletin articles about conifer reproduction (in Vol. 16, No. 3, Vol. 17, No. 3, and Vol. 18, No. 1) and cited fourteen articles about grafting that ran between 1983 and 2000, nine additional articles about propagation by seed, and ten more about propagation by rooted cuttings. That the effort continues is exemplified by the announcement in the last issue of The Conifer Quarterly that Nancy Vermeulen is to host a grafting workshop for members as part of the Northeastern Region’s news. As part of the Society’s mission, there is information available for every level of coniferite. The artistry of Society founder, Jean Iseli, continues to inspire every producer, grafter, pruner and designer of conifers. The beautiful result of his example and is on display at every Society auction and in many of the plant materials offered by our producer members.

ACS is a nucleus of magnanimous donors. Before ACS was founded, Chub Harper had already given Michigan State University’s Hidden Lake Gardens the heart of his conifer collection, and he has continued to add to it. That display has possibly converted more to conifer worship than any other in the country (see the example of Charlene Harris, above.) Since helping found ACS, he has regrown his collection several times and made similar gifts to the Quad Cities Botanical Center in Rock Island, IL, Bickelhaupt Arboretum in Clinton, IO, and Illinois Central College in East Peoria, IL. Western Region members, led by Art Anderson and by Don Howse, created a wonderful conifer collection at Oregon Garden. Don was the winner of the ACS Award of Merit for Dedicated Support of the Conifer Society, and has authored some of the most compelling plant related travelogues ever published by ACS. Throughout the U.S. many other members have developed, inspired and donated to conifer gardens over the years. Collectively, through the ACS Jean Iseli Memorial Fund annual awards, the Endowment and Memorial Fund, and through periodic grants by the Board of Directors, ACS has given many thousands of dollars to public garden projects and to conifer research and education endeavors. Closer to home, we need to recognize the generosity of those growers and hobbyists who donate plants for ACS auctions to raise money for ACS projects. That exemplary market highlights the zeal of members to have fun and at the same time fund the good works of the Society. The 2004 Newark, OH annual meeting auction still holds the record at $20,269.

One of the most remarkable changes in the Society since its inception is the current dominance of hobby gardeners among the membership, a group that was virtually nonexistent in the beginning. In 1995, Orlan Gaeddert published the results of his survey of ACS membership and disclosed that 78% of us grew conifers as a hobby rather than as a profession and only 22% grew conifers for sale. The typical member has less than 25 different conifer cultivars. The results of the survey startled the leadership who still mostly consisted of folks who looked like the founders. The survey gave great feedback on what was working well and what needed attention in ACS. Member observations led to immediate improvement in the Bulletin and in the delivery of service to members. The survey was a testament to the success of the Society in carrying out the intentions of the Founders, the education of the public. There they were, the public, who were now the majority of the Society.

As with many non-profits, The American Conifer Society has accomplished much while relying on the herculean efforts of a few, mostly volunteer members. This series of articles cannot be exhaustive in recognizing them all but I hope to include more as we wrap up this series next quarter. Some have passed on but many others will be at the National meeting in Iowa. I hope to thank them personally when we celebrate this anniversary.

View Part Four: Twenty-five Years and Counting