Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal, July 30, 2020
by Andrea Kulesh

H.J. Mills florist operation in 1948. – Richmond Hill Public Library Archives

At the beginning of the 1900s, Richmond Hill hadn’t changed much since its incorporation as a village in 1873. The population had actually reduced in size and in response the village council met to discuss strategies to encourage industry to move to the “Hill”. The village offered easy transport for goods and people with the Metropolitan Radial Line on Yonge Street and the nearby CN railway.

In addition vacant land was ready to be developed. William Lawrence, known for building Lawrence Park, was one of the first to take advantage of the council’s invitation. He also ran a floral business in Toronto and wished to expand, and it turned out that the available land in Richmond Hill was perfect for building greenhouses.

He moved his family to Richmond Hill in 1912, and built his first conservatory at the corner of Roseview and Pugsley Streets. He built his home at the west corner of the property where it remains today. John H. Dunlop (a former President of the Canadian Horticultural Society) was encouraged by his friend Lawrence to join him in order to expand his business. Dunlop was a keen horticulturalist who loved growing roses. The Bedford Park Floral Company soon followed, with Henry Arnold at the helm, and H.J. Mills built his first greenhouses in 1912, as well.

Dunlop won a first prize at the International Rose Show in New York City in 1914 with 50 of his “Richmond Roses” and repeated this success in Philadelphia, winning three first prize places. He developed rose varieties that were internationally acclaimed, helping to highlight this specialized industry that was “blooming” in the village. In 1914, the growers and a number of local residents founded the Richmond Hill Garden &Horticultural Society. The society worked to increase interest in all horticulture and to assist in beautifying the village, roles it continues to play today.

The industry flourished, and led to a rapid rise in population and a subsequent need for homes (27 new homes in 1918) in turn expanding existing businesses and encouraging others to move to Richmond Hill. Lawrence sold off unused portions of his greenhouse property, developing the “Roseview Gardens” subdivision. During these years, the greenhouses grew in number. The four largest growers covered several acres near the railway lines, north to Dunlop Street. Each had several buildings with huge chimneys for heating and exhaust and railway spurs to offload supplies and transport their products.

Roses were shipped across Canada at a time when there were no refrigerator cars. The flowers were individually wrapped in paper and boxed with ice to keep them fresh which allowed them to withstand a three-day trip to Edmonton. Mother’s Day was the biggest holiday and it would take every employee to be on hand to get the roses ready for transport. Often the companies would work together to fill large orders. By the 1930s Richmond Hill had attained its reputation as the Rose Capital of Canada.

As the floriculture industry grew, it became a more distinct part of the village’s identity and was even written into the village motto: “En la Rose Je Flouris”- “Like the Rose, I Flourish”. The industry thrived for many years but began to decline with global competition, local business taxes and poor economic conditions. Mills Roses was the last of this trade in the city, closing in June 1982.

Andrea Kulesh is the past president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society