What’s in a Name: Madison Cooper

Madison Cooper
– Dorothy Stiefel

Madison Cooper, the iris, and Madison Cooper, the man, had more in common than a name. Both were products of cold and unforgiving climates!

iris madison cooperThe iris, a variegata introduced by Willis C. Fryer in 1918, was hybridized in Mantorville, Minnesota. The hybridizer was none other than a bee, since Fryer did not employ artificial hybridizing technique, and relied on Mother Nature’s whims for new introductions. Madison Cooper was described in AIS Bulletin no. 9 (October. 1933), “Descriptions of Varieties, Part III”: “Brief: S. mustard yellow; F. velvety burnt lake [Ridgway color chip]; stalk short branched; growth vigorous; to 2 ft. Details: S, erect; F. drooping; haft conspicuous, yellowish, widely veined; beard dense, yellow-orange; styles mustard yellow. Remarks: A rich variegata of the “Glory” strain.”

Madison Cooper, the man, had entered the world in upstate New York’s icebox – the Tug Hill Plateau region, approximately 50 years earlier. Cooper’s family had roots deep in this area, as his great-grandfather, Guillaume Coupert, had surveyed the area for its French owners around 1802. Coupert was granted 500 acres in payment for his services, according to an account written by his great-grandson. Madison Cooper grew up in dairy country, working in butter plants and acquiring intimate knowledge of cold conditions and hard work. He would continue to promote the benefits of “hands-on” labor until the end of his life.

Cooper lived in the Calcium (formerly Sanford’s Corners), NY area until his family moved to Iowa in 1887. Then aged about 19, Cooper spent short periods of time in Minnesota, southern California, and Utica, NY before settling in Minneapolis with his wife. He spent 17 years there, operating a public cold storage plant and designing and building plants for others. He obtained several patents on equipment in the process. His articles were published in “The Egg Reporter,” the “Ice Trade Journal,” “Ice and Refrigeration,” and Transactions of the Minnesota Horticultural Society.” A pamphlet, Natural lce Cold Storage and The Cooper Systems of Refrigeration appeared in 1901, and his 1904 tome Practical Cold Storage, remained the industry standard for years, appearing in second edition in 1914.

In 1937, J. Horace McFarland, America’s premier rosarian, wrote of meeting Cooper years earlier while seeking information on cold storage for flowers, and of becoming friends upon discovering a mutual interest in horticulture. It is likely that Cooper and Willis Fryer also became acquainted during Cooper’s residence in Minnesota.

mr. madison cooperBut Cooper did not enjoy city life, and he missed upstate New York. In later years he wrote: “One great advantage of the north temperate zone is what I call its Verdure’…wherever the eye carries may be seen a beautiful green…yet with the coming of Mid-summer and early Fall the browns and yellows which result are attractive in themselves, and never do we have the bareness of appearance which prevails in sections where the rainfall is less uniform. So it may readily be seen why this old Editor, after sojourning for twenty years in the West, was satisfied to come back to his place of birth.

Around 1907, Cooper purchased land with a railroad siding near Calcium and erected a building for the manufacture of cold storage equipment. However, he was tired of the traveling his business required and evidently was looking for another line of work, so in time the building became an office for publishing activities. In 1913 he solicited support for a new magazine from the American Gladiolus Society (AGS), which was in poor financial condition and had difficulty producing its own “Bulletin.” The response was positive, and January 1914 saw the first issue of Cooper’s monthly Modern Gladiolus Grower. It was priced at 50 cents per year and was quickly adopted by the AGS as its official organ. Within a year, Cooper had broadened the scope of the magazine and changed the name to The Flower Grower. He published articles on gladiolus, peonies, irises, phlox, and other perennials. Willis Fryer was a frequent contributor of both articles and letters. The Flower Grower became a popular venue for announcing horticultural shows and events, asking for and receiving gardening advice, horticultural advertising, poetry and gardening stories, and generally keeping in touch with kindred gardener spirits.

At the same time, interest in irises was growing, and horticulturists began to feel the need for a national organization to standardize the nomenclature, organize test gardens, and provide a forum for cultural advice. The January 1920 issue of The Flower Grower nnounced a meeting to organize such a society. Cooper attended the meeting and became a charter member of the new American Iris Society. Along with Lee R. Bonnewitz, Mrs. H.G. Lloyd, Bertrand Farr and George V. Nash, he served on a nominating committee to secure temporary officers to act until the first annual meeting of the Society could be held. Fittingly, he also served on a publicity committee. The Flower Grower was designated the official organ of the A.I.S and each member received a subscription. Each issue of the magazine contained a page or more of A.I.S. reports, iris name registrations and news in addition to articles on iris types and culture.

flower grower magazineCooper’s magazine was eminently suited for nourishing the new Society. A monthly, it provided an immediacy of communication that the future AIS Bulletin would not. The magazine was presented in a populist, almost familial style, with Cooper addressing his readers as “Friends.” Each issue was crammed with gardening information and illustrated sparsely with black and white photos and drawings. At $1.00 per year, it was affordable to a large segment of the general population.

R.S. Sturtevant, Secretary of the AIS and author of the AIS pages wrote in Jan. 1921: “I have enjoyed editing our page each month and wish to express my hearty appreciation of Mr. Cooper’s cooperation. I think that we owe much of our success to this opportunity for getting in touch each month and to his generosity. His interest has not been mercenary; he has offered splendid suggestions and I rather suspect has had to show considerable forbearance with my inexperience.”

Cooper did receive compensation for his association with AIS, as shown by a $284.53 disbursement to The Flower Grower for “subscriptions, etc.” in the AIS Treasurer’s report for the year that ended December 31,1920. However, it was by no means a lucrative arrangement. In November 1921, Cooper wrote: ‘The publisher has been hoping from year to year that the income would be sufficiently large to say that it [Flower Grower] was on a profit-making basis, but increased costs, improvements and changes of various sorts have interfered with the consummation of this hope.” Accordingly, Cooper raised the subscription price to $1.50 per year. The business relationship between The Flower Grower and AIS continued until 1924, and seminal AIS history is found in its pages.

Cooper was publisher of The Flower Grower until he sold it in 1931. He remained editor until 1936. But evidently the publishing urge had not disappeared, and in January 1937 he produced the first issue of Flowers and Gardens: Exponent of Country Living and Soil Contact. This was a short-lived title, changing to Madison Cooper’s Gardening Magazine in Sept. of the same year. This magazine resembled the old “Flower Grower” very much in appearance and content. Cooper did promote his philosophy of life to a greater degree and every issue spoke of his “Cooper Plan.”

And what was the Plan? In his words: “This Plan is nothing original nor is it anything which has definite limits. It is only the general idea that we should make contact with the soil in whatever way we find the most practical.” Cooper claimed that Henry David Thoreau had been an advocate of the Plan and urged: “Own a piece of ‘land and live on it. Then, and then only, have you a true home.” He recommended that people read Thoreau’s Walden and offered a copy as a premium to those who would secure two new subscriptions to his magazine.

Madison Cooper’s Gardening Magazine, or simply “Gardening,” ceased around the time of the outbreak of World War II. Cooper’s interest in irises apparently succumbed well before that, as his AIS membership lapsed between 1928 and 1934. He remained interested in gladioli, and he grew and sold them as late as 1939, as evidenced by the offer of 30 corms of his “Famous North Star Gladiolus Collection” for each new subscription to Gardening. He was active in organized gladiolus activities, promoting the American Gladiolus Society in his publications, showing and sponsoring prizes at gladiolus shows, and serving as Secretary/Teasurer of the AGS.

Cooper’s other interests included amateur sports, and he was instrumental in forming the Jefferson County baseball league. He also established the “Flower Grower Athletic Field” baseball park at Calcium. No doubt his 3 sons were beneficiaries of some of these activities. He was involved in the formation of the New York State Amateur Sports Federation in 1931, serving as its president, and editing the federation magazine Amateur Sports.

Mr. Madison Cooper died at his home in Calcium on July 8, 1946, at the age of 78. Although his obituary appeared in the New York Times,” no mention of his passing or early efforts on behalf of AIS ever appeared in the Bulletin.

Madison Cooper still survives in some gardens growing historic irises. Like its namesake, it never achieved a significant place in iris history, failing to win any major awards or even to make the AIS “White List” of approved irises issued in the Bulletin of January 1925. Nevertheless, both Madison Cooper and Mr. Madison Cooper succeeded in bringing delight to many iris gardeners.

Sources consulted:

Bulletin of the American Iris Society
Modern Gladiolus Grower and The Flower Grower
Madison Cooper’s Gardening Magazine
Bulletin (American Gladiolus Society)
Gladiolus Review
The Minnesota Horticulturist
New York Times (July 8.1946)
Cooper, Madison. Natural Ice Cold Storage and the Cooper Systems of Refridgeration (Minneapolis, 1901).
Cooper, Madison. Practical Cold Storage (Chicago: Nickerson & Collins) 2nd ed., 1914

[Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol. 16 Issue 1, Spring 2000]