While our regularly scheduled “Weekender Blog” is essentially on hold until early Spring rolls around in coastal Delaware, there's one special holiday-themed event coming up here in the area that we thought you might like to check out.

The 27th annual Milton Holly Festival is scheduled for this Saturday, Dec. 10, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at locations throughout town. Sites include the Milton Volunteer Fire Department, Goshen Hall, the Milton Public Library and the historic Milton Theater.

Fresh plants, wreaths, holiday gifts and much more will be the order of the day, and Santa Claus is also scheduled to make an appearance.

Cape Gazette Photo

We hope everyone takes the time to visit and enjoy this historic festival on the banks of the Broadkill River. But, do you know the origins and why Milton celebrates the holly plant every December?

In reality, the history dates back more than 100 years in coastal Delaware to a time when tiny Milton was one of the top holly producing towns in the United States.

Let’s take a little stroll down Memory Lane, shall we?

It was 1908 when a Pennsylvania fertilizer salesman named Charles Jones visited Milton to collect on a bill and, as many of these stories often go, met a young lady and decided to stay put here in the First State.

It wasn’t long later that he became officially known as “Jones, the Holly Wreath Man” and a legend was born. It was also largely because of his efforts that the American Holly was later named the official tree of Delaware in 1939.

Interestingly, before Jones came to town, many thought holly to be a rather useless plant, not really good for much besides pricking your fingers and being kind of a nuisance. But when he began selling his products to florists and department stores and making a tidy profit, the naysayers began to take notice.

At the peak of its popularity, Jones was selling his product in every state, as well as in Mexico, Canada and Japan, providing a good income for many farmers during the Great Depression.

By the late 1930s, the holly business was booming in Milton, as well as in the surrounding areas. During the first few years of his company, all materials came from the abundance of holly in Sussex County. Farmers supplied the product and Jones sold the attractive, fragrant creations all throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

By the late 1930s, the holly industry was bringing a couple of million dollars a year into the Delaware economy, so much so that there was concern that the plant would be harvested to the point of extinction in the area.

Just take a look at some of these facts:

  • In the 1930s, Delaware was the leading producer of yuletide holly wreaths in the country. During that time, Milton, Bridgeville, Georgetown, Millsboro and Selbyville were all booming holly towns.
  • In 1936, 2 million holly wreaths and 6,000 cases of loose holly branches and other evergreen decorations valued at $185,000 (that would be about $3 million today) were shipped from Milton and other points.
  • Milton became known as the “Holly Capital of the World,” as it produced more Christmas and holiday holly wreaths and decorations than any other place in the country.
  • In the early 1940s, coastal Delaware families could make up to $500 a season while producing up to 10,000 wreaths.

Regarding that last bullet point, producing holly wreaths was truly a family affair in southern Delaware. Men would pick holly and berries in the woods, while women and children bound the gathered material to frames.

Dealers then picked up wreaths two or three times a week, typically paying between three and six cents for each one, and prepared them for transport to northbound metropolitan markets via the railway.

In the above photograph, taken in 1951, W. T. Jones, the son of the original "Holly Wreath Man," stands in front of an eleven-foot-wide wreath, which was described as the world’s largest at that time. It was placed near Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

But as quickly as the holly industry boomed in Milton and surrounding towns, it also died a fairly rapid death starting with the passing of the original holly wreath man in 1944.

But the two developments that truly caused the rapid decline of the local holly industry were tied to progress and the economy.

The first was the growing popularity of plastic wreaths and the second was the 1956 ruling handed down by the U.S. Department of Labor requiring that people who worked out of their homes be paid minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A dollar an hour was simply too much for the company to pay, though they tried to keep going anyway.

But the federal government would have none of it and cracked down on the business. There are even stories of federal agents blocking a shipment full of holly wreaths one year due to violation of the minimum wage law.

So the holly industry essentially died in coastal Delaware and would have faded into the history books completely if not for the efforts of the local groups who organize the Milton Holly Festival every December.

Officially, Milton is known historically for the “3 Bs,” being Boats (shipbuilding), Buttons (its early days as a hub for manufacturing buttons) and Beans (due to the Draper King Cole plant that once dominated the town).

But every December, we remember the town’s early days as the “Holly Capital of the World.”

And that brings us full circle to this Saturday’s annual Holly Festival, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information on the festival, please visit www.historicmilton.com.

And now, as they say, you know the rest of the story.

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