Welcome! A short history of the significance of the daffodil to Gloucester County, Virginia
Originally compiled by Carol Ray, 1991, updated by Denise Rhea Carter 2010. Initial funding provided by The Five River’s Woman's Club with proceeds to be used for county beautification projects sponsored by the Daffodil Festival Committee. All rights reserved 1991, 2010.
The Daffodils Arrive
The history of the daffodil in Gloucester County, Virginia is almost as old as the county itself. When Gloucester was formed in 1651 from part of York County the early settlers brought these soft reminders of English springs as they established themselves in the area. The soil and weather conditions were ideal for daffodils. The bulbs were passed from neighbor to neighbor and spread from the orderly beds and burying grounds of the great houses to the fields. Some, such as the hardy Trumpet Major variety, seemed to thrive on neglect. By the beginning of the 20th century daffodils grew wild in the untended fields of Gloucester. It is from this abundance of natural beauty that grew the extensive daffodil industry which earned the county the title "Daffodil Capital of America" in the 1930s and 40s.
Everyone had daffodils but no one thought much about them except as wild ornaments. It was around 1890 that Eleanor Linthicum Smith, of "Toddsbury" on the North River, first saw the commercial potential of daffodils. She developed a good size bed of flowers and paid local children ten cents per hundred to pick them. The flowers were picked during their spring growing season, packed standing up in laundry baskets covered with cheesecloth, and shipped to Baltimore.
The Middle Peninsula never had a railroad and that is why, until adequate roads and bridges were built, the people of the area were linked culturally and commercially to Baltimore and Norfolk. The Chesapeake Bay provided a thoroughfare with steamboats stopping at the many docks located on the rivers in the area.
And so, Mrs. Smith's baskets of flowers were loaded on a hayrack - one hundred baskets with about 2,500 blooms - and hauled by horse to nearby Dixondale Wharf or Hockley Wharf on the North River. They were put on a steamboat and shipped to her son who worked in Baltimore's Union Station. He resold the flowers to depot newsboys who became the first daffodil retailers.
The profit from her daffodil sales eventually paid off the mortgage on her home. Aware of their value, she dug up the bulbs and transported them with her when she moved to nearby "Holly Hill". As word of the success of the business spread, others in the county began to take an interest in the cultivation of flowers. Mrs. Smith's granddaughter Eleanor and her husband, W.S. Field, later lived at "Holly Hill" and continued with the daffodil business. They were able to put five children through college between 1925 and 1945 on the profits.
Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Snowden Hopkins of "Waverley" on the North River were influenced by their neighbor, Mrs. Smith, and began cultivation around 1915. By the 1920s they were extensively into shipping flowers and bulbs from their River's Edge Flower Farm. Their plantings were based on improved varieties of bulbs from the Netherlands. Mr. Hopkins became a specialist in daffodil farming and they were major growers by the 1930s. Mr. Hopkins died in 1937 but Mrs. Hopkins along with her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. C. H. Hammer, continued with the management of the business.
Another entrepreneur, Mr. Allan Hicks, bought bulbs from Mrs. Smith and specialized in the shipment of cut flowers. He accompanied the flower shipments on the steamboat and developed better methods of packing them to keep the blooms from being crushed. Instead of standing upright in laundry baskets he had the flowers bundled and laid horizontally in wooden boxes which could be reused. Eventually the boxes were made of fiberboard. At one time Mr. Hicks had flower farms not only in Gloucester, but in North Carolina and elsewhere along the east coast.
Until the mid- 1920s the daffodil business was substantial but never large, with the Smith's, Field's, Hopkins, and Hicks being the major growers.
Charles Heath, son of a wealthy New England family, had a major impact on the direction in which the daffodil industry eventually evolved in Gloucester County. His interest in the area began with a delicious cantaloupe which was to serve him in the early 1900s. He traced its source to "Elmington", the Gloucester estate of Thomas Dixon, author and gentleman farmer. Heath placed orders for more cantaloupes and began a correspondence with Dixon, which resulted in his coming to Gloucester for a visit. While here, Charles Heath looked out over the fields of wild daffodils and found inspiration. He decided to move to the area and established his family at "Auburn" plantation across the North River. Around 1915 he began importing and improving fine daffodil bulbs from M. Van Waveren and Sons, a large New York importing house. Each year Mr. Heath sent sample offspring back to the Dutch firm and reported his success with the bulbs in the Virginia soil. For years he tried to interest neighboring farmers to plant better bulbs but most were content to gather the wild daffodils and send them to market by steamboat.
The Peak Years
Until 1926 Dutch bulbs dominated the eastern market, other than in Baltimore. It was in that year the biggest boost came to the Virginia industry when a microscopic worm infested the bulbs in
Holland resulting in an embargo of foreign bulbs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Dutch firm of M. Van Waveren and Sons needed a new supplier of bulbs and turned to Charles Heath for help. They leased his 300 acres at "Auburn" and several were brought in to oversee the cultivation but they did not understand the local labor force and were unable to successfully handle them. Mr. Heath's son, George, came home and was enlisted to take over the enterprise.
George Heath was and excellent manager and learned everything he could about bulb farming. Other growers saw the light and thus was born one of the biggest industries in Gloucester's history. The $20,000 payroll provided by the daffodil business helped to fill many depression pockets.
After the Wall Street Crash the daffodil became known as "the poor man's rose". The few dollars asked for a bunch of daffodils was affordable compared to the cost of a bunch of roses. Between the wars, due to the rapid development of motor freight, the daffodil industry grew and flourished. More and better varieties were planted and produced because of the great demand for them.
There was much discussion in the business as to the best methods of planting, picking, bundling, watering, and packing. Rubber bands replaced rags, raffia, and string for bunching fiberboard boxes replaced laundry baskets and slat crates. There was a rush in the spring to harvest the blossoms by mid- day, pack them, and hurry the fragile crop to trucks by day's end. Bulbs were dug in July and replanted in the fall. Enough money could be made by some during the season to last the rest of the year. The soil and climate of the area led to the domination of daffodil cultivation for cut flowers and bulbs along the east coast. Every year between the two world wars and for a few years after the second, this industry sent as many as 50,000 boxes to metropolitan wholesale markets from Baltimore, to the north and west.
During the peak years of daffodil production hundreds of visitors would travel to Gloucester and Mathews Counties to view the golden fields of daffodils. The area was widely referred to as the "Daffodil Capital of America". The industry attracted enough attention for a Fox Movietone news release in 1940 and an article in the May, 1942 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In about 1937 the embargo was lifted and M. Van Waveren and Sons left. It was at this time that George Heath went into business for himself and an association was formed with other local growers. The Gloucester-Mathews Narcissus Association was mentioned in the Gazette-Journal in 1938. The association began to import bulbs from England and Holland. Heath acclimatized the bulbs and made them available to amateur growers.
Despite renewed competition from abroad, the local producers carried on until almost everyone in Gloucester and neighboring Mathews was raising flowers, including two local growers who were raising bulbs for sale. In 1938, M&G Trucking Company was at the height of the season transporting roughly 120,000 daffodils a day from approximately 30 local farms.
It was reported that the continued success of Gloucester daffodils in the competitive market was due in part to the early availability of some varieties. In 1938, George Heath established the Daffodil Mart on land bordering Back Creek in Gloucester. Heath fell in love with the work and experimented with all the varieties he could get. He is credited with having brought more different varieties into this country than anyone else and, by 1952, had a total of 1400 varieties. He eventually developed a mail order bulb business with national and international sales.
The Slow Decline
World War II briefly cut off the supply of foreign bulbs, restricted transportation, and severely limited the labor force, but after the war, daffodil growing resumed with a vengeance. New plantings were started, a wholesale florist opened, greenhouses were put up to force blooms earlier, and a cold room was built at the freight terminal where daffodils were processed and shipped by the thousands daily. In the late 40s, visitors were still coming at the peak of the growing season to travel the "Daffodil Trail" through Gloucester and Mathews Counties.
Ultimately, more than 150 families were growing flowers. Eventually this overproduction, rising costs, and competition from cut flowers brought in by air freight from around the globe caused prices to fall. A slow decline began as daffodil farming was abandoned by many.
The business had settled by the mid-50s and there was still some profit in cut flowers. When the blooms appeared the pickers would flock in. Schools let out so that the children could join them, and up to $20 a day could be earned in the fields. The season meant additional spending money to youngsters and adults who picked and to farm families with small patches of flowers.
Prominent names in the daffodil industry in the 50s included Heath, Hicks, Hammer, Hopkins, Emory, and Clements. Businesses included River's Edge Flower Farm, the Daffodil Mart, the C.H. Hammer Nursery, M & G Transportation, and R.L. Mickelborough and Sons of Mathews. A newcomer in the business was the Little England Daffodil Farm in Bena.
In 1960 fields of daffodils could still be viewed from a boat ride along the North River on the old land grand plantations of "Auburn", "Green Plains", "Elmington", and "Toddsbury". In 1962 it was reported that Gloucester and Mathews Counties were still the principle centers of daffodil culture in the country, with more than 24 million daffodils being shipped out each spring bringing more than $250,000. In the late afternoon interstate trucks still rumbled along county roads and picked up cardboard boxes of flowers to be delivered to airports and cities.
Over the years the business gradually declined with more and more people turning over the land which had once been golden with daffodils to more profitable ventures. In the late 60s and 70s the best place for visitors to see daffodils in bloom was the Daffodil Mart which had established itself as one of Gloucester's major spring tourist attractions. In 1971 an article in the Washington Post still designated Gloucester as the "Daffodil Capital of America" and in 1973 over 10,000 people were expected to visit the Daffodil Mart.
But, by the early 80s only 150 acres were planted in daffodils as compared to the 1,000 acres under cultivation during the peak years. During those years you could drive almost anywhere through Gloucester and Mathews and see fields of flowers where now only abandoned patches remained. Some fields were still worked and some locals still took a few weeks each spring to pick for 5 cents a bunch.
In the mid-80s, the Daffodil Mart, run by third generation grower Brent Heath, was selling nearly 500 varieties of bulbs through mail order catalogs. Heath still spends most of his time crossbreeding to produce new varieties.
Today the country's major daffodil region is Washington State which has a longer, cooler growing season that helps the flowers thrive. The largest producers in Gloucester are Brent Heath, with five acres at the Daffodil Mart, and Granville Hall, who has six acres he bought from a retired grower after World War II. In a 1981 article for The American Daffodil Society Journal, Mr. Hall stated that "the business still clings to life .... but an era has ended."
Festivals, Pageants, and Tours
In 1938 the first daffodil tour was proposed jointly by the Gloucester Rotary Club and the Gazette-Journal. The Gloucester board of Supervisors appropriated $50 for expenses of the "First Annual Narcissus Tour" which was held March 18-April 9, 1938. The county organized a clean-up week prior to the tour date and 3,000 people took the tour, coming from as far away as New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Connecticut, Boston, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland.
By 1939, interest in daffodils was reaching an all-time high and a festival was added to the tour with a queen and court. At a festival ball Delta Osborne was presented as the first daffodil queen. The 1940 Narcissus Tour Committee took the theme "Life in Holland". A newsreel entitled "The Daffodil Story" was made in cooperation with the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce using 30 girls dressed in Dutch costumes, standing in the local daffodil fields. Harriet Miller was chosen as queen that year. The National Geographic magazine also sent photographers for photos of the local daffodil fields for an article they were preparing.
By 1941 the advent of war was commanding people's attention and there was less interest in the daffodil festivities. However, Mary Tyler Chadwick served as queen with a court made up of representatives from nine counties. The festival was mentioned in a "Better Homes and Gardens" article.
In 1942 the tour and all festivities were discontinued due to war conditions. No more annual events were held until 1958 when the local Lions Club sponsored a pageant which continued until 1965.
In 1987 a volunteer citizens committee with the cooperation of the Gloucester Department of Parks and Recreation organized a spring Daffodil Festival. They continue to sponsor the annual event which includes bus tours to Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (formerly The Daffodil Mart). The festivities also include a parade, fine arts poster, queen, arts and crafts show, historical displays, performances and entertainment. The annual Daffodil Festival honors an important era of Gloucester's history and its proceeds go toward the beautification of the county through plantings and other projects. With full community participation, through schools, civic organizations, clubs and individuals, the Daffodil Festival has become Gloucester’s Hometown Festival.
Since 1938 the Garden Club of Gloucester has held an annual Daffodil Show in which growers compete for awards. This ADS sponsored show has artistic as well as horticultural divisions and continues to attract much attention each spring.
Although this once important industry has all but disappeared from Gloucester County there still remain, in the flowers that continue to bloom each spring, the annual events held, the child selling bunches of daffodils along a country road, subtle reminders of this important aspect of our county's heritage.
American Mercury. March, 1956.
Daily Press. March, 1954.
Daily Press. September, 1954.
Daily Press. April 7, 1968.
Frye, John, "Baltimore's Daffodil Woman" in The Sun Magazine
Gazette Journal. March 22, 1973.
Gazette Journal. March 10, 1983.
Hall, Grantville, "Commercial Daffodils Along the Mid-Atlantic Coast" in The Daffodil Journal. 1981.
Heath, Brent and Becky, The Daffodil Mart Scrapbook Hoyt, Diana Palmer, "Gloucester's Golden Harvest.”
Kline, Angela Marie, "The Rise and Fall of the Daffodil in Gloucester County." May 21,1990
News-Leader. March 25, 1984.
Richmond Times-Dispatch. April 3, 1949.
The Star Magazine. Washington, D.C., April 1, 1962.
Virginia Cavalcade. Spring, 1960.
Washington Post. April 4, 1971.
Washington Post. March 29, 1982.