Madison, the Rose City

by Kat Kurylko, Research Assistant
March 23, 2021

Nicknamed “the Rose City” in the late 19th century, roses still hold a prominent place in Madison’s identity. Upon accessing the borough’s official website, rosenet.org, the letter “o” in Madison is replaced by a rose and accompanied by a photo of brilliant red roses. Though few vestiges of its horticultural past remain, long-time residents remember when the borough was considered among the nation’s top rose producers.

Sunken garden at Cecilhurst, a Madison estate built in 1876 for George H. Danforth

The Morris and Essex Railroad, introduced in 1837, enabled wealthy New York families to venture to Morris County.  Many built permanent residences and country estates along the border of Morristown and Madison on what became known as “Millionaires Row.” These residents introduced the practice of year-round gardening. However, it wasn’t until 1856 that growing began on a large scale. T.J. Slaughter became the first major commercial rose producer in Madison after erecting five large green houses on his property.  By 1889, 35 large-scale growers flourished in town presiding over miles of green houses allowing nearly 50,000 roses to be sent by train into New York each day.

One such wholesaler, Louis Mulford Noe, began his business in the 1880s. His granddaughter, Ruth Pierson Churchill, recounts her memories of the packing process in her memoir, Memories Entwined with Roses where she reveals that roses were, “placed in layers, bud against bud, in big wooden boxes which were lined with dampened newspapers, and finally protected with wax paper. The wooden lids were tightly secured with twine. The rose boxes were driven by horses to Chatham and/or Madison Railroad Express offices where they were put on trains for the city.”

At Christmas, American Beauty roses were sent to Queen Victoria. These flowers were packaged more thoughtfully, with each flower wrapped in foil, a potato placed at the stem, and Irish moss lining each crate to aid in enduring the week-long voyage overseas. Other growers used similar packing procedures, as Madison-grown roses were sold throughout the U.S.

Madison rose-growing reached its peak in the 1950s with millions of roses sold annually throughout the decade. However, by the 1970s the low cost of importing roses from South America forced the last of the growers to shut their doors, which in turn, facilitated the construction of Route 24 on land previously occupied by greenhouses. Today, many businesses along Main St. retain Rose-City-inspired names and town-sponsored events such as “Rose City Christmas” continue to remind residents of their town’s horticultural past.

Cunningham, John T. Images of America: Madison. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 1998.

Pierson Churchill, Ruth. Memories Entwined with Roses. 1984.

Staff. “Among the Rose Growers” The Madison Eagle (Madison, NJ), Mar. 1, 1889.

“History.” rosenet.org. Madison Borough, Nov. 24, 2020.