If you find yourself in Southern Delaware this Christmas season, you will be riding through the “Land of Holly.” The story of that nickname dates to 1890, when a man named William Buell in the little burg of Farmington, near Milford, chased after a business idea that had popped into his head. He harvested loose twigs and branches from holly trees, bright with red berries and green leaves for the season, and sent them off to sellers in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
That first year he shipped 3,000 crates, each one five feet long and three feet deep. Eager for fresh holiday décor, big city folks scooped that shipment up and put together their own little arrangements. Buell kept at it in the years that followed, but Christmas holly remained just a tiny side business through 1898 when one of his employees, John T. Watson, came up with the idea of wrapping the holly twigs around switches of sweetgum that were pliable enough to be wrapped into circular wreaths.
Buell put Watson’s idea to the test, sending a few hundred wreaths to a seed firm in New York City. The next year, he was inundated with orders—by one account, in the thousands. By 1900, he was shipping out 5,000 crates filled with finished wreaths.
CHARLES G. JONES, “THE HOLLY WREATH MAN”
Folks in Southern Delaware took notice. Small-fry players got in the act. In downtown Milton, Henry and Eunice Burton had a general store. They started letting folks trade finished holly wreaths for staples like eggs and milk. Then they marked up the wreaths and sold them to big-city vendors.
The move that shifted things into a new gear came courtesy of the Burtons’ daughter, Virginia. She fell in love with a man named Charles G. Jones, marrying him in 1904. He quickly set about transforming himself into “The Holly Wreath Man.” Actually, Virginia thought her new husband was nuts to spend $500 hard-earned dollars on postage for promotional materials hawking natural wreaths from the “Land of Holly.” Charles won that argument, turning a cool $360 profit in that very first year.
He was a brilliant marketer. Every crate he shipped was stamped with colorful labels bragging that the contents came “From the Land of Holly.” His slogan was, “Quality is Remembered When Price Is Forgotten.” Largely because of Jones, Milton earned its own nickname: “Hollytown, USA.” Local folks dubbed the extra trains that rolled through town every December “The Holly Express.”
MAKING A BUCK IN THE HOLLY TRADE
Fast forward to 1936. That year, in the midst of the Great Depression, 2 million Christmas wreaths were shipped out of Southern Delaware. There were lots of different ways for locals to make a buck in the holly trade. Some families transformed their farmhouse kitchens into little wreath-making stations. One woman, Mrs. Mary Figgs of Millsboro, earned regional renown for her ability to churn out 100 wreaths a day despite a disability—she had only one arm.
Other families took a more focused approach. They ventured into swamplands full of holly to gather raw materials, selling twigs and branches to wreath makers. On other farms, barns were cleared out so that hired hands could be brought in to work in makeshift wreath-making factories.
Pretty much every store around carried wreath-making wire, which was nearly as thin as a sewing thread. In most years, that was the only non-natural, “store-bought” ingredient in the wreaths. Folks even figured out a way to make a buck in years when early frosts led to a shortage of berries—they made and sold fake plaster-of-paris berries as a substitute.
The Wilmington News Journal, Nov. 27, 1934: “Hundreds of farmers and their wives and children are taking to the woods this week, gathering holly branches from which to make wreaths for window decorations in the city homes and department stores in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and other places. … During the day the farmer and his boys go into the wood and cut the branches from the trees and carry them home to the womenfolk, who make them into beautiful window decorations.”
Three tidbits from the Delaware Coast News, Dec. 7, 1929:
- “One could see automobiles going north with holly in bulk and wreaths piled high on the back seat. …”
- “Sometimes when so many of the farmer’s crops have been a failure, instead of giving up in despair, he plods along slowly, looking forward to the holly season to pull him out of his financial troubles. …”
- “Excuses are sent to the schools that the children are needed to help with the wreath-making.”
GOOD YEARS & BAD YEARS
Like in any business, there were good years and bad years. Those years when natural berries were scarce in years could be tough. In other years, big-city demand sagged, bringing down prices. Plus, folks who didn’t know what they were doing got into the business, and they sometimes trashed a productive batch of trees but cutting branches in ways that damaged the trees and hindered the growth of new twigs in succeeding years.
The state’s forestry office got in on the act, doling out instructions and pleading with people to cut only smaller branches, not larger ones. Sloppy harvesting, the forestry office warned, could put at risk “the green forest goose that lays the golden Christmas egg.”
In 1939, Delaware state legislators passed a law declaring the holly the state’s official tree. No wonder: The U.S. Department of Agriculture around that time was estimating that some 15,000 people were engaged in the holly trade, earning a combined $450,000. A single family, working hard for weeks on end, could pick up $500 or more in “Christmas money.
Charles G. Jones died in 1944. But his son W.T. Jones stepped right into his late father’s shoes. He, too, had a gift for marketing. In 1951, he made the world’s largest-ever holly wreath. It had a diameter of 11.5 feet. It had to be shipped in pieces and bolted back together when it got to New York City, where it hung to much hullabaloo outside of Radio City Music Hall.
The Wilmington News Journal, Dec. 5, 1946: “Sussex farmers again this autumn have been making wreaths, finding it not only a profitable on-the-side pastime but also one that gives them the material satisfaction and pleasure of knowing their handiwork will enhance the Christmas festivity in many homes over the land. With their green leaves speaking of life, of growing things, of man’s toil and his harvest; and the red berries—of the fire on the hearth, the lights in the windows, and the warmth in human souls, the wreaths comprise perfect tokens of the holiday most dear to all. Wherever they are hung they denote faith, peace, kindness, and good will—the true spirit of Christmas.”
AN ENDING IN THE LAND OF HOLLY
Things started going south for the holly wreath game in the 1950s. Quality artificial wreaths came on the market, some of them made in Delaware, ironically. The fake wreaths were a hit with big department stores and other business customers, who could put them up earlier and let them hang for longer periods without worrying about spoilage.
Other factors played a role in the decline as well. As forest lands got cut to make room for new houses and farm fields, good holly trees got harder to find. Changes in the economy were giving younger women more and different opportunities to find jobs. Fewer and fewer of them chose to keep up the holly traditions they had learned from their mothers.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came in the mid-1950s when the U.S. Department of Labor imposed a new minimum wage of $1 an hour and ruled that it applied even to home-based workers. The one-size-fits-all federal rule wreaked havoc in the holly game, where farm families had a dozen different ways from Sunday to make a buck. Suddenly, federal bureaucrats had decided that there was only one way to make a buck—as an employee who received wages in accord with proper payroll protocols.
In the years that followed, Delaware Senator J. Allen Frear introduced legislation in Congress several times seeking to carve out an exemption for the Delaware holly-wreath market. It never passed.
Things got so bad that the feds even came after W.T. Jones, the “Holly Wreath Man,” accusing him of failing to pay the minimum wage. Jones was eventually vindicated, but between a shutdown of operations one year and the ordeal of proving his innocence, Jones ended up deep in debt and closed his business. He ran an auto parts store after that.
Years later, he recalled the year the feds shut him down this way: It “was like stopping Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.” Jones died in 1997 at the age of 83.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on Nov. 21, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations, LLC. All rights reserved.
- I have also written about the heydays of holly wreaths on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (read that here) and on the Eastern Shore of Virginia (read that here).
- There have been several notable attempts here in modern times to honor the wreath-making history of “The Land of Holly.” Local historical societies have put up exhibits. Libraries have brought in guest speakers to reminisce about the good old holly days. Senior centers have put on wreath-making sessions for their residents. There is a historic marker honoring “The Holly Industry” in Milton Memorial Park. Another marker honors the home of the original “Holly Wreath Man,” Charles Jones. Also in Milton, there is an annual Holly Festival at Christmastime. Alas, that festival has been canceled this year due to the pandemic.
- I found the trio of quotes from the Delaware Coast News that appear here not in the original paper, but through a newspaper piece done by the wonderful historian Mike Morgan. You can find out about Mr. Morgan’s books here.
- The photo up top here of people making holly wreaths is in the collection of the Delaware Archives.