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Somerset Strawberry Festival

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The History of the Industry

Marion Station, Maryland received its name because John C. Horsey donated the right-of-way in that area for the railroad and in return, the station was named for his little daughter, Marion H. Horsey (1851-1926) who was the great aunt of State’s Attorney Robert D. Horsey.

Its present appearance does not indicate that this area was a thriving and rather wealthy community when Crisfield was still a tiny fishing village with much of it still under water.

Prior to the Civil War, Marion had a busy seaport at Coulbourn’s Creek, with water deep enough for regular steamboat travel.  In that area there was an elaborate wharf, stores, a machine shop, a shipyard, several homes, and later modern oyster packing plant.  The main highway was located near this settlement  After the coming of the railroad, the main businesses were relocated near the station and the highway changed for easier access to the railroad route.

Marion was the chief center of activity for all farming and general business activities for a large part of Somerset County.  When the Crisfield “boom” in seafood started in the late 1860s, it outpaced Marion; and, in fact for a time it grew faster than any other community on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Nevertheless, Marion continued to be a progressive town for over another half century.  For many years it was famous for being the largest shipper of strawberries in the entire world.  The auction “block” at Marion was located in the center of the town.  Buyers as far distant as Pittsburgh and Chicago congregated there to buy berries grown throughout Somerset County and parts of Worcester and Wicomico Counties.  These berries were shipped in ice refrigerated railroad cars at the rate of several hundred cars per day during the peak of the season.  It was not unusual to see trucks, wagons, and other conveyances loaded with strawberries lined up for over a mile waiting to go to through the auction block.  During that period, Marion was so crowded with people that one had difficulty traveling from one end of the town to the other. 

Marion, in its hey-day boasted of nearly a dozen stores, a hospital, two restaurants, three schools, a canning factory, a candy factory, a community hall, a bicycle shop, a movie theater, three or four blacksmith shops, two barber shops, a post office, two doctors, a railroad station, two very active banks, as well as a steamboat line and other business facilities.

Strawberry was the “King” which over a period of years poured millions of dollars through Marion into the hands of buyers and farmers who, like Crisfield and its seafood, “put all their eggs in one basket” and concentrated most of their efforts toward raising and marketing more and more strawberries.  Most farmers depended upon the berry for practically all their cash income.  They lived through the long winters on credit to be paid at the end of the next strawberry season.  Land prices increased considerably because of the demand for more land upon which to grow more strawberries.  Farmers used drainage systems, tide banks, and flood gates to utilize marsh areas for farming.  Forests were uprooted and pasture lands destroyed to make room for the life sustaining, all important “King” Strawberry.  Farming equipment, trucks, and tractors were purchased on credit to intensify and increase each year the production of the previous year.

The height of the strawberry “fever” was reached during World War I when berries sold at the auction block for as high as 30 cents per quart.  That, in 1918 was a “lot” of money.  Farmers and buyers could see nothing in sight except more prosperity.  Local business people at Marion owned the auction block and generally restricted the buyers to local people who could financially guarantee payment to farmers.  This caused buyers from other localities to purchase through local brokers on a five or ten cents per crate commission basis.  These local brokers also owned or controlled most of the local household, fertilizer, farming equipment, and crate supple sources.  These commodities were generally sold on credit and at top prices.  Usually on credit purchases, 6 per cent interest was added to the total annual bill.  This was a real money making system for the brokers because they were assured one income from brokerage, another income from profits on sales to farmers, and still another income from the top interest rates on their credit outlay.  They were assured payment from the farmers because these same brokers bought the berries from the farmers and deducted for the credit before final payment was made to them.  Farmers usually did not maintain books or records, and felt that in some instances the end of the season bill was greater than the commodities received; however, they had no recourse. 

With the exception of the World War I period, the farmers never made much more than a normal living because the more berries they produced meant still greater income for the broker-buyers.  Finally, in the early 1920s, signs began to appear which indicated trouble.

Increased acreage, improper crop rotation, plant disease, blight, insects, and other calamities spelled doom for not only the berry but for many of the farmers who grew them.  The land had literally been “strawberried” to death; the crop became extremely difficult and expensive to produce.  The Government “give away” programs also began to appear which made it increasingly difficult to obtain labor to harvest the crop.  The industry was near collapse prior to 1929 and the depression finished the “job”.  The Marion farmers’ exploitation, like that of the Crisfield oystermen’s exploitation, evidently overbalanced nature and the “gold mine” disappeared.  

During the late Twenties and early Thirties  more and more families became bankrupt.  Many farms were sold at auction for unpaid taxes.  Many others were lost because of inability to pay interest on mortgages.  In this manner farms were lost for ridiculously low amounts such as $1500 for an approximate sixty-five acre farm with a nine room home (only seventeen years old), together with outbuildings.  Considering that even in those hard times the home alone in that particular case should have been worth at least $1200.  The farm land, in effect, cost the buyer less than $5.00 per acre, and the buyer was the only bidder.  One of the banks failed because of these conditions.  Some farmers still tried to grow berries but the decreasing yield no longer made it profitable for many of the big city buyers.  The remaining buyers were interested in buying only at low prices.  At certain times there was only one buyer who could “name his own price”.  At other times the local buyers were accused of getting together on their prices and not paying over an agreed upon price.  This apparently, was an effort to realize their former amount of profits in spite of the decreasing supply.

Many 32 quart crates of berries sold for $1.50 per crate, (less than 5 cents per quart), when the actual cost of the empty crate, plus the picking cost amounted to around $1.75, not taking in consideration the production and other expenses.  However, the old practice of credit and annual settlement still prevailed.  Many farmers, after a year’s work on strawberries, did not have enough cash income to pay their creditors and therefore mortgaged their homes and farms which were eventually lost by many of them later.  This same situation confronted their forefathers years ago when the Eastern Shore of Maryland was second only in the nation to Virginia in the production of tobacco.  

For many years most local farmers had depended almost entirely on the strawberry.  They knew no other way to make a living.  Strange faces appeared as tenants and owners of farms which had previously been owned by families for well over a century.  Many of the new farmers also failed.  The situation is more or less still prevalent in that it is extremely difficult to maintain a modern standard of living on a small farm unless the farmer has some supplementary source of income.  It is the current trend towards big business ownership for survival.  The day of the small farmer who worked long hours and hard to help improve the standard of living for millions of other Americans with little regard for himself, is gone.  In the late Thirties or early Forties, strawberry production dwindled so drastically that even the auction block was discontinued; and, for Marion, “King” Strawberry became just a memory.  The brokers were evidently satisfied with the wealth they had achieved.  After the berry was doomed, they made little or no effort to substitute other activities to provide a livelihood for those who had contributed to their success.  The brokers either retired or engaged in other private businesses.  None are left in the area.  The strawberry farmer who, in many instances. lost his life’s accumulations along with his family heritage, had nothing to fall back on, and is gone.  The Marion, dream of the good old days and make the best of what is left, hoping that some day at least a portion of the past prosperity will return.  Empty farmhouses, prevalent throughout the countryside, are grim and bleak reminders of former happy and prosperous times.  They serve as “tombstones” for the once all important strawberry which created the very prosperity which caused its downfall.  Currently, the rate of berry marketing in the entire county over a period of several years would not equal one day’s marketing at Marion Station fifty years ago. 

In many instances, chicken producers replaced the strawberry farmer.  This industry has increased by leaps and bounds until it is no longer economically feasible for most farmers to engage independently in that activity.  Could it be headed for the same destination as our former tobacco industry, our local oysters, and “King” Strawberry, and for the same cause?

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