|“Paper White Farming In Florida
1928 - 1942
A Bit of History”
Theodore “Teddy” Stephenson, Ouida Trammell Stephenson
And John C. Van Beck (Tallahassee, Florida)
Reprinted with permission by The American Daffodil Society, from The Daffodil Journal March 1995, Volume 31, No. 3, pages 162-165.
The Paper White narcissus (N. tazetta papyraceous) was a popular flower that bloomed in southern gardens from December through February. The bulbs, originally imported from France, were also planted in bowls of pebbles and water for winter bloom and were especially popular in the North. (Chances are, if you were a child in the thirties or forties, you will remember having a bowl of bulbs hidden in a closet, and peeking periodically to see if they had sprouted.) Paper whites were greatly prized by northern florists for winter bouquets. They were the undisputed flower of choice for funeral arrangements.
Southern farmers grew small plots of narcissus before 1928, testing them as a potential money crop as the flowers were popular and east to grow in warm climates. Small plantings of paper whites stretched from Charleston, South Carolina to Daytona Beach, Florida, and west into Texas. The bulbs flourished, rapidly reproducing as they split into marketable bulbs as well as slabs that could be replanted along with the mother bulbs.
In spite of the ease of growing paper white narcissus, no market was established until 1928. In that year, a chance meeting of two men at a rural gas station in Green Cove Springs 25 miles south of Jacksonville on the St. John’s River resulted in a strong permanent friendship and the creation of the largest paper white narcissus farm in the world. Leo Allbersberg, Vice President and Sales Manager of United Bulb Company, Woodland, Washington who spoke with a heavy Dutch accent, was touring the South to check out narcissus plantings when he encountered William Vincent “W.V.” Stephenson at the filling station, which served as the social life hub for area gents.
Stephenson originally trained and worked as a bookkeeper. He decided early on that his occupation held promise of only a very modest living, so he moved into farming. At the time he and Leo met, W.V. was a successful potato farmer in Doctor’s Inlet, ready to diversify his crops. He leased seven acres in Green Cove Springs and planted three acres of paper whites and four acres of vegetables. The flowers and vegetables were sold in Jacksonville at a handsome profit – the flowers bringing almost $2,000 more than the vegetables. That convinced Stephenson to expand his narcissus acreage. (When asked of the value of the annual bulb crop, Mrs. Stephenson, W.V.’s daughter-in-law who still lives in the Jacksonville area, said she did not know, but one year the potato crop had brought in more than $50,000.)
Stephenson and Allbersberg scouted the Southland from Texas east, bought up all the small plots of prime bulbs that were available. Stephenson planted the bulbs in Green Cove Springs. Within six years the crop had expanded to 250 acres and W.V. had cornered the market.
In 1934, Stephenson had to move the crop because the Federal Government bought the Green Cove Springs land for a future naval storage basin. The bulb farm was relocated to Hastings in St. Johns County, and areas well known for successful potato farms. Stephenson bought 350 acres by purchasing delinquent tax deeds. He kept his association with Allbersberg who continued to guide him in the operation of the huge agricultural enterprise.
In addition to the popular paper white narcissus, Stephenson grew a small, ten-acre crop of yellow narcissus (“Soleil d’Or), which were also sold as flowers and bulbs. At one point, W.V., who was always trying something new, started a bulb farm in Gadsden County in the Florida panhandle west of Tallahassee. The 100+ acre farm was as successful as his eastern operations, but W.V. decided it made no sense to travel back and forth over 400 miles round trip between farms, and have the problems associated with split operations.
From the beginning, narcissus farming was highly profitable. In 1942, after 14 highly successful years in the business, Stephenson, independently wealthy, was ready to give up farming. The crop was not essential to the war effort. Gasoline for tractors and farm vehicles was not available and fertilizer was impossible to obtain. The war effort absorbed many of the farm’s workers. It was time to bow out. W.V. sold all the good bulbs and the rest were scrapped.
After the war, the flower lost its popularity as a cut flower. Paper whites are still forced for indoor winter bloom and are grown in some southern gardens, but many gardeners today are unfamiliar with the once very popular flower.
How the bulbs were cultivated.
The bulbs were planted two inches deep and two inches apart in double rows that were six inches apart in October and November. They were fertilized at the time of planting. Fields were irrigated when needed. There were water furrows ever twenty rows, which were fed from ditches at both ends of the row. The plentiful water supply came from artesian wells. In extremely dry weather, the water ran day and night.
The bulbs were cultivated several times during the growing season. The fields were plowed by tractors and all weeds that were left were removed by hand by the farm workers, who were called hands.
The bulbs grew from October until May and were not affected by cold weather. The bulbs were disease resistant, but one year, the crop was inspected by the Department of Agriculture and mealy bugs were found. All the bulbs had to be treated with gas made from muriatic acid mixed with potassium cyanide. The bulbs were crated and placed in the cooling chamber that was used to condition the flowers before shipping. The bulbs were treated for twelve hours with the gas. This was the only disease or pest problem in the farm’s history. The paper white fields were regularly patrolled for rogue bulbs such as Chinese Sacred Lily or other interlopers.
The bulbs were dug after the tops died down in late May or early June. They were placed on drying racks in covered sheds for one month before grading. The large round bulbs were separated from the slabs and mother bulbs and sold. The planting stock went back to the drying sheds until planting time in October and November. The large round bulbs were sold to wholesale jobbers. The United Bulb Company was the preferred customer as Leo Allbersberg continued to advise W.V. Stephenson on the farm’s operation assuring continuing success. The bulbs were shipped from Jacksonville on the Clyde Mallory Line and Merchant and Miners ships to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore for distribution to wholesalers who had placed orders for them.
When the first two florets appeared, the blooms were picked by black women who lived on the farm. They picked the flowers in bundles of twenty-five stems. The flowers were shipped to market by Railway Express from Jacksonville in cardboard boxes containing twenty bundles of twenty-five stems each (500 stems per box). Although freezing weather below 20 degrees did not hurt the bulbs, it did damage the flowers in bloom.
To condition the flowers for shipping, they were placed in buckets containing water and cooled in a 40-degree refrigeration unit for five hours after picking. They were cooled, packed, and shipped the same day they were picked.
Revenue from the sale of the flowers paid all the expenses of the farm from October to May. The flowers and the bulbs proved to be very profitable. The farm had six houses for the hands. About 30 people, including children, lived on the farm.
During flower picking time, the black women pickers earned $1.50 a day. The average working day was ten hours. During bulb digging season, more than 300 hands (migrant workers) who had just finished digging potatoes picked the bulbs which had been turned up by tractor pulled equipment. The families with children made as much as $25.00 a week as the parents supervised the work. The hands gathered the bulbs in croaker sacks (burlap bags) at ten cents a sack. The work was hard but the pay was good for the times. The only complaint heard from the hands was about the huge gallnippers, John Williams’ name for the ferocious mosquitoes that bit him while he was patrolling the sheds as night watchman. The problem was solved by covering him with mosquito netting for the summer.
The Stephensons were always a little proud and more than a little chagrined to know that their flowers graced the funerals of virtually every gangster held from St. Louis to Long Island and points north and south.