Longtime county fair winner

BELPRE – For 48 years Pauline Collett was the name to beat in flower arranging at the Washington County Fair. Over that time period she’s earned 224 blue ribbons-the majority of those from the local county fair.

“She’s produced hundreds of winners over the past many years,” said fellow gardener Elaine Wallace of Marietta. “In addition to what she’s entered for competition, she has helped countless other arrangers with their entries.”

Collett is modest when asked about her blue ribbons. She keeps them stacked in a box in back of a closet at her Belpre home.

“I didn’t win every time-there have been a lot of second, third and fourth-place ribbons over the years, too,” she said. “But I’m not entering at all this year.”

At 86, Collett said arthritis is making it more difficult for her to do the flower arranging she loves.

“I’ll be going to the fair this year, but won’t have an entry,” she said. “I started entering the flower shows in 1964, and continued for 48 years.”

Collett’s favorite display flower-the Celosia, also known as cockscomb-graces the front lawn of her Belpre home. Unlike most blossoms, the red blooms of the Celosia look like they’re covered with a brightly-colored fur.

“It’s a very sturdy flower that’s been my mainstay since 1977,” she said. “I start them from seeds every year around March 15 and then coddle them along through the summer. They’ll keep on growing until the first frost.”

Her arrangements always included a variety of unique vases and natural materials. The vases, from across the U.S., are displayed on several shelves in the living room of her home.

“When we went on vacations I’d see something I liked and would buy it,” Collett said. “But I always looked for something unusual. And my late husband, Willie, was very good at finding driftwood or other pieces of old wood that I could use in my arrangements.”

Longtime friend and fellow flower-arranger Freda McGirr, 91, of Little Hocking knows how difficult it must be for Collett to be giving up entering the annual flower shows.

“It’s just something that gets in your blood,” McGirr said. “And it’s really been a big part of her life.”

She plans to exhibit some miniature flower arrangements for this year’s show at the county fair.

“I used to enter larger flower displays, but they’re too heavy for me now, and I can carry two or three of the miniature arrangements at once,” McGirr said.

Although she’s won some blue ribbons of her own, McGirr noted that Collett probably had more time to devote to her flower arrangements over the years.

“She and her husband had a greenhouse and didn’t have any children to raise,” she said. “My husband and I had a dairy farm, in addition to raising our kids.”

But McGirr has passed some of her flower-arranging skills on to her children.

“One year during the invitationals my daughter, Anita Beeney, took first place and I took second,” she said.

“She’s a welder and makes figurines out of metal that we can use in our displays.

Collett has had plenty of practice in flower arrangements as she and her husband owned and operated Colletts Greenhouse in Belpre for 41 years before Willie died in 2009. And both had previously worked for a local florist.

“When my husband graduated in 1938 jobs were pretty scarce,” Collett explained. “So he took a job with Dudley’s Florist in Parkersburg where he worked for 28 years and 7 months. The flower business was his lifeblood. It’s physically demanding, but kept him busy.”

She took a job at Dudley’s Florist in Marietta, and the couple met while working for the business.

“We’re both from Clarksburg, W.Va., but had never met till after we moved here and were working for Dudley’s,” Pauline said.

In 1961 the couple opened their greenhouse in Belpre and went into business on their own.

Collett said flower-arranging seemed to come naturally.

“I’ve always loved art and took art classes in school,” she said. “And I liked interior decorating, too. I used to do the window dressing for Dudley’s.”

Both Collett and McGirr would like to see more young people take an interest in flower arranging at the fair.

“I’ve always found it very interesting and self-fulfilling-it kind of grows on you,” Collett said.

McGirr agreed.

“And I would like to see more younger members join local garden clubs, but so many younger women have to work these days and don’t seem to have the time,” she said.