Carnation City, U.S.A.

The Carnation Festival Queen (with an appropriate bouquet) flanked by her attendants, ca. 1960. Via Ohio Memory.

Although its events span over two weeks in late summer, the main weekend of the Alliance Carnation Festival will be in full swing starting today. Let’s take a look at this unique local celebration from the northeastern corner of our state, with some interesting connections to Ohio’s presidential past!

Quilt block made by Lois K. Ide featuring several Ohio symbols, including the scarlet carnation. Via Ohio Memory.

The city of Alliance’s nickname “the Carnation City” dates back to 1876 thanks to local doctor (and horticulture hobbyist) Levi L. Lamborn, who was personally responsible for promoting the cultivation of the carnation, which in those days was not well-known or widely-grown in the United States. Around this time, Lamborn embarked on a career in politics, which soon brought him to a race against his political opponent (but personal friend) William McKinley, for their local congressional seat. Before each debate between the two men, Lamborn would present McKinley with one of his special “Lamborn Reds,” a scarlet carnation which McKinley had previously admired.

McKinley, as he progressed through Congress, the Ohio governor’s seat, and eventually on to the presidency, saw the carnation as a good luck charm, and reliably sported one in the lapel of his coat. Coincidentally, McKinley had presented the carnation he was wearing on September 6, 1901, to a young girl during a welcome reception just moments before he was shot by Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York–an attack which would lead to his death just over a week later. Lamborn first suggested that the scarlet carnation be named as the state’s emblem as early as 1884, and even published a book titled American Carnation Culture in 1892. But it wasn’t until 1904, two and a half years after McKinley’s death, that it was named Ohio’s state flower by the General Assembly, largely in honor of our fallen Ohio-born president.

Carnation Festival souvenir program, via Ohio Memory.

It would be another 55 years before Alliance’s connection to the scarlet carnation was formalized, when the General Assembly passed a resolution naming it “Ohio’s Carnation City” in April 1959. That summer, the name was celebrated during a jamboree put on by Alliance citizens and the local American Legion post, and the following summer, the first official Carnation Festival took place. It has been going strong ever since.

The program cover seen at right comes from the 1965 Carnation Festival, and features “the little, happy, carefree French cavalier, Sir Gay, [who] denotes the French background of the Carnation and their development of the Pink and White Carnation.” The program, in addition to providing details about the year’s festival happenings and background, includes a letter written by Dr. Lamborn in which he discusses the carnation’s significance and its association with his late friend, President McKinley. As with most years, the 1965 festival offered sports competitions, musical performances, an art show, a carnival, multiple parades and historical tours. That summer’s Carnation Queen contest was held in conjunction with the preliminaries and finals of the Miss Ohio contest, and both the Carnation Queen and Miss Ohio would go on to compete in the Miss U.S.A. competition held in New Jersey!

Carnation Festival grand parade in Alliance, via Ohio Memory.

Other images on Ohio Memory show the Carnation Queen contest and parade entries from the beginning years of the festival, documented by the Ohio Department of Development in the early 1960s. Seen at left is an elaborate wedding cake float complete with live “cake toppers”! Carnations, of course, play a key role in the float’s design. The festival also makes an appearance in the Red and Blue, the student newspaper of Alliance High School that is available on Ohio Memory courtesy of the Rodman Public Library–students are encouraged to audition for the upcoming Carnation Festival talent show, and can tear off and complete the application right from the same page.

This year’s festival boasts more than 40 featured events throughout the Alliance area, from a hot air balloon launch to a fishing derby to vintage baseball. Whether you’re able to visit the Carnation Festival or a unique area celebration that’s local to you, we hope you’ll take advantage of the wonderful offerings across our state that bring together the history and community of Ohio.

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!


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