In 1998, the Society for Louisiana Irises named the Southwestern Archives and Manuscripts Collection, or SAMC, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as the official repository for the records of the organization. The Archives now contain a number of collections related to Louisiana irises that reflect the work of important figures in the development of the Society.
The designation of SAMC as SLI's repository was very fitting considering the close relationship between the Society and the University over the years. Ira and Barbara Nelson and Marie Caillet, early leaders of SLI, were on the university faculty. The organization met in Lafayette for many years and held its show in Blackham Coliseum on campus. In fact, due largely to Ira Nelson, who was a horticulture professor, the repository had a sizeable collection of SLI records even before the official designation as a repository was made.
The collection of SLI Records at SAMC mainly covers the years 1948 to 1965, the year Professor Nelson died in an automobile accident. The main portions of the Society's records include correspondence of the officers, material on the shows and annual meetings, copies of the newsletter, and other publications. Among the officers are Claude W. Davis, Aline Arceneaux, Marie Caillet, Barbara Nelson, Ray Cornay, R. Stuart Abbott, Charles W. Amy, Jr., and Nelson John Sahuc.
The most complete series of SLI records are the bulletins and special publications. Other materials include a Constitution and By-Laws, minutes from several executive committee meetings, material on annual meeting, and photographs. There also are some records from the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society that was founded in 1941 and evolved into the SLI. Very recently SAMC has received over four boxes of SLI records which had been stored in the Ira Nelson Horticulture Center. This material was donated by Aline Arceneaux and Elaine Bourque who went through the file cabinets in the Horticulture Center identifying the SLI materials which should be sent to the archives.
I have been informed that Marie Caillet, a founding member of SLI who served as secretary for many years, is preparing to ship several boxes of records from her home in Texas. These materials should help to make the holdings of the SLI archives more complete and current.
Tom Dillard, the Secretary of the Society, has talked about the possibility of contacting recent officers and encouraging them to donate the SLI records they accumulated during their time in office. Hopefully we will fill in the gaps in the records from 1965 to the present.
The Ira S. Nelson Papers
SAMC has the papers of Ira S. Nelson (1912- 1965). Many of these relate to Louisiana irises and the SLI. Not only was Nelson on the faculty in the Horticulture Department at Southwestern Louisiana Institute/University of Southwestern Louisiana from 1942 until his death, he was extremely active in various state and national levels, serving as officer, judge at shows, and supervisor of test gardens. He was especially interested in promoting camellias and Louisiana irises. The Nelson collection reflects his varied and wide-spread activities in the horticulture field. He corresponded with horticulturists and botanists all over the United States and many foreign nations. The collection contains much information on the Society for Louisiana Irises and the Louisiana Society for Horticulture Research. Nelson and his wife, Barbara, were very active in both organizations. The collection also contains much correspondence of Mary Hutson Nelson of New Orleans who was a leader in the 1920s and 1930s of the effort to promote Louisiana irises. There are a number of letters between Mrs. Nelson and John K. Small of the New York Botanical Society who wrote some very important articles about the Louisiana iris which were published in nationally known journals.
There also are a small number of records from two organizations dedicated to promoting Louisiana irises during the 1930s: the Louisiana Iris Society and the Louisiana Iris Conservation Society.
The Nelson Collection has correspondence from many leaders of the early Society for Louisiana Irises including Frank E. Chowning, Ray S. Comay, Claude W. Davis, Mary and Dan DeBaillon, Caroline Dormon, Ruth Dormon, Jo N. Evans, W. A. MacMillan, L. F. Randolph, and Hamilton P. Traub. The collection also contains catalogs from nurseries starting in the 1950s.
The W. B. MacMillan Papers
Another collection in the repository related to Louisiana irises is the William Buchanan MacMillan Papers. MacMillan and his wife Peggy were active in the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society and were early leaders in the Society for Louisiana Irises. They lived in Abbeville, Louisiana, where MacMillan worked in sales promotion and public relations for the Louisiana State Rice Milling Company.
This collection contains materials reflecting the interests of the MacMillans in Louisiana irises. There are records of the iris societies (and other flower organizations) to which they belonged.
Both of the MacMillans hybridized irises. The collection contains records of these experiments. In addition, they operated a nursery, the House 0 Mac. There are catalogs, price lists, and other items related to the business.
The collection contains correspondence between the MacMillans and Caroline Dormon. There is a scrapbook of Dormon plant drawings.
The Chowning and Mertzweiller Papers
Recently Tom Dillard gave two iris related collections to SAMC, the Frank E. Chowning Papers and the Joseph K. Mertzweiller Papers. Frank Chowning was a lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was active in Louisiana iris societies starting in the 1940s. He served as President of SLI in 1961 and received the Society's award of merit.
Chowning's papers reflect two of his major contributions to the promotion of the Louisiana iris. He advocated the planting of Louisiana irises in places far from their native semi-tropic home. He corresponded with and helped growers in Montreal, Minnesota, South Dakota, California, Great Britain, and Japan. He wrote a number of articles on how the plant could be grown in varying climates. Secondly, Chowning was an award winning hybridizer of Louisiana irises. His papers contain not only correspondence about his work but also notes and records concerning his experiments and photographs of his plants.
Among the better known hybrids introduced by Chowning are 'Dixie Deb' , 'This I Love', and 'Ann Chowning'. His papers contain correspondence with many individuals including Caroline Dormon, Marie Caillet, and Bob Bledsoe.
Joseph K. Mertzweiller (1920-1997) was a research scientist for Exxon in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He became interested in cultivation of Louisiana irises in the 1950s through an association with Claude Davis and Ira Nelson. Mertzweiller engaged in many hybridizing experiments, especially on tetraploid flowers. Among the varieties he created are 'President Hedley' , 'Just Helene' ,and 'Cajun Sunrise'. Mertzweiller was very active in a number of iris organizations including SLI and the American Iris Society. He collaborated with Marie Caillet to edit a book on Louisiana irises on behalf of SLI. The Mertzweiller Papers contain extensive correspondence files with such people as Aline Arceneaux, Marie Caillet, Samuel N. Norris, and Ken Waite. There also are hybridizing records and photographs of iris blooms.
The University Library and the Future
The library at UL- Lafayette has an impressive collection of rare books pertaining to horticulture. This is probably due to the influence and impact of Ike and Barbara Nelson. Among the volumes held by the library are works which have beautiful hand-drawn plates of illustrations. Titles include: John Gerarde, The Herbal or General History of Plants, London, 1636; John Parkerson, The Theater of Plantes or An Universall and Compleate Herball; London, 1640; Curtis' Botanical Magazine or Flower- Garden Displayed", London, 1787-1810; Edward's Botanical Register or Ornamental Flower Garden and Shrubbery, 1815-1847; Ambrose Alexandre Verschaffelt, Nouvelle Iconograpahie des Camellias, 1847-1860; and Flore des Serres et des Jardin de L'Europe, 1845- 1884.
Gaps and Challenges
There are gaps in the SLI archives. While there are files on almost every president of the Society from 1948 to 1965, containing correspondence, memoranda, and other records, there are none for the organization's presidents since 1965, the year Ira Nelson died. There are few organizational records at all following that date. The gap will be partially filled by the material recently received from Aline Arceneaux and Elaine Bourque. We would like to make our holdings on SLI and Louisiana irises more complete, and to expand our holdings on other horticulture organizations. SAMA is especially interested in material related to plants widely grown in Louisiana and on individuals active in horticulture societies and pursuits. We are pleased with our association with the Society and look forward to working together to preserve the record of its history and contributions.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the SLI Newsletter in the Winter 2002 edition.
*Bruce Turner is Head of Archives and Special Collections, Edith Garland Dupre' Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.