In 1892, one-hundred and three years after George Washington had placed his hand on the Bible in New York’s Federal Hall and promised to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, there was discussion about the possibility of adopting a national flower.
The August 23, 1892, issue of The Madison Daily Leader suggested that “There is very little use in talking about an American national flower . . . . What is typical in one section of our continental republic is not typical in another, and an emblem which might mean a great deal in New England or New York would have but an artificial significance in Louisiana. State flowers we might have, and to some extent we do have them.”
The Madison paper concluded their “About a National Flower” editorial with this statement: “We comprehend ourselves better if we divide ourselves up by forty-four (there were then forty-four stars on our flag), and there are enough plants and flowers to go around.”
Evidence does not indicate if this editorial had any impact on the politicians at that time; however, no national flower was ever designated. Three states (California, Maine, and Massachusetts) had already selected a state flower. Others would surely do the same.
From 1893 until 1897, promotional activities related to a state flower did not seem to get much traction. It can be said that what happened during those years varied between dull and tumultuous. For South Dakotans, it did help to take their minds of an epidemic which engulfed them at the time — “cattle rustling.” It would be almost ten years before the citizens and politicians of South Dakota could agree on a flower.
By June of 1897 newspapers across the state were eager to get involved in the discussion. The Alexandria Herald had heard the goldenrod mentioned, but didn’t like it. “The goldenrod is pretty at a distance,” the Herald said, “but it has no perfume, and when placed in a room, its pollen is sure to cause an affection of the throat and nasal organs of very many persons. After all, it is a weed and a very coarse one. Further, it is indigenous to all northern states. If we might be permitted to make a suggestion we would nominate the beautiful and fragrant Gumbo Lily, and change its name to the “Dakota Lily.”
In July of 1897, the State Superintendent requested a vote of every elementary school teacher on the state flower question. At that time all rural school teachers in the state met regularly in each county at what was then called the “Normal Institute.”
During the next four years, students, teachers, newspapers, and others could not even come close to an agreement. Some of the flowers which received the most votes in the institutes and newspaper editorial endorsements were: Anemone, Violet, Sweet Pea, Wild Rose, and Golden-rod.
In January of 1903, Albert Hopkins from Canton started a movement by distributing a pamphlet to county school superintendents, public school officials, teachers, and others. He urged them to circulate and send petitions to the legislature and to write personal letters to the members that action be taken on the selection of a state flower.
He suggested that the Anemone (Pasque) flower be adopted as the one most suitable for the state floral emblem. He reasoned that it is the first flower of spring and its adoption would signify leadership. He had the support of the current State Superintendent.
The State Teachers’ Association, at their annual meeting in Mitchell one week later passed a resolution to adopt the Anemone as the state flower and the motto: “I Lead.” The January 9, 1903, issue of The Mitchell Capital concluded their story with this comment on the motto, “I Lead”: “It has a pretty sentiment connected with it and it will require no particular effort for the legislature to follow the suggestion outlined.”
When the state flower bill came up for discussion in the House, there was little or no discussion for the first and second readings. It was that third and final reading which got them on their feet to argue, quarrel, and debate the merits of a particular flower.
“WARN FIGHT OVER THE STATE FLOWER” was the headline on the front page of The Mitchell Capital on February 20. “The values policy and revenue bill went into the shade when the state flower bill reached third reading in the house,” the story began. “Never before has oratory flowed from so many lips.”
The senate had passed the bill and it was favorably reported to the house. All moved as if greased, until that third reading in the house. The judicial branch got involved when Judge Haney of the Supreme Court called one of the representatives to his chambers. The representative was shown a bulletin published by the agricultural college which denounced the Anemone as the enemy of the sheep industry that could be fatal.
The representative hurried back to the House chambers to become involved in the fight. What followed was described as “wild excitement” in the papers. Amendments were made to replace the Anemone with the Sunflower, Wild Rose, and Russian thistle. These three amendments aroused prejudice and they finally decided to put the issue off until Monday. They returned on Monday to the original bill and the Anemone won. The house spent at least $1,000 ($31,172 in 2021 purchasing power) in time trying to substitute three different flowers for their final selection.
One newspaper later suggested that it would have been more appropriate for them to have adopted the Russian thistle with the motto “I Roll.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on October 27, 2021