The holly-wreath industry on Delmarva was born at the turn of the 20th century in Southern Delaware, then quickly moved across the border into Maryland. Soon enough, holly became known far and wide as “Maryland’s Christmas Crop.”
Estimates of the number of Eastern Shore residents involved in that holly trade in any given year run as high as 10,000. Most were farmers, looking to earn extra cash for the Christmas holidays. In good years, the holly wreaths they crafted by hand generated gross receipts approaching $400,000.
THE AUCTIONEER AT FRUITLAND
The unlikely mecca of this operation was little Fruitland, Md., located just below Salisbury. The holly wreath auction held there between the 1920s and the 1960s was much-ballyhooed as the only event of its kind in the world. The auction dates its history to sometime around World War I, but it started up in a boring way, operating like a modern-day farmers’ market.
Vendors parked their trucks on a vacant lot near the fire hall. Buyers wandered around, shopping. Everything changed one day in the early 1920s thanks to a memorable Fruitland character named Hurvey Mezick.
- “Mr. Mezick is a farmer, canning-house worker, and auctioneer [who describes his various activities in life as] “a little of everything, not much of anything.”
- “He wears a brown overcoat, indiscriminately splattered with soup and gravy, and a battered hat that is adorned with safety pins.”
Hurvey was wandering through the market one day. Sales seemed too slow. Everything was so quiet. He decided to spice things up.
“While buyers were picking over the wreaths I just jumped up and shouted “I bid five, I bid six, I bid 10, I bid 11 … Are you done? Are you done? Sold!” … “”I just felt moved that day. And I sold plenty of holly.”
Farmers started offering Hurvey a piece of their proceeds to do his fast-talking schtick with their wreaths. Soon enough, the whole day was different. Customers gathered in front of an auction stage. Trucks would roll up one by one, taking their turn under Hurvey’s sales spotlight. Hurvey became something of an Eastern Shore icon, written about in newspapers all over the region. This is from one such article.
“Every time he mentioned a new [price], one of the dealers indicated he would buy at that price by closing his eyes, nodding his head, or turning his cigar at a slight angle.”
Through the 1940s, Hurvey’s flair and showmanship helped make the Fruitland auction into a big hit.
“Trucks, cars, and jalopies of all descriptions line up for the sale day in the streets. … Buyers stand on a vacant lot near the firehouse to buy the wreaths as the line passes them.”
THE GATHERERS IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
Before he won fame as Fruitland’s auctioneer, Hurvey Mezick tried his own hand at the wreath trade. That work began with holly-hunting journeys that often led deep into the dense swamp forests along the Pocomoke River and its tributaries. Here is Hurvey, remembering:
“It sounds easy but it was a lot of work. You go into the swamp and you get interested in what you are doing. First thing you know you are lost. Sometimes it takes you three or four hours to ‘cipher’ just how to get out. You always try to stay on high ground but before you know it you go swosh into the mud up to your knees or your waist. Then you try another way out, and keep on trying till you make it.”
One time, in a down year for berries, he found a whole grove of spectacular holly, “flaming with red.” Hurvey and his brother offered the landowner $210 for exclusive access.
“That was the most beautiful holly I ever saw—long sprays of shiny leaves, thick with real red berries.”
Hurvey and his brother didn’t make wreaths that year. They devoted themselves full time to gathering twigs and branches, which they then sold to middlemen for shipping up into the big cities. Locals used to call that way of doing business “box holly.” Hurvey and his brother packed 500 boxes and sold them for $10 a box.
“For two and a half weeks’ work, that was a killing. After we paid expenses we got about $1K each.”
Miss Lula H. Jackson of Parsonsburg, Md. had been making holly wreaths for 40 years by the time a newspaper reporter found her hard at work:
“Perched precariously on an upturned washtub, her hands protected by heavy gloves, she snapped off branches from a 10-foot-high holly tree. ‘Better to break them off by hand than snip them with clippers,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Snipping too close can set the tree back for years.’”
In her younger years, Lula made 200 to 300 wreaths a year. Here is one other snippet from Lula: “Don’t ask me why. I just like to make them.” OK, another one: “Miss Jackson wouldn’t say just how long she had been making holly wreaths. ‘That would tell my age,’ she said. ‘But it has been a pretty long time!’
THE MAKERS: A LABOR OF LOVE
“It hardly seems like Christmas without holly wreaths,” Mrs. William Townsend told a reporter in 1956. The wreath business was in decline by then, but the resident of Siloam (located west of Fruitland) was still at it.
“It’s hard work but I love to make wreaths, and I love to have my own money to buy presents” at Christmas. The previous year, she got her husband an electric razor.
Starting right after Thanksgiving, Mrs. Townsend’s workdays began right after she got her son Albert off to school. She heads to the smokehouse where she retrieves sacks of twigs and “boxes and tubfuls of neat little bunches of berries, wired in clusters like radishes at the supermarket.”
“Her wreath making is done in an atmosphere of a country kitchen filled with the fresh smell of the forest and a wood-burning cookstove with pots of the noon-day meal cooking.”
Mrs. Townsend made about 25 wreaths a day, while also managing her household.
I wish I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. James F. Savitz of Federalsburg. She had been making wreaths for more than 40 years by the time she spoke to a reporter who ended up describing her this way:
“Mrs. Savitz, who also is a paperhanger, singer, evangelist, nurse, and green-pepper picker, fashioned approximately 1,000 wreaths this year.”
THE END: DEATH OF A TRADITION
The holly-wreath business went into decline in the 1950s, and the Fruitland auction closed up shop in the late 1960s. A Salisbury Daily Times reporter in 1965 put it this way:
“Like cranberry chains and popcorn balls, the holly wreath may soon join the ghosts of Christmas past.”
Here are a few theories about the reasons the business collapses.
- Mrs. Etta Carey Bloxom was a buyer at the Fruitland auction. She blamed the arrival of artificial wreaths: “They make them look so natural that there isn’t much demand now for the real ones.”
- Another buyer, Louis M. Carey, said too many woodlands have been cut down to make room for houses and farmland. Plus “the winters are getting warmer all the time, and wreaths don’t keep as well.”
- Carey had another theory, too: “The old people are going and the young ones are away from home or they can make money easier in other ways.”
- Mrs. Oliver Ruark, whose mother made wreaths for 40 years, told a reporter she no longer made any wreaths: “When I was young, you made wreaths or you didn’t have money to buy gifts. We also did it because there was a family joy in it. I miss that.”
In an unsigned editorial in 1966, the Daily Times rhapsodized about the rich traditions of the holly trade:
“Urban folks bought themselves a genuine touch of the country for the Christmas season. The country folks earned extra money with which to buy holiday things, some of them from the city.”
The piece finished on this sad note:
“Perhaps families are not what they used to be and no longer do enough of them gather in a common effort such as wreath-making. … It’s sad to contemplate the likelihood that as some future holiday season approaches, an Eastern Shore tradition will have passed on.”
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on Nov. 25, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
• You can read about the holly wreath-making traditions of Southern Delaware here.
• You can read about the holly wreath-making traditions of the Eastern Shore of Virginia here.
• The photo up top here of a family making holly wreaths is in the collection of the Delaware Archives.