The Peony Garden History
When Wilbur Sisson moved to Rosendale in 1920, to live with his widowed sister, he began growing peony plants in her backyard, along with his iris and gladiolus. At this time in history, the easy-to-grow peony was a favorite in American gardens. His enthusiasm for the hobby soon expanded to where Sisson began his mail-order sales of roots and plants from his sister’s home in the mid 1920s, shipping throughout the United States and beyond. In 1929, Wilbur bought two lots adjacent to his sister’s house and the gardens were expanded. He hired Jesse Phillips as summer help, and Phillips never left -- later becoming a partner and future owner.
One of Phillips’ assignments was to design and construct the signature windmill and the entrance gate in 1929. The windmill with its bright blue sails became Sisson’s signature and was the registration site for entrance into the gardens. Both the windmill and the entrance gate are unchanged to this day, built from the foundation stones of the Methodist Church which had been moved. The gate on Main Street was the entrance to the gardens with a path leading directly to the windmill.
Phillips took over the majority of the duties of the gardens and hybridized several varieties (a 10-year process). He registered 3 varieties with the American Peony Society - Tinka Phillips (named for his daughter Kathryn) Owen F. Hughes (named for his Grandfather) and Kathryn E. Manuel (named for his aunt).
At its peak, Sisson’s Peony Gardens occupied a five-acre interlocking series of gardens that brought thousands of visitors to the annual June Peony Festival. In 1968, Gov. Warren Knowles issued a proclamation honoring the gardens for enhancing Rosendale and the State and even named the second week of June “Peony Week” in Wisconsin. For years a Peony Festival was held and thousands of people toured the gardens. A Peony Queen was selected and crowned each year.
In 1979, Phillips sold the gardens and continued to assist for a couple of years. Later, the back property was sold for residential development and in 1988 the gardens closed. Grass, brush and trees overtook the garden. Many peonies were removed and name tags removed from the ones left.
In 2005, the remaining garden was given to the Rosendale Historical Society. A Peony Board was appointed and restoration begun. Volunteers helped with the cleanup and all the peonies were dug up and moved to newly made beds. Sections of fence were sold as memorials or given as donations so a beautiful white fence could be built around the garden. The Laconia High School construction class built a storage shed for the garden. A gazebo was given as a memorial as were a flag pole, fountain, sun dial, garden benches and garden around the gazebo.
The majority of peonies in the garden date back to the original garden. Raised beds were constructed, planted and sold as memorials or given as donations. These beds have named peonies including a combination of herbaceous, tree and intersectional peonies. The gardens are cared for by members of the Historical Society and the community.