The story behind the variety of strawberry we enjoy nowadays is a global affair that stretches across two centuries and three continents. Way back in the 1500s, some French explorer noticed that the wild strawberries of Virginia had bigger fruits and brighter color than their European counterparts.
He brought some back to Europe and farmers started playing around with them. But it wasn’t until two centuries after that, that the modern strawberry began to take shape. This was thanks to another Frenchman, who noted while down in South America that the strawberries in Chile were even bigger and redder than the ones from Virginia.
Problem was, farmers couldn’t seem to get these Chilean strawberries to reproduce in France. They didn’t realize that the samples were all females and needed a little help to spur the reproductive process along. An accident solved the problem—some farmer over there planted some Virginia strawberries close enough to some Chile strawberries, and that got the romantic ball rolling.
A new breed was born: Fragaria x ananassa.
A century later, that breed turned little Marion Station in Somerset County on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore into a boomtown. It’s hard to imagine nowadays. Marion Station has long had the look of a ghost town, with its downtown full of an eerie ramshackle emptiness and its story lost in the mists of time. (Scroll down to the bottom of this page when you’re done reading for some cool photos from strawberry days gone by.)
The railroad arrived in this part of Somerset County just as the Civil War ended, in 1866. A local businessman named John C. Horsey helped pay for the construction of a railroad station, and the town that grew up around that station took its name from his daughter, Marion.
The oyster boom that would famously fuel the growth of nearby Crisfield was in its infancy then. Marion Station was actually the bigger of the two towns for a while—and it, too, had a maritime marketplace. Steamships back then could sail right up the then-deep-water Coulbourn’s Creek and into town.
But it was the railroad that turned Marion Station into what was arguably the strawberry capital of the whole country. Hundreds of rail cars packed with ice rolled into town every day during harvest season. The line of berry wagons waiting for a turn at the auction stand often stretched for miles. Buyers came from as far away as Pittsburgh and Chicago. Immigrants came down from big cities in droves to work the fields.
In its glory days, downtown Marion Station had a dozen stores, a movie theater, a couple of factories, a shipyard—and even a hospital, the first one ever built in Somerset County.
Other towns on Delmarva got in on the boom as well. Up in Delaware, farmers were in desperate need of a new cash crop as a disease was wiping out their famous peach trees. The towns of Bridgeville and Selbyville became nearly as famous for their strawberries as Marion Station was. In 1899, Sussex County sent more strawberries to market than any county in the country—an astounding 7 million quarts.
The one-two punch of greed and mismanagement killed off the strawberry boom. Farmers bet everything on their strawberries, expanding into new fields and clearing out forest and animal pastures to create even more new fields. They overdid it in the end, wearing out the land and failing to plan for a fallback crop if and when things went bad. Their problems were exacerbated by a complex system that routed their sales through a system of brokers and limited their profits and helped fuel a cycle of over-farming.
Things were already going south by the time the Depression hit. The years that followed brought a steady decline that ended with Marion Station having that ghost town aspect we see when passing through today.
Still, modern-day Somerset County remains proud of its strawberry story. A big Strawberry Festival happens there every May, one of half a dozen or so such happenings up and down the Delmarva Peninsula. I post links to event details every year over on the Facebook page.
—Written by Jim Duffy
—Copyright, Secrets of the Eastern Shore
—Posted May 17, 2017
—Updated May 11, 2018
• The photo up top here shows men working in a strawberry field in Fairmount in Somerset County back in 1897. The photo of the modern-day strawberries is by Jill Jasuta Photography.
• Here are some more photos: