EDITOR’S NOTE: We first visited Tyler, Texas, three years ago, just before the pandemic hit. It was 90-year-old Winn Morton’s last year to serve as costume designer of the annual Texas Rose Festival. Morton passed away on April 22, 2022, at the age of 93, but his legacy lives on. Here, we revisit this previously unpublished Good Town, and the memory of one of the town’s most beloved costume designers.
It’s the third week of October and the entire city of Tyler, Texas, is abloom with excitement. A year’s worth of planning for the Texas Rose Festival is coming to fruition inside the Cowan Center at the University of Texas at Tyler, where dozens of college ladies from various universities are participating in the dress rehearsal for the Coronation of Queens. The energy here is visceral.
Bodies hurriedly weave through a makeshift hair-and-makeup studio inside the venue. Young women wrapped in cream-colored robes squeal and embrace in delight. Flashes of sequins catch the light and send patterns of colors against the walls. It would appear chaotic if not for the calm demeanor of Winn Morton, the festival’s longtime costume designer. He is focused on a single headpiece towering atop a young woman’s head. It’s not quite right. “Higher on the head,” he says to the hairdresser, easing the prop into place.
Morton can still suss out his vision for every ensemble he’s sketched. To see his enthusiasm, you wouldn’t know he’s 90; his passion remains as strong on this day as ever. When we visited, he designed costumes for the Texas Rose Festival Queen (Hanna Claire Waits), the Princess of the Texas Rose Festival (Elizabeth Anne Schoenbrun), Duchess of the Rose Growers (Alexis Rene Smith), 13 ladies-in-waiting and 10 attendants. The young women were selected by the President of the Texas Rose Festival Association based on their families’ history of supporting the festival, says Liz Ballard, the festival director. This dress rehearsal is just a taste of the week’s festivities designed to promote tourism in Tyler by highlighting the impact of the rose growers’ industry.
Welcome to Tyler, the Rose Capital of America or, by some accounts, the Rose Capital of the World. Decades ago, more than half the nation’s supply of rose bushes were grown here, reviving an agriculture community reeling from blight. Tylerites were so grateful for the economic boon the blooms offered that, in October 1933, they created what has since become known as the Texas Rose Festival. Thousands of people from more than a dozen states came to Tyler to watch the crowning of the first Rose Queen. Every year since – save for a few years during World War II and during the height of the pandemic – tens of thousands come to town to see the Rose Queen, recognize her court, and pay homage to the city’s roses.
This year’s Texas Rose Festival is scheduled for Oct. 13-16.
For nearly half of those 80-some Rose Festivals, Morton has held the illustrious title of costume designer. His mark is chronicled in dozens of photographs and gowns on display at the Tyler Rose Museum inside the Rose Garden Center. The center serves as the gateway to the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden, the city’s main tourist attraction by far, and is a newly crowned National Historic Place. Established in 1952, the city’s rose garden is the country’s largest with more than 38,000 rose bushes from 600 different varieties spanning across 14 acres. The roses reach peak bloom in time for the festival each October, as well as in mid to late May.
The week’s events culminate with the Texas Rose Parade, complete with decorated floats and marching bands. It ends at the Rose Garden, where the queen and her court gather for the Queen’s Tea and take on Disney princess-like personas to greet young, wide-eyed guests.
This year’s festival is especially memorable. It’s Morton’s last.
Morton fell in love with costume design in the 1940s while traveling with the Ringling Bros. circus as a young boy. He went on to study at the Dallas Museum of Art; the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida; and the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City, during which he made a living sketching window displays for department stores, designing ensembles for Roxy Theatre ice shows, and creating costumes for early variety programs, including “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In recent years, Morton has eased into retirement, whittling away most of his design gigs except the Texas Rose Festival. But now, he says, this is his last hurrah. “It’s time for me to fold up my tents and move on,” he says.
Dallas native Jacob A. Climer, a New York-based costume and scenic designer for theater and opera, took over in 2021 after the event’s one-year sabbatical. “It is everything and nothing I imagined, kind of wonderful insanity, and I mean that in the greatest way with the highest amount of respect,” he says, giddy at the challenge. “It’s very exciting, but also very daunting.”
Works of Art
“Daunting” is an understatement considering Morton set a high bar. He stands in the dressing room at the Cowen Center now, where mannequins are decked out in his multicolored designs. The 2019 theme is Portraits of Inspiration, – or “famous women,” he says, like Mary, Queen of Scots; Catherine the Great; and even Julia Roberts. Each dress expresses not only the spirit of the famous woman it represents, but also the grace of the young lady who wears it. The dress inspired by “Harry Potter” novelist J.K. Rowling includes a fire-breathing, purple-sequined dragon’s head, and the one representing Marie Antionette has a headpiece in the shape of a fairy tale castle.
Turning Morton’s sketches into wearable works of art takes masters of another kind, like Eugenia “Genie” Stallings. She is a cutter/draper in the costume shop at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. She has made several of Morton’s Rose Festival costumes through the years in her spare time. “When I build one, I am looking for the essence of what he has drawn,” she says. “He expects that I will tweak the lines to flatter the figure. Because it needs to make the girls look beautiful.”
It takes about six months and at least three fittings to complete a costume. Each is fitted with a corset that provides enough structure to support the weight of a set of wings, and stable enough to protect girls from injury. Fittings often include having girls walk down long hallways and up flights of stairs to ensure they don’t topple. “First and foremost, they must be safe,” Stallings explains.
While the gowns serve a single purpose, they must fulfill several roles. Each must keep its visual appeal on stage under theatrical lights during the coronation, under natural light from atop a parade float, up close and personal at the Queen’s tea, and while being professionally photographed.
The families of the queen and her court foot the bill for their own dresses, the price of which remains discreetly under wraps. But, “they’re ridiculously expensive,” Stallings says. “And they need to look like the girls got their money’s worth.”
Despite the hard work, the honor of building these magnificent works of art is a cherished job. “In the last weeks I wonder why I took it on, it’s so much work,” she says. “But I have totally drunk the Kool Aid. I love it.”
Before there were roses in Tyler, there were fruit trees. A lot of them, in fact.
When Tyler was established in 1846, settlers had already figured out its soil was ideal for farming. It wasn’t long before the city became a major commercial center in East Texas with fruit orchards – mainly peach – emerging as an important part of the local economy.
But in the early 1900s, a pest known as the San Jose Scale wiped out the entire fruit industry, and Tyler farmers were left grappling for the next big thing. Many turned to rose bushes, which thrived in the sandy, acidic soil and mild climate of East Texas. By the 1950s, more than 20 million rose bushes were harvested annually by about 300 local growers.
The soil also proved ripe for other flowering plants. The first azaleas were planted by Maurice Shamburger in 1929. Enthralled with the flowering bushes, his neighbors started to plant their own. Before long, the neighborhood was covered. Not to be out bloomed by the roses, in 1960 the Tyler Azalea Trail was established. For three weeks each spring, the Annual Azalea & Spring Flower Trail brings troves of tourists to the neighborhood from across the country to view white and pink dogwoods, redbud trees, Japanese maples, tulips, daffodils and, of course, azaleas. In 2003, the area was officially named the Azalea Historic District.
Rose production gradually tapered off in Tyler, but the impact of the rose industry remains. About 5 million bushes are grown each year by fewer than 25 local growers. Chamblee’s Rose Nursery has been one of them since 1953. In March 2019, Mark Story and his daughter, Krista Friend, purchased the nursery from Mark Chamblee and moved it to a vast stretch of farmland in neighboring Winona.
Story wasn’t a rose guy. He had peach and plum orchards, but his “real” job was working for a large hospital system. His daughter was a stay-at-home mom. Neither knew much about roses. But when Chamblee’s nursery came up for sale, “we decided to jump in with both feet,” Friend says. Since taking over the business, Story and Friend have increased the number of rose varieties from about 100 to more than 140.
Since roses were largely unchartered territory for the new owners, Chamblee agreed to serve as an advisor. But most importantly, he helped Story persuade Sylvia Barragan to stay with the business. She’s tended to Chamblee’s roses for nearly 40 years.
“We’re very lucky to have her,” Story says. “She was the hardest part of the package to get. She is highly sought after.”
Tyler, Texas – Beyond Blooms
Don’t be fooled by the rose-clad Tyler Chamber of Commerce logo over Henry Bell’s shoulder. There’s more to Tyler than roses. Bell is the chamber’s chief operating officer and a fifth generation Tylerite. His great-great-great-great-grandfather traveled to East Texas from Alabama at the behest of his father-in-law and was told to send for the family when he found a suitable place to live. He decided to plant roots in Tyler.
Unfortunately for the Bell family, by the time they traveled westward to join the elder Bell, he was dead. But the surviving family stayed and thrived, opening Citizens First National Bank in the early 1900s. The bank changed hands – and buildings – a few times since then, eventually becoming a Regions branch.
Through the years, Tyler experienced a second boon in the 1930s when oil was discovered in East Texas, and suffered under the 1979 oil crisis and subsequent oil glut. “After that, the chamber developed a strong economic development arm. The economy has completely diversified,” Bell says.
Tyler maintains a significant manufacturing base and serves as a regional center for both legal services and education. And the healthcare industry, anchored by UT Health East Texas and CHRISTUS Trinity Mother Frances Health System, is the largest employer in town.
Rose gardens remain the city’s strongest attractions, but the downtown square with the Half Mile of History, the historic Goodman-LeGrand House & Museum, and Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, a modest eatery that claims to be the “oldest operating mom & pop BBQ joint in Tyler,” draw their fair share of interest.
But what Bell finds most appealing about this mid-sized town is the people. “Without a doubt,” he says. “Tyler is the friendliest place around.”