If you were to ask a Puyallup resident, circa 1880, what the most common crop in the Valley is, they would of course answer…? Hops??? Yes, it made many farmers Millionaires at the time, but today there is no trace of this crop in Puyallup. What about Daffodils you ask? Well, here’s how it all happened.
In 1865 the Puyallup Valley was covered in Hops. By 1900, there were nearly none left due to an hop aphid infestation, as well as a growing problem with mildew ruining the plants. At the time, hops was considered the best plant for the valley soil and climate, but growing frustration with failed crops had farmers looking to plant a different crop.
It is uncertain who brought the first daffodil bulbs to the Puyallup Valley, though many credit either Mary Ann Boatman, Emma Darrow Carson or Ruth Kincaid McCarty from their homes in the Midwest. While they added beauty to the garden around the homesteads, few would have foreseen the importance of the flower to financially save Puyallup’s farmers after the failure of the Valley’s Hop Crops. The first person to plant his fields with the Daffodil bulb was George Ward Lawler in the year 1910.. He had a plant stand in Fife at the time, and who’s business mostly consisted of selling his beautiful flowers to the upper class who passed on their new horseless carriages. So successful was Mr. Lawler during his first year, the next year Lawler expanded operations, purchasing 9,000 bulbs from England and Holland, importing some of the finest varieties. While all varieties were expensive with the high costs of shipping, Mr. Lawler had some exquisite bulb varieties that cost as much as $75 each, a fortune in that time. The daffodil farm had grown to 15 acres by the early 1920’s, on leased land in North Puyallup. It was at this time George Lawler needed to expand, but was unsuccessful in his efforts to lease or buy adjoining property to expand his increasingly successful operation. He finally left the Valley in the early 1920’s, moving to Roy, Washington where he continued to thrive growing daffodils and other bulb varieties. But, despite his absence from Puyallup, valley farmers closely watched his success. At this same time, domestic bulb growers in other parts of the country were complaining to the US government about unfair competition from Holland in undercutting the domestic prices of flowers. The USDA eventually placed an embargo on Dutch bulbs, and encouraged US farmers to pick up the slack to fill consumer need. At the same time, the USDA named the Puyallup Valley as one of the most ideal places in the nation in which to grow daffodils. Add to this a huge shipment of bulbs imported into Seattle, but unclaimed by its original purchaser. That was all the encouragement the Puyallup Valley many farmers needed.
In 1924, W.H. Paulhamus called a meeting of local farmers. He finally persuaded Charles and William Orton to purchase the unclaimed shipment. The Orton’s then in turn persuaded their many farmer friends to purchase some of the bulbs. Together, the farmers purchased the abandoned shipment, planted the bulbs, and this began Puyallup’s affiliation with the Daffodil.
Concerns about disease and insects led the United States to ban the importation of flower bulbs from Holland on January 1, 1926. The ban, “Quarantine #37,” changed bulb growing in the Puyallup Valley from a minor to a major industry almost overnight. In April 1926, a short 100 days after the ban took effect, the Puyallup Valley Tribune could brag that “the largest daffodil field in America – is right here in our own city. That same year, the Puyallup Valley Bulb Exchange was formed to promote and market the bulbs to the World.
Also popularizing the beauty of the flower and its burgeoning importance to the valley was the precursors to today’s Daffodil festival. When the Bulb Exchange was formed, Mrs. Charles Orton opened their home to visitors to view their beautiful home, view the daffodil fields and eat wonderful cakes while sipping tea. More than 400 visitors arrived to their home! So successful was the event that Mrs. Orton decided to make it an annual event. Many view this as a precursor to the Daffodil festival that started 8 years later in 1934.
Another event is credited to the current Daffodil festival roots. During the same year, the Sumner Chamber of Commerce held an annual banquet, which was decorated in grand displays of daffodils, not only in the banquet hall but on each of the diners tables. It was that banquet that in 1935 changed its name to the Daffodil Festival Bulb Banquet, and a flower show and official bulb farm tour maps were created. So popular was this event, that Express trains were organized to bring spectators to the valley to view the carpets of daffodils.
As stated above, the Daffodil festival began in 1934. The person who had great influence in this decision was Lee Merrill, a Tacoma photographer who recognized the waste in seeing the beautiful flowers die on the vine. At this time in Puyallup’s history, it was the bulbs that were valued, the flowers were a “by-product” of what the farmers really valued. In 1934, Merrill suggested the flowers be used to decorate floats and a more formal “Daffodil Festival” be held. He suggested that a true festival needed a queen, and certainly needed a street parade. So, for that first parade, a queen was chosen. Ms. Elizabeth Wotton was stopped on Meridian Street and asked to be the queen. She accepted this rather odd, but wonderful invitation. And so began the Daffodil Festival that still brings beauty, history and the events that are among the most cherished among valley residents to this day.
Those of us raised in Puyallup remember as children seeing a yellow carpet of the flowers lining the valley, but today’s children may find it difficult to understand our connection with this beautiful flower. Were there was once 40 daffodil farmers, there are now only five. And, their acreage is much smaller; less than half of what it once was. Not only are there less fields, but there are less blooms. One of the last major daffodil producers in the Puyallup Valley is the VanLierop bulb farm. With sophisticated methods of refrigeration, most flowers are picked before they bloom—to bloom later, when its best for the retailer.
So, now you know some of the story behind the growth, and the slow demise of our cherished flower. I very much hope we can keep some essence of the flowers importance to our Puyallup community. But, I fear, that the daffodil will be forgotten, just as the history of the Hop’s of the late 1800’s is largely forgotten.