You’ve heard of the Rust Belt… the Corn Belt… the Sun Belt…but what about the Violet Belt? The Violet Belt ran through a portion of New York’s Dutchess County. On Monday, a ceremony in the heart of what used to be the Violet Belt commemorated the town as the Violet Capital of the World.
Rhinebeck Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia lifted off the white sheet emblazoned with violets to reveal an historical marker.
“One of our wonderful residents, Norm Magnusson, came up with a great idea to commemorate Rhinebeck’s past as the Violet Capital of the world with a Pomeroy Foundation sign,” Spinzia says. “And it’s just a good example of how local government works — a partnership with residents and elected officials appointed officials and local not-for-profits.”
The marker, with a few violets planted at the foot, sits on Route 9G, at the entrance to Drayton Grant Park at Burger Hill. Magnusson thought the site made sense.
“This 9G used to be known as Violet Avenue and, still down in Hyde Park, there are road signs that call it Violet Avenue,” Magnusson says. “And back in the day, Hyde Park, Rhinebeck and Red Hook were called the Violet Belt, and they said that Rhinebeck was the buckle in the belt.”
Carl Meyer is president of the Winnekee Land Trust, which owns and maintains the park.
“He approached us and said, you know, the Burger Hill is a public space, people come here all the while, they come to walk up and down the hill. It’d be a great place to display this particular sign, this historical marker, which recognizes Rhinebeck’s history as a violet,” Meyer says. “And it just so happens we’re right next to Violet Hill Road so, and there were violet farms close by here. So it’s just kind of a natural location for it. I know a lot of people will see it, even if they don’t come to Burger Hill, the heavy traffic on 9G will see it.”
The marker has the title “Violet Capital,” and reads: “By 1894 Rhinebeck grew and shipped millions of violets weekly for corsages and gifts. By 1928 Town called ‘Violet Capital of the World.’” Michael Frazier is Rhinebeck Deputy Town Historian.
“George Saltford, who moved in 18-, a little bit before 1890 to Violet Hill Road and set up his violet-growing practice there, also wrote a book, ‘How to Make Money Growing Violets,’” says Frazier. “And it was a bestseller, in this area at least, and bought by quite a few locals, not just here but in Hyde Park, Red Hook, Poughkeepsie, where the soil was just right for growing the particular kind of violets that he was promoting, and the enterprise of growing violets just took off.”
“And it was in the middle of the Village of Rhinebeck that you transported your mature violets. They had to be picked in the dark so they wouldn’t open up; they were put in these wooden boxes and taken to the Railway Express Agency on East Market Street in the Village of Rhinebeck. Today, it’s a pizza business,” Frazier says. “But, and from there, once that horse-drawn wagon, an enormous one, was full from these contributions of boxes from local farmers, it was taken down to the railroad station in Rhinecliff and, within a couple hours, it was in New York City.”
According to the history, the violet business dried up for two reasons. Magnusson explains.
“And one was the change in fashions. Violets were extremely popular, as the sign mentions, on corsages,” says Magnusson. “And when the Flapper era came in, women’s dresses had straps, and they just couldn’t support the weight of corsage.”
Then a play was the thing, a French play in 1926, performed in New York City, called “The Captive”.
“There was a play starring Basil Rathbone, who later went on to play Sherlock Holmes, I think, and the play was about him and his wife and his wife’s female lover. And his wife and her lover exchanged violets as a symbol of their forbidden love,” Magnusson says. “Now the play was closed down after like six weeks or something on Broadway. The cops swooped in and they were like, no, no, no you can’t have a play about that stuff in this day and age — it was 1920-something — and so the play closed down, but the idea of violets is a symbolic gift between gay women, maintained.”
Magnusson talks about how the idea sprouted.
“I live on South Street in the village. My friend Chris, who also lives on South Street, said, you know, across the street from you, this was all greenhouses. And I was like, what? And he told me a little bit, he’s from around here, he told me a little of the history of the violet trade in Rhinebeck. And then, about a month later, somebody sent me a link to the William G. Pomeroy Foundation call for proposals to get historical markers funded. And New York state stopped in like 1939 or something funding historical markers, and the Pomeroy Foundation picked that up. And so I went through the process of researching, and the town historians you spoke to were really helpful. And then I took it to the town board and I pitched it to Elizabeth Spinzia, who you spoke with, and she said, great idea, make it happen. And, so I did.”
Frazier says the Violet Belt was known for a certain variety.
“Marie Louise were the kind that were grown here,” says Frazier. “They were a rather large violet, and it is the kind that Eleanor Roosevelt is seen displaying.”
Hyde Park, home of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, is just south of Rhinebeck on the old Violet Belt.
Once there were 116 growers in town. Today, Battenfeld’s in Red Hook is the only major commercial grower of violets remaining in the region. And now Battenfeld’s is the world’s leading wholesale grower of anemones.