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History of the Portland Rose Festival

Founders of the event hoped to make our city the “summer capital of the world.”

A historic photo shows the parade procession during the Portland Rose Festival circa 1908.

Horses pull a Japanese-themed float in the 1908 Rose Festival parade.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Wake up and smell the roses, Portland — the city’s biggest festival of the year is almost here. The Portland Rose Festival bursts into bloom on Friday, May 24 — ushering in parades, fireworks, and century-old traditions to the City of Roses.

Perhaps you’ve already caught a whiff of the city’s rose garden history, but that story is intertwined with the festival that’s named for the fairest of flowers. Let’s jump back in time to the turn of the 20th century.

During a speech at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, Portland Mayor Harry Lane said that the city should have an annual “festival of roses.” The idea germinated and came to fruition in 1907 with the inaugural Rose Festival. That year’s parade was a marvelous hit because it featured illuminated floats pulled by an electric trolley system at a time when electricity was still a novelty for most people.

The Portland Rose Festival "King Rex" walks in all the royal regalia as men in suits and hats watch on.

“King Rex” arrives on the scene during the 1912 edition of the Portland Rose Festival.

Photo courtesy of Portland City Archives

Pageantry dates back to that first festival, too, when Carrie Lee Chamberlain, the daughter of Oregon’s then-governor, was crowned queen. Portland even crowned some kings in the early years (one of whom rode an elephant in the parade) before permanently bending the knee for a queen in 1914.

Other events from the early days of the Rose Festival have also gone to seed, like the chariot and harness races of 1909. But many of the original traditions remain: the electric parade is now the Starlight Parade, the Grand Floral Parade is still the signature event, and local queens still reign — but now they hail from local high schools.

In its long history, the Rose Festival has only been canceled a few times over war worries, construction conflicts, and most recently, COVID-19.