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Looking Back:  The History of CSDS in its 90th Year

In celebration of CSDS’ 90th anniversary in 2022, Jerry Landerholm is compiling a history of our society. It will be published in several installments throughout the year for us to enjoy. 


The knowledge I have concerning the “older history” of Central States Dahlia Society (CSDS) comes from what I have learned from members who are no longer with us and from the CSDS publication The Dahlia. This magazine/bulletin was published from the early 1930's until the early 1970's. The publication was widely circulated (even across the globe) and it was popular for the same reason dahlia aficionados today clamor to get firsthand information about dahlias; they want to discover more about growing their favorite flower. It was a place for commercial enterprises to advertise their gardening-related products, thus it was a revenue source for the Society. To receive The Dahlia you had to be a member; that was the most likely reason for the large membership numbers. CSDS’s membership at various times was huge by today's standards, numbering more than seven hundred in various years. As with any publication, there is always the possibility for inaccuracies. We understand the recording events can be inaccurate, but once something is in print, it often becomes gospel. The same goes for what has been passed along verbally. When preserving our history, we should be as honest as possible. That is what this brief history of CSDS is going to try to do. Finally, as you read this, you will sense the pride members, past and present, share in Central States Dahlia Society, myself included.


The Society has saved archival materials, including hard copies of our current newsletter the NEWS-LINE that predate the digital age. In our possession are many duplicate issues of The Dahlia dating back into the 1930's. We were recently gifted a bound set of this publication (in beautiful condition) from the family of deceased member Richard Sandberg, a former resident of the Quad City area. Dick received these and other bound publications, including early issues of the ADS Bulletin, from his father-in-law, C. R. Miller. Both the Miller and Sandberg families were prominent dahlia growers and exhibitors in the Midwest for years. If someone is up to the challenge of combining information found in these publications with various recollections from people still active in CSDS, a more inclusive history of our society could be developed. The results of this task could be of interest to people now and perhaps even folks in the future. To reaffirm, the remembrances of the past; those recollections that were not necessarily documented but are stories that can still be retold, keep their value as we recount our history.

The Early Years

The Society was incorporated on February 26, 1932, in Illinois. It was originally formed on of the advent of the 1933-34 Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago. The exact date when the founding members started gathering for meetings is unknown, but the original idea was to form the "World’s Fair Dahlia Society." That name was changed to Central States Dahlia Society, Inc (CSDS) as the Society was incorporated ahead of the Fair.

In both 1933 and 1934, CSDS sponsored a large dahlia garden in an area east of Chicago's Loop. The first year the garden did not do well, however in 1934 they corrected what needed fixing and the dahlias performed much better. We should not say spectacular, though from what is recorded, this unique display was popular with the visiting public. To make a garden, soil was placed it on top of hard paved surfaces. How deep was the soil? That information might be found in the society's publications, but after poor results the first year, they realized deeper soil was needed and for 1934 more soil was added. When the World's Fair was over, the membership decided that since everything was in place to have an active dahlia society, they might as well continue. Of interest is the fact that CSDS is not the oldest dahlia society in the Midwest. For example, the Milwaukee-based Dahlia Society of Wisconsin was formed in 1931, a year before CSDS. There may also be other dahlia clubs

in the region that preceded CSDS.

From reading the The Dahlia and from other information passed along verbally, one gets the impression the original founders were businesspeople. It might be conjecture, but there is a good chance CSDS incorporated in Illinois to protect and limit the liability of its officers. Not all flower club organizations in Illinois are incorporated as not-for-profits as is CSDS, nor are they required to do so.

At this point it seems proper to recognize Edward Schoenlau as one of the society’s earliest key contributors. Ed was a commercial artist by profession. He is credited with creating our logo, which is unique and without comparison. This logo appeared early and can be seen in pictures dating back to the late 1930's. It is found on the gavel that is passed to each incoming CSDS president. Our logo is also minted on the medals we exchange annually with other societies, and it is traditionally displayed on the large sign (disc) we place in our show halls. Another "treasure” of CSDS is the artwork that Ed Schoenlau gave us for the front covers of The Dahlia. Ed’s artwork was displayed widely after appearing in The Dahlia, whether with or without permission, is unknown. No other dahlia society in North America was gifted with such a talent.

CSDS Early Influence

Until 2022, the American Dahlia Society’s (ADS) Classification Handbook of Dahlias recognized the alpha-numeric system for classifying dahlias resulted from the joint efforts of Central States Dahlia Society and the ADS. This booklet that we call the Classification Book or CHD was not published by CSDS, but the classification concept was (mostly) developed by members of our society.

The classification system has received several refinements over the years, including going from a three-digit to four-digit system. The American Dahlia Society deserves substantial credit for making the handbook the valuable document we have today. That said, the original idea of classifying dahlias by size, form and color using numbers was born at CSDS. An effort will be made to encourage the ADS to restore the attribution to CSDS in future issues.

Included in this brief look at CSDS’s early years, a personal recollection from a now deceased member who first showed in CSDS's 1949 show might be of interest. This person (owning vast dahlia knowledge and credibility) expressed that during the 1940's and for years following, CSDS was influential in the North American dahlia scene. Dahlia societies on the West Coast have long organizational histories with some predating those in the Midwest and East, but separated by distance, their influence on what was happening further east was limited. This veteran mentor/member imparted that three organizations; the American Dahlia Society (ADS), located principally in New York and not as nationally focused as today, the influential Midwest Dahlia Conference (MDC), and Central States Dahlia Society were the "shakers and movers" of that era. Additionally, there was an element of competition (more like consternation) particularly between the ADS and the MDC. While it is fun to tell stories, it has little to do with our present. Today there is a more unified outlook amongst societies and conferences.

Finally, there should be mention of the annual February CSDS Birthday Party, especially since 2022 marks the founding of the Society ninety years ago. In the early years, the event was hosted in Chicago hotels. “The Dahlia” relates that it was a popular coat and tie event. Even members living out-of-state made their way to Chicago to attend, often enduring snowstorms along the way. (The roads of the 1930’s and 1940’s were not what we have today.) The annual tuber auction was held at the Birthday Party. It makes sense since the special purchases at the auction could be kept safely warm on the return home. Yes, they enjoyed a birthday cake, as we continue to do today, that is, when it is possible to gather for our annual celebration.

Annual Dahlia Flower Shows

Central States Dahlia Society hosted an annual dahlia show for all years since its founding, that is, until 2020. The world-wide pandemic “threw a wrench in the works” and the 89th show was cancelled that year. This was very unfortunate as through the Great Depression, World War II  and during other disruptive events, the show always went on.


The CSDS Annual Show Schedule, is available to all exhibitors and is little changed over the years, although it is updated prior to every show. The show schedule has remained inclusive, meaning it is intended to make winning an award a reality for as many exhibitors as possible. Today we follow the lead established by our predecessors. Being a generous dahlia society was important in the past and it remains a CSDS tradition today.

There are a couple of distinctive awards that have become a historical tradition at Central States shows. A special honor table award is presented for the best single giant or large informal decorative dark red bloom (0107 or 1107) in the show. The "Pape Award" as it was called, was funded many years ago by a commercial grower from California, Mr. Charles Pape. His introduction, named in honor of his wife, Mrs. Hester Pape, was a popular giant dark red dahlia. This special award created great competition and winning the “Pape Trophy” was a big accomplishment. Over time, the dahlia ‘Mrs. Hester Pape’ declined as do most cultivars. A decision was made to retain the award, but simply award it to the best Large or Giant Informal Decorative Dark Red dahlia in the show. It has since become known as CSDS’s “club flower” since members like to compete for this award. The other award of distinction is the Largest Bloom in Show Award. While most traveling trophies were retired years ago, this one is special, and what a trophy it is! It is likely the largest trophy presented by any dahlia society. The winner has the option of retaining this " monster" until the following year's show. One winning exhibitor was so proud of winning this trophy, that he displayed it prominently in the front window of his home.

Jerry Landerholm presenting Largest Bloom trophy to Laura Matz in 2021

The show venues have changed over the years. For many years, the Garfield Park Conservatory was home to our show. This was a very popular site especially for urban dahlia growers and having over 3,000 blooms at our annual show was not unusual. Times changed and the Society voted to vacate Garfield Park. One story passed along relates that following a show, one member found the battery missing from his car. Since the early 1980’s the Chicago Botanic Garden has been the home for our show. The show at CBG has always been appealing with skirted tables, complementary linen table clothes and our classy retro signs marking the various sections.

On a few occasions with CSDS hosting the Combined American Dahlia Society and Midwest Dahlia Conference shows, other venues were used. During the 80's, Stratford Square and Fox Valley Mall, newer shopping centers at the time, opened their facilities to the Combined Shows. At one time, dahlia societies received compensation for putting on shows, but that was of short duration. Pheasant Run Resort was the most recent non-Botanic Garden facility where we hosted a Combined Show in 2007. (Dahlia people attending from afar still recall what a grand event this was.) The most recent ADS/MDC Combined Show was presented at Chicago Botanic Garden in 2017.

Promotional flyer for 2017 ADS/MDC Show

Over the years CSDS has hosted several Midwest Dahlia Conference Shows. More than simply flower shows, these events include arranging accommodations, scheduling sightseeing tours and making banquet arrangements complete with live entertainment. It has required a lot of planning and dedication on the part of membership to make these larger events successful. In fact, it takes considerable work to successfully stage our annual dahlia show. Our membership has always been there to get it done. Several exhibitors live out-of-state and travel good distances to participate in our shows. Luckily for CSDS, a number of these exhibitors have provided many of the blooms for our show. We would be remiss if we did not recognize the profound impact all supportive member/growers have had on the success of our shows.

To be continued . . . . 

Submitted by Jerry Landerholm. Images provided by Jerry Landerholm and Ted Magura. Border picture by Sonia Harmon.