With the closing of the C&O Mill in 1925, Brookings lost its lumber manufacturing industry and became virtually a ghost town. But soon another enterprise of considerable promise began to develop; bulb growing for the wholesale market. It was determined that both climate and soil conditions were almost ideal for the growing the cultivation of flower bulbs.
The mild winters in Curry and Del Norte counties area a definite advantage in bulb growing. They are never exposed to unusually high or low temperatures, while the gently sloping soils provide good drainage and are relatively high in organic matter and slightly acidic in content.
Many years later, Dr. A.N. Roberts, Oregon State University professor of horticulture and one of the nation's foremost lily authorities, said:
"I have traveled in the principal bulb growing regions of the world including Japan, Holland, England, France and Israel, and none of them has the combination of climate, soil and water that exists in the Harbor area for growing bulbs. The soil and climate requirements for lily and bulb growing in general are quite exacting, and there are few spots in the world that have the combination found on the Harbor bench."
Many Are Employed
in Bulb Planting
At one time 30 men and women were employed by W.L. Crissey in planting bulbs on an 11-acre tract on the Pedroli farm in Harbor. Most of the bulbs on this tract are white calla lilies and paper white narcissus. There will be about 35 acres in this section in bulbs by the time planting has been finished. It is not the intention of the growers to harvest blossoms for the market, but they are growing the bulbs for the market. - Gold Beach Reporter, Sept. 26, 1929
Bill Crissey and his wife, Millie, came to Brookings in 1928, established the first large commercial flower fields and later became the first lily bulb growers on a commercial scale in the Brookings-Harbor area. Their home was on a bluff overlooking the ocean near the entrance of what is now the City of Brookings. Theirs was the first structure built along the ocean front.
Mill Town Now
Turns to Lilies
Brookings, once prosperous industrial community in Southern Curry County, is now undergoing a transition from a manufacturing to an agricultural town, with fair promise of as great a future for the latter vocation as it had in the former. Gold Beach Reporter, Dec. 8, 1932
First Carload Shipped
The first carload of Easter lily bulbs raised on bulb farms in Southern Oregon and Northern California, and valued at more than $15,000, rolled out of Arcata last Friday evening, bound for Denver, Chicago and New York, with 200,000 bulbs. Arcata Union, Oct. 13, 1944
How the lily industry developed was told recently by Walt Schroeder, former Curry County Extension Agent:
The Pacific Northwest commercial lily business started in the 1920s. Louis Houghton, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, was stationed near Bandon during World War I to spot pro-Germans in the lumber camps. He was impressed with the wild plant life and especially the lilies that grew in the area. After the war, when he returned to the south coast of Oregon. Finally he resigned his position and brought a suitcase full of Dr. David Griffith's hybrid lily bulbs to Bandon in 1919.
Houghton was very free with his bulbs, giving one or two to anyone who would plant them. Soon they became very common in the door yards at Bandon.
In 1925, Houghton moved to Tillamook and went into the lily business where he was successful in competing with the Japanese bulbs that were then on the market. The depression, however, overtook Houghton's lily business in 1930 and his corporation was liquidated.
Sidney Croft of Bandon was one of the people who received some of Houghton's bulbs. He was more interested in growing vegetables in his garden and really didn't have time for lilies, but his neighbor persisted so Croft took the darn things, put them in a trench in one of his garden rows and covered them up.
When Croft advertised that he had some bulbs to sell, Mr. Bergen of the Marshfield Greenhouses and Flower Store in Marshfield, now known as Coos Bay, forced a few of Croft's lilies in his greenhouse. To Bergen belongs the honor of having discovered that these lilies could be forced to bloom in time for Easter.
Croft selected two kinds of lilies, one a shorter one that he named Croft and the other he sold to W.L. Crissey of Brookings, who established it on the market as the Estate lily. Soon the fame of these lilies spread and the growers received so many orders they were unable to fill them.
When Bandon burned in 1936, Croft salvaged his lily bulbs and moved to Harbor. For many years the Croft lily was the foundation of the industry. But soon newer varieties took over, and the Croft lilies now grown are in experimental plots where researchers want to maintain a genetic pool. Slocum's Ace, commonly called Ace, soon took over the industry, and the Croft lily was gradually replaced by this superior flower. The efforts of growers and researchers to find an even better bulb brought the Nellie White into the picture, and it is rapidly gaining on Ace. It, in turn, will probably be replaced by even better varieties presently being developed.
The Japanese bulb growers were the major competition for the Southwestern Oregon growers before World War II cut off the their imports, and the lily boom was on. People from all walks of life began to invest in lilies. Small backyards, once lawns, were converted to lily patches. Pasture land, and just about any kind of land with good soil, was planted to lilies. Prices went to $1.00 a bulb.
Early Harbor Growers before 1941 included Tony and Laverna Olsen; W.L. "Bill" Crissey; Lucius and May Stafford; C.P. Watt; Charles Stanhurst; Fred Gustafson; George Titus; and Walter Piermine.
Soon buyers were furiously competing to buy the commercial-sized bulbs, and planting stock was replanted or sold at high prices to new growers waiting to get in on the lucrative venture. Front yards and fence corners were turned into bulb fields by many residents. Every available half acre was planted. For years, the women and children of the area made their spending money in the fields and barns. The White Gold rush was on in earnest. It was boom for awhile. Then, in the late 1940s, came the bust. The bottom fell out of the market and only a few of the larger well-established growers were able to stay in the business.
The Woodriffs of the Fairyland Lily Gardens in Harbor side were the most colorful, most creative, most controversial and the best known hybridizers of the growers. A near genius, Leslie Woodriff won international prizes with his new lilies. He flooded the town of Brookings with prize blossoms, the bulbs of which he refused to sell. But went broke because of poor business management such as neglecting to bill his customers and to fill out-of-state orders.
Woodriff received a medal from the Garden Clubs of America for his outstanding work in hybridization of begonias and lilies. He had originated a number of new varieties, including pink lilies. The Pilot, June 10, 1954
Estimates of the number of bulb growers in the Brookings-Harbor community at the height of the boom vary from 350 to 600. In an address to the Curry County Historical Society in January 1978, Kenneth L. Borough, Smith River bulb grower and an historian of the industry, said he favors the lower number. He believes that perhaps 50 to 350 growers got their money back, while perhaps only 25 or so actually made considerable profit. Among the latter were the six major growers.
In the mid 1940s, three associations were formed to protect and advance bulb growers' interests. First (1945) was the Croft Lily Association; second, the West Coast Bulb Growers co-op (1945-48), a marketing enterprise; and third, the Pacific Bulb Growers Association (1946). The latter was a coastwide organization to promote quality and to disseminate information about new developments in the industry. When formed, it represented 969 growers in Oregon, California and Washington and had no connection with any marketing activates, members said.
Easter Lilies, Inc., was formed in 1958 by regional growers "to provide a medium for unity of effort for encouraging the production of highest quality stocks, and to effect their marketing through establishing trade channels to realize their full market value." James C. Moore of Brookings was appointed secretary-treasurer. Among the seven directors were four Harbor men: Howard S. Cantrell, Andrew K. Hastings, Roger I. Oliver and N.V. Strommen.
In 1978, Ken Borough recalled:
Historically, wherever commercial lily growing has been tried in the world, the life span of the enterprise has been about 10 years before it was wiped out by plant disease.
Lilies are notoriously difficult to grow. They are susceptible to bacterial, fungus, and viral diseases. Soil-borne insects range from the visible to the microscopic nematode which feeds on the roots and on the bulbs. Insects, such as cutworms and aphids, feed upon the foliage. Rodents, such as gophers, love to dig up and eat the bulbs and various diseases may attack the bulbs when they are in storage or in greenhouses.
Recognizing these difficulties, the Pacific Bulb Growers Association formed its own research and development committee. The group aims to stimulate interest in the problems of the lily industry among the university scientists throughout the country, to indicate what types of research are needed, and to attempt to coordinate research which is in progress. The Association has also established its own research and development station just south of Harbor, which it operates in conjunction with Oregon State University. This is a locally sponsored endeavor which has paid for itself many times over in that lilies are still being grown here after many years.
Such a record would have been impossible without the close cooperation and sustained work on our problems being done by Oregon State University, the University of California, Ohio State University, the university of Minnesota, Cornell University and others.
In 1979, close to 85 percent of the American grown Easter lilies sold in the United States and Canada each year were field grown in Curry and Del Norte (California) counties. The industry grosses millions off dollars annually, and at harvest and packing time employs hundreds of people. At harvest time, September-October and early November, people get a closer look at the importance of the lily industry as some 70 or more truck and semi-trailer rigs converge upon the bulb farms. They come to transport the cases of Easter lilies to their various cold-storage locations throughout the nation.
In the 28 days of February, 1,299 boxes of daffodils, weighting 28,471 pounds, and 12 boxes of other plants, totaling 287 pounds were shipped by bus alone. This says nothing of the many packages sent by mail.
Aggregate weights of all these bus shipments was 29,585 pounds, or just shy of 15 tons of blossoms. The Pilot, March 6, 1947