June 29, 2014

Peonies with a fragrant past

Gallerist Atea Ring’s peonies are spectacular in her Westport garden.

The rose-colored Sarah Bernhardt and red-flecked, white Festiva Maxima possess an interesting history that originates north of Pittsburgh, Pa., in a rural community.

Ring’s friend, Chapin Davis, helped packed ancestors of these peonies as a lad of 7.


His grandmother, Lila Davis, worked as a homemaker for a Mr. McFetridge, who had an acre of peonies. He also had 10 brood St. Bernard females and cages of pheasants and white king pigeons.

“He had lost his wife and his daughter had drowned,” Chapin said. “Because of the novelty of what he had on his land, he often had people to visit beyond people interested in purchasing a dog.”

Lila and her employer built up a reputation, so people were forever dropping by. She would rustle up chicken soup and dinner rolls from scratch.

“She and her sister ran a tea room,” Chapin said. “It was up along the Pennsylvania line, just short of New York state. Henry Ford stopped one time on one trip between Buffalo and Detroit and praised them. He stopped and had a meal he was very happy about.”

Lila was an extraordinary woman and self-taught painter.

“I have a Limoges picture she painted and signed ‘Lila Davis 1917,’” he said. “It was of such a quality if I saw it in an art shop, I would have bought it. She’s was a very good painter. She did china painting like a lot of ladies did in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”

McFetridge’s peonies were shipped to the Pittsburgh Cut Flower Firm in long boxes filled with the fragrant blooms.

“One of the ironies is that company was owned by the father of my childhood best friend,” Chapin said. “He is now the president of the company. I remember that matter of sending the peonies on.”

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