Holly making factory in Milford. No date. Delaware Public Archives
The holly tree, adopted as the state tree in 1939, holds an enduring place in Delaware’s rich folklore. Renowned author C.A. Weslager, in his observations on Nanticoke folkways, recounted this poignant tradition: Nanticoke mothers would brew a tea from boiled holly ashes, serving it to their children as a remedy for whooping cough.
Holly in Nanticoke Tradition
The same holly that was crucial to the early medicinal practices of Delaware’s Native American communities also became the foundation of a seasonal 20th century income generator. The prickly tree became the raw material of a bustling wreath-making cottage industry. These handcrafted decorations nurtured a deep-seated cultural pride during the lead-up to Christmas celebrations.
Twelfth-Night festivities in our corner of America culminated in the grand bonfire of January 6th, as the old year tipped its hat to the new one. The sweet-scented smoke from the ceremonial burning of holly, evergreens and mistletoe commingled with the icy starlit winter night.
One must journey back to the 1920s, a booming decade for this seasonal business, to truly appreciate the holly wreath industry. A 1927 report to the Delaware General Assembly from the Commission for the Conservation of Forests in Delaware paints a vivid picture of the industry’s practices.
Holly trees 15-30 feet in height were the primary source of wreath-making branches. The tree grows throughout the state. However, its greatest abundance is found in the deep woods, swamps, and moist depressions of Sussex and lower Kent Counties.
The industry was incredibly productive, annually shipping an estimated 7,000 cases (1.5 million wreaths) plus an additional 600 cases of loose sprays and branches. The annual net profit of $400,000 was a substantial boost to the agricultural economy.
As early as 1905, W.B. Truitt launched a holly and pine packing/shipping business in Millsboro. The success of the firm by the onset of World War II propelled Millsboro to the forefront of the holly wreath industry. The town carved out a niche for itself as one of the nation’s primary holly wreath manufacturing and shipping hubs.
During November and December, families from the surrounding areas brought finished wreaths, plus loose greens, to a facility located alongside the railroad tracks. Gloved workers packed the greenery into wooden boxes, ready for prompt shipment by train and truck.
By Christmas, it was over for another year. The holly wreath business enabled many local families to celebrate Christmas more abundantly.
Regulation and Decline
In the mid-1950s Delaware’s Department of Labor ruled that wreath makers were laborers and had to be paid by the hour, rather than by piecework. This new regulation deterred many shippers from continuing in the occupation because they lacked the means to verify the time spent constructing a wreath.
The industry faced other challenges. First, holly collectors often cut down entire trees rather than just selectively pruning the branches. Second, the long-term sustainability of Delaware’s holly industry was threatened by competition from states further south with bigger stands of trees.
Finally, as the mid-20th century unfolded, the advent of cheap and lifelike plastic holly wreaths started to gain ground, casting a shadow over Delaware’s native holly industry. From the 1950s onwards, these low-maintenance artificial alternatives became increasingly popular among consumers. Delaware’s holly wreath industry, then, experienced its downfall due to unexpected competition, imprudent forestry management, and well-intentioned regulations that led to unintended consequences.