Washington Countys salubrious soil turns up in Midwestern states

by: FILE IMAGE - In this 1953 issue of the News-Times -- then the Washington County News-Times -- the areas daffodil harvest played big on an inside page.Local residents aren’t surprised to see daffodils popping up like weeds all over Cornelius and Forest Grove this time of year. But they might be surprised to learn that the jaunty yellow flower once seemed likely to become Washington County’s biggest industry.

The story begins in a little community south of Cornelius called Blooming, which originally was known as the “German Settlement.”

A century ago, many of its residents still spoke German as their everyday language. But the immigrants had brought more than just their language to America: They brought daffodil and other flower bulbs.

So when the settlers decided they wanted a name other than “German Settlement” for their community, Blooming was an obvious choice. Forest Grove residents eagerly bought up Blooming’s daffodil bulbs, and soon the town was awash each spring with blossoms, months before most other flowers arrived.

By the 1920s, the Industrial Revolution had given American workers more leisure time than they ever had enjoyed when farming ruled the economy. Freed from farm chores, more people took up hobbies, including — ironically — gardening. With more disposable income, exotic bulbs became available to common people.

That created a problem, however, because at the time nearly all such bulbs came from Germany, and animosity toward Germany still lingered from World War I. So the Department of Agriculture created a special unit charged with finding regions within the United States where daffodil, tulip, and other bulbs could flourish. David Griffiths, touted as the nation’s foremost authority on bulbs, was hired to lead the effort.

Griffiths quickly set his sights on the northwest corner of Washington, from Seattle to the Canadian border, as the region most likely to share the climate and soil of Holland and Germany, and the unit was headquartered in Bellingham. While there, Griffiths heard of the daffodil farms in Forest Grove, Canby and other Oregon towns, but was skeptical — until he spent some time in the rich humus soil of the Tualatin River and Gales Creek watersheds.

The Washington County News-Times of Sept. 3, 1925, breathlessly reported his findings in a Page 1 story, including an all-capital headline “SUCCESS IS POSSIBLE” and a lead paragraph that exclaimed “It is possible to supply approximately one half of the American demand for bulbs from plantings here.” Griffiths placed the value of Forest Grove’s potential bulb harvest at as much as $8 million a year, or more than $100 million in 2014 dollars. And David Griffiths wasn’t done. Little unincorporated Blooming had the potential to become a worldwide financial powerhouse.

The soil in Blooming and other local zones was the equal of that in Bellingham or even Holland, the good doctor told an assembled crowd, but the Tualatin Valley held a potential advantage over both: the area’s “salubrious climate” could be equally salubrious to local bulb growers’ bottom lines. Oregon’s hot, dry summers dried the bulbs much faster and better than any other region in the world with equal soil. His pronouncements suggested the potential for hundreds of millions a year in today’s dollars for local farmers amid the bulb mania sweeping the nation.

But alas, daffodil mania did not last long in Forest Grove because other parts of America, such as Michigan and the rest of the upper Midwest, enjoyed almost equally salubrious climates and had better transportation options to reach the major population centers of America. Forest Grove’s dream of becoming Bulb City never came to fruition but wandered, lonely as a cloud, into obscurity.

Daffodils are still popping up all over, but no one in Cornelius or Forest Grove is getting rich as a result.

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