End of an era: Cooley’s last show

April 2011 Posted in Business, People

By Brenna WiegandRick and Kati Ernst. Rick died in March.

Heralding spring, thousands of green iris blades emerged at Cooley’s Gardens; barely in time to bid their patriarch farewell.

Richard C. Ernst, president, manager and hybridizer of the major bearded iris growing operation, passed away unexpectedly March 2, 2011, after a brief illness. He was 57.

From pioneer stock, Ernst led the company with decisive wisdom through economic rises and falls while continually plunging forward in the hybridization of hundreds of beautiful new irises.

For decades, he was in hot pursuit of a true red iris. His work advanced from paintbrushes and paper cups to developing patented molecular-level modifications. These discoveries could soon mean the fulfillment of that dream.

Along the way Ernst produced a number of stately near-red beauties including ‘Forge Fire’ (1991), ‘Fire Pit’ (1992), ‘Red at Night’ (1992) and ‘Classic Bordeaux’ (1996).

In 2002 Ernst’s iris ‘Ring Around Rosie’ took the Wister medal, the highest award there is for a tall bearded iris.

Cooley’s Display Gardens
11553 Silverton Road NE.
Traditionally open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
the last two weeks in May.
This year, check Cooley’s Web site
or call for information prior to visiting.

Cooley’s Gardens has always been a family business. Ernst’s grandfather Rholin Cooley, just a couple generations off the Oregon Trail, started the business in 1928 with his wife Pauline. Apparently, they enjoyed the iris given them by their family doctor Rudolph Kleinsorge just a few years before.

Through their grief, Ernst’s wife Kati and his sisters Georgie Johnson and Judy Nunn are laboring to undertake the many preparations necessary to open the public gardens for this, its final season.

The days and hours they’ll be open, Kati said, depend on how much they can do and the help they have.
Those empty, muddy boots are mighty big to fill.

The family agrees that without Rick Ernst at its helm, it’s time for Cooley’s to call it quits.

“There isn’t anyone else with the knowledge to step up and take over,” said Kati. “But 83 years is a good run.”

Rick and Kati shared many adventures: a honeymoon biking across Australia; snowshoeing, camping, sleeping in a snow cave…

“It’s such a big transition for me,” Kati Ernst said. “We were together all the time. He was my best friend, my teacher and the love of my life.”

Of late, they were learning to homestead. He loved to show off the peppers he was growing and was starting to can.

His lifetime, overarching passion was music. He could pick up about any instrument, played in numerous bands and wouldn’t miss a weekly jam session with old-time fiddlers.

His daughter Amy Ernst also learned much from her father, including the importance of research and not being afraid to take a stand – even if it differed from her dad’s.

“He loved life and dived into it,” she said. “He was full of stories of his adventures – and lots of jokes.”

  1. 3 Responses to “End of an era: Cooley’s last show”

  2. By Judith Hunt on Apr 5, 2011

    I am so very sorry to hear of your great loss.

    Though I understand the reason, it is still very sad to know that Cooley’s will not be in operation after this year. What a great garden it has been!

    Please know you will remain in my thoughts and prayers as you journey though this transition.

    Judy Hunt
    Louisville, KY

  3. By Susan L. Beaver on Apr 24, 2012

    I am shocked to learn of Mr. Ernst passing–I had ordered Red at Night in 09–I wanted a red iris and it is beautiful–I moved from Jeffersonville In. and carried that iris and several of my others to New Market Va. this past year. I like always wanted more–and had kept your catalog from 09 and wanted to get a new updated one–that is how I found out you are not in business any longer due to Mr. Ernst passing–please except my sympathy and know I loved the colors he developed for his iris.

  4. By Jeana Dinkelspiel on May 3, 2012

    How very lucky we were to have had him for the time we did. When I ordered irises last spring and learned it would be your last season, I bought all I could afford and am now protecting, nurturing, preserving those dozen varieties that I, personally, could save. They are thriving and I intend to divide and share them with others as I am able. Mr. Ernst’s passing was a great loss to us all. My sincerest condolences and most heartfelt wishes for a secure and happy future.

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