Springfield, “The Flower City”

The 1899 Illinois State Fair celebrated Springfield’s “Flower City” reputation with a parade of flower-bedecked buggies and bicycles. The flowers were all fake. (Photos from the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library)

Springfield’s sometime-nickname, “The Flower City,” apparently originated with a Chicago newspaper story published in 1857. But it didn’t catch on for another 20 years, at first mainly when local improvement advocates complained that the city – particularly its muddy streets – didn’t live up to that description.

On July 4, 1857, the Illinois State Journal printed an excerpt from the Chicago Covenant, whose editor had been impressed by a visit to Springfield.

We have been in no Western town which has such a tasteful aspect as Springfield. Its principal dwellings are surrounded by shade trees and flowers. If Chicago may be called “The Garden City” and Cleveland “The Forest City,” Springfield may with propriety be called “The Flower City.”

On the day of our visit there, a floral exhibition took place at the State House. We were present, for a short time, late in the afternoon; and we have no hesitation in pronouncing it much superior to any exhibition of the kind we ever saw. The profusion of flowers was great beyond all expectation. …

Flower baskets, arbors, cottages, wreaths, crosses, pyramids, harps, and other devices filled the large space of the State House appropriated to the exhibition. The show was very splendid, and was in high degree creditable to those engaged in it.

The term “Flower City” as applied to Springfield turned up in local newspapers a half-dozen more times between 1857 and 1866, then – whether or not people actually used the nickname – vanished from newspaper columns for 15 years.

The next time “The Flower City” appeared in print was in a letter to the editor of the Journal on Dec. 13, 1881. The writer, identified only as “Horace,” was bemoaning city fathers’ inability to satisfactorily pave downtown streets.

Surely, we may talk from now until doomsday, but no pavements will be made unless we act. Let us act. Let us work. Let us set the ball in motion, and it seems to me it will be but a short time before we can ride or walk on streets of which no citizen of “The Flower City” will be ashamed. “Action! Action” should be our motto.

A Journal editorial made a similar point a few months later:

Why the beautiful “Flower City” should ever permit the streets to be made a cow pasture and hog wallow is one of those things which thoughtful and refined people, whether citizens of strangers, could never thoroughly understand.

“Flower City” references took on a new tone in the second half of the 1880s – according to some sources, almost solely because Springfield embarked on a better and bigger street paving program.

The parade went from Seventh and Clay streets to the state fairgrounds.

Getting Springfield out of the mud had been a battle for decades. In the 1840s, downtown merchants were required to install plank sidewalks, and streets in the commercial district got plank paving in the 1850s.

More elaborate, and expensive, techniques involving wooden blocks in a gravel bed with gravel or sand on top, all soaked in tar, took hold in the 1860s. One of those systems, “Richardson pavement,” was installed around the square in 1870. But it wasn’t satisfactory either, the Journal reported that September.

A well-to-do man from the rural districts came into town yesterday and … made inquiry for the new Richardson pavement, as he wanted to see it. He was courteously informed that he could find it upon the streets around the square. “Why,” said he, “I have been around the square and found the streets quite muddy, but saw no pavement.”

This is a good commentary upon the manner in which the new pavement is kept. If it is the wish to destroy the pavement in a few years, no better course could be adopted than is now being pursued. Let the few inches of dirt now upon the pavement be kept wet, and the end will soon be attained. The true course is to keep the pavement clean and use as little water as possible.

In 1879, the state legislature authorized cities to assess property owners for paving purposes. It took several more years of litigation to work out the details, such as who had to pay and how assessments were calculated. Nonetheless, by 1886, Springfield had about 20 miles of paved streets and alleys.

At first, those pavers were creosote-soaked cedar blocks, but bricks rapidly became the street surface of choice. In March 1900, city engineer Frank Hamilton reported Springfield had 21 miles of brick streets, five miles of cedar blocks and one-half mile of macadam pavement.

Meanwhile, residents were adopting “The Flower City” as a legitimate nickname, both for the city itself and for any number of local organizations. There were Flower City chapters of the Order of the Eastern Star, Woodmen of the World and Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic. The Flower City Card Club and Flower City Embroidery Club were active, and a YMCA baseball team played under the Flower City name. Portuguese immigrant Emanuel Lomelino (1841-1933)  began producing Flower City baking powder and pancake mix in 1894.

The anonymous authors of Art Work of Springfield (Gravure Illustration Co., 1907) gave pretty much all the credit for the city’s revived interest in beautification to the road paving program.

As a result of this campaign of education and demonstration of the value of pavement to private property, a spirit of municipal pride was aroused which resulted in a most wonderful transformation. Within a short time the people began to improve the appearance of their property. Old fences in front of residences were torn down; new sidewalks were built and the spaces between the edge of the walks and the curbing were made into grass plots and flower beds; trees were planted and a general appearance of cleanliness and thrift was the result. … (I)n the old-fashioned dooryards a profusion of blooms and foliage had attracted the attention of visitors and given to Springfield the sobriquet of “Flower City.” But while this was true the condition of the streets and sidewalk detracted much from the general effect. After a few years of street paving many of the principal streets began to take on a park-like appearance, with the wide avenues between the rows of houses and the long, well-shaded driveways in the center.

This decorated buggy included a “page” astride one of the horses.

The height of “Flower City” fashion probably took place during the 1899 Illinois State Fair, which was highlighted by a “ladies floral parade” on Sept. 27. The line of march included more than 60 flower-bedecked bicycles followed by 40-some horse-drawn carriages, coaches, phaetons and pony carts.

The carriage bearing parade queen Gertrude Leland (1878-1921) and her 10 young maids was pulled by “six of the prettiest gray horses imaginable,” according to the Illinois State Register. (The Illinois State Journal disagreed. There were four horses, the Journal said. And they were white.) The coach and horses were draped in yellow and white chrysanthemums.

It also should be noted that virtually all of the “flowers” were fake. The Journal’s explanation:

(T)he idea of floral parades in northern cities has only gained practical consideration in late years, and the use of paper flowers for decoration being a necessity has developed a perfection in the art of imitation that is as near to nature as it may be possible to approach. In fact, the artificial flowers possess some great advantages over the natural ones, in that they do not wither nor lose their color and may be kept an indefinite length of time. …

The ladies who took part in the parade and gave their personal and financial support to the successful enterprise are to be congratulated upon the good taste displayed and the magnificent effects attained.

Newspaper stories continued to call Springfield “the Flower City” regularly through the first decade of the 20th century, but use of the nickname almost disappeared after that. When Flower City bakery supply company folded in the 1930s, Springfield’s Flower City chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star was apparently the last entity still using the title.

Flower City OES

The General Grand Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star, is a Masonic offshoot that admits both men and women, although the OES is structured so that women hold most leadership posts.

Springfield’s first OES chapter, Capital Chapter 100, was organized in 1872. Sometime in the next decade and a half, however, Chapter 100 became inactive. It was reorganized as Flower City Chapter 152 in 1889. The first worthy matron was Margaret “Maggie” Peel (1847-1927) and first worthy patron was Francis “Frank” Hudson (1837-1921).

Flower City OES remained active in 2023.

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This entry was posted in Amusements, Celebrations, Illinois State Fair, Local government, Spectacles, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Springfield, “The Flower City”

  1. Lisa Shelton says:

    What weird timing! I am part of Leadership Springfield and my team was aligned with DSI and this one the topic. I had been looking through old newspapers through the library trying to learn more about our old nickname. It had started with a Google search and a ask to Springfield natives. No one had heard of such a nickname! So thanks for getting this out there. Do you have anymore fun pieces of information to share? I got as far as 1933 mention of Flower City and have just become so curious in this piece of our history.

  2. editor says:

    Ms. Shelton: Glad we could help. We want people to turn to SangamonLink when they have questions about local history. Good luck with your research.

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