The History of Roses of Yesterday and Today
by Guinivere Wiley
The story of Roses of Yesterday and Today begins with the well-known authority on old roses, Francis E. Lester. He was attributed with collecting and keeping available many old roses and writing about the subject in his book My Friend, The Rose published by J. Horace McFarland Co. in 1942. According to Thomas Christopher’s book In Search of Lost Roses, Lester was born in England’s Lake District in 1868 and grew up during the heyday of England’s romance with the rose. He moved to the United States around the turn of the century and spent nearly 25 years in Mesilla Park, New Mexico where he grew a 2 acre rose garden. In his mid fifties he and his wife moved to California. He searched the foothills and missions of California where he recognized the old roses from his childhood and collected cuttings for propagation. Pat Wiley said it was an honor for him when the British Government allowed him to quarantine roses at Sunnydale Nursery in England for export to the U.S. He settled with his wife Marjorie, in Corralitos, south of Santa Cruz in 1938 on the Central Coast among “the circles of redwoods.” Nestled on four acres of beautiful forest, he created a display garden and propagation field along a quiet mountain stream. The business was called “Lester Rose Gardens” and some of the roses can still be found at that address just up the road from the current “Roses of Yesterday and Today Garden.” Lester put out the Lester Rose Gardens catalog that served as a model for the rose catalogs for years to come. He wrote in 1941, “This catalogue differs from many catalogues you will receive; it has no expensive colored illustrations, and, I hope, no extravagant claims. But it does offer you the benefit of long experience with roses; it tries to tell the truth; and it offers you nothing that has not been tried out and found to be of real merit, not for the expert horticulturist but for the amateur gardener, whom we try to serve faithfully, and whose interests we hold to be paramount. My occasional personal comments about the Old Roses, I trust, be excused, for they come from the heart.”
Francis E. Lester’s successor, Will Tillotson, carried on the tradition of the “chatty catalog” updating descriptions with “field notes, customer comments, notes from reference books, and unties the ‘old sack of adjectives’ and submits his efforts to your tender mercies.” He and Marjorie Lester ran the business together and it became “Lester and Tillotson Rose Gardens” for a while, and when Marjorie Lester passed away the business became “Will Tillotson’s Roses.” The catalog, however, was usually titled Roses of Yesterday or Roses of Yesterday and Today. Will Tillotson and Dorothy Stemler lived a short distance down the stream from the Lester Rose Gardens and across the street from where the “Roses of Yesterday and Today Rose Garden” is today.
Will Tillotson wrote approximately ten catalogs and the book Garden Notes, Will Tillotson - Diaries which can be viewed at the UCSC Library, Special Collections. Dorothy Stemler, became Will Tillotson’s “Honorable Secretary.” He introduces her and describes himself in the 1952-1953 Roses of Yesterday catalog, “Your letter (which we hope to receive), will be answered by Mrs. Dorothy Stemler, ‘Honorable Secretary,’ hardworking and efficient, who through some undue modesty, begs her physical attributes remain undescribed. She spends much of the summer in the growing fields . . . knows more about the personal habits of roses than any of us . . . likes humans. The catalog-writer surveys [himself] ‘the irrepressible Will Tillotson’ with many misgivings and feels the less said the better. Variously described, according to taste, as something midway between Monty Woolley and an old goat ( the beard and the stubbornness no doubt). Grows the roses WE like, regardless of profit . . . Jack of All Trades in our business and certainly master of none. Enjoys some people, shuns others. You definitely wouldn’t like him.” He states in the 1955 catalog “This catalog will not try to impress you with great ‘professional knowledge,’ which we do not claim . . . rather that we have ‘good taste’ in roses, and those which we offer from the hundreds available to us for propagation, all of them are distinct rose personalities.” Will Tillotson and Dorothy Stemler said they were privileged to acquire and grow many roses sent to them by Graham Stuart Thomas in England, and indebted to Dr. Griffith J. Buck if Iowa State University whose advice and help in propagation were invaluable.
Dorothy Stemler’s daughter, Patricia Stemler Wiley, took care of Francis E. Lester in his final days as he suffered from leukemia. She later worked with her husband, Newt Wiley, propagating roses for Will Tillotson. After Will Tillotson passed away on a trip to England in June, 1957, Dorothy Stemler continued to run the business as “Will Tillotson’s Roses” with the help of Pat Wiley and her husband. Dorothy Stemler and Pat Wiley were both great ladies of Rosedom. Dorothy and Pat established the current “Roses of Yesterday and Today Garden.” They spent time in England, France, Germany, Scandinavia and New Zealand, touring gardens, and visiting with friends like Graham Thomas, Peter Beales, David Austin, and Trevor Griffiths. Both women traveled worldwide, giving talks to various rose societies and associations. When Dorothy Stemler passed away in 1976, the business name was officially changed to “Roses of Yesterday and Today.” Patricia Stemler Wiley and her husband, Newton Wiley, ran the business for 20 more years until 1996 when they finally retired in their 70’s. A vast collection of books on roses, 4 albums, 2 scrapbooks, and photos and prints dating back to 1917, which would have been in the libraries of Francis Lester, Will Tillotson, and Dorothy Stemler, were gifted to the UCSC library in 1996 by Patricia Stemler Wiley.
In 1998, their fourth son, Jack, his wife-to-be, Guinivere, and the eldest son, N.D. (Andy) Wiley reopened the garden to the public everyday with roses for sale year round on the Honor System. They continue to ship bare root roses January through April. They offer both grafted and own root roses and rotate in approximately 150 varieties a year out of 240 that are on display in the garden.
The garden is 40 minutes north of Monterey, 20 minutes south of Santa Cruz, and one and a quarter hour south of San Francisco. The beautiful mountain canyon, with its great redwoods, maple trees, ferns and a rippling stream is peaceful and enchanting to visit any time of the year, but the roses are at their peak during May and June. Each Mother’s Day Weekend is the Annual Open House, when the garden is bursting with new blooms and the season’s potted roses. Cookies, ice tea and lemonade are served and members of the family are on hand for questions and recommendations.
Descriptions and photos of old, rare, unusual and selected modern roses currently available as well as rose recommendations for special conditions such as shade, seaside conditions, cold climates, and roses suitable for pergolas, fences, training for pillars, etc. can be seen on the Roses of Yesterday and Today Garden’s web site, www.rosesofyesterday.com. The current business name is “Roses of Yesterday” and the 2006/2007 Roses of Yesterday catalog is available for $5. Guinivere Wiley is currently producing a full color book compiling descriptions and photos of over 240 varieties of selected roses and the writings of Will Tillotson and Dorothy Stemler.
Roses of Yesterday and Today Rose Garden www.rosesofyesterday.com
803 Browns Valley Road, Corralitos, CA 95076 (831)728-1901