Today it may be a thoroughly democratic New Year's Day tradition, but the annual Rose Parade can trace its origins to Pasadena's exclusive Valley Hunt Club.
The social club, still headquartered today on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, coalesced in 1888 around an elite group of recent arrivals to Pasadena. Its principal founder, the naturalist Charles F. Holder, moved from Massachusetts to seek relief from tuberculosis. Others had also been drawn by the salubrious climate, or by the town's growing national reputation as a Mediterranean-style resort. Most were from the East Coast, and of patrician stock; Pasadena's earliest settlers—middle-class transplants from the Midwest—were conspicuously absent from the club's membership rolls.
Although the club staged balls and other social events, its primary focus was the hunt. In a nod to the English tradition, club rules required masters of the hounds to wear hunting pinks. Fox hunts in the Arroyo Seco were rare; more common were jackrabbit hunts in the vineyards, orange groves, and open countryside that then surrounded Pasadena. After the hunt, members retreated to the shade of an oak tree or eucalyptus grove for lunch.
Holder and fellow club member Francis F. Rowland first proposed the Tournament of Roses in 1889 as a way to promote Pasadena to friends still living back east.
That year, the Crown City could use all the promotion it could get. A land boom that began in the early 1880s brought tens of thousands of new residents to Southern California. But in 1888 the boom turned to bust, deflating property values and sending many of the newcomers packing. Inspired by the battle of the flowers at the Nice Carnival in France, Holder and Rowland thought a similar pageant in Pasadena would highlight the city's Mediterranean climate and perhaps encourage a new wave of health and leisure-seekers.
The first tournament in 1890 featured a series of sporting events at Sportsman's Park, located on the east side of Los Robles, north of Colorado. Club members decorated their horse-drawn carriages with flowers freshly clipped from their home gardens. They paraded east on Colorado to the tournament grounds, proudly leading their greyhounds on leashes. Boys and girls followed behind on ponies.
After the parade, club members competed in sixteen athletic events, including foot races, a bicycle race, and a tug of war. Polo was also played, but with a comical twist: the players rode burros. Another unique event highlighted the town's origins in citriculture: orange race contestants raced down a line of of fifty oranges, spaced two feet apart, and put them one by one into a basket. Football was not added until 1902 and did not become a regular event until 1916.
Admission to the inaugural tournament was two bits (25 cents). A grandstand seated 250, but the Pasadena Daily Evening Star and Daily Union estimated that a crowd of more than 8,000 filled the grounds.
"Visitors to the park began to assemble at an early hour and at half past ten the grandstand was full," the paper reported. "Roses abounded on every hand. The gay costumes of the ladies in the grandstand and in the carriages were set off by the brilliant hues of the flowers and many of the horses were garlanded and bedecked with roses and lilies. Oranges were freely distributed to all who wanted them, and altogether it was a scene not to be duplicated outside of Southern California."
In the ensuing years, the tournament only increased in popularity. Parade floats grew more elaborate, and the tournament welcomed participants from broader social strata as it grew from a private event into a civic festival.
By 1895, the Tournament of Roses had outgrown the Valley Hunt Club, and the cost of sponsoring the event strained the club's finances. Although it remained actively involved for decades afterward, the club ceded responsibility for the annual event in November 1895 to the independent Tournament of Roses Association.
Today, the Rose Parade has been largely democratized and thoroughly commercialized. Grand marshals have included everyone from Hank Aaron to Kermit the Frog. Still, at least one relict of the parade's aristocratic origins remains. The Valley Hunt Club, which survives as a private social club, sponsors an annual entry in the equestrian portion of the parade. Every year, a horse-drawn carriage adorned with flowers carries club members down the parade route in morning dress, the women in formal gowns and the men in top hats and tails.
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