This weekend’s day trip on Saturday was to Marion Station, MD for the “Inaugural Somerset Strawberry Festival” which featured: strawberry jams and jellies contest, Little Miss & Mr. Strawberry Pageant, non-motorized Festival parade , country music performance, crafts vendors and festival food – fries, BBQ chicken, homemade ice cream and funnel cake.
Marion Station (Marion for short) is in Somerset County, MD – about an hour drive from the F&P. In the early 1900s, Marion was labelled the Strawberry Capital and regarded as the largest shipper of strawberries in the world.
Strawberry trash can art . . .
From the 1900s through the early 1920s, buyers converged on Marion to buy berries shipped in ice-refrigerated RR cars at the rate of several hundred cars daily in peak season. Trucks and wagons lined up to go through the “largest strawberry auction block” (see vintage photo). Marion (formerly Coulbourne Creek) was named for the daughter of John Horsey who paid for the right-of-way for the RR and station. In its prime, Marion was a bustling town with a hospital (first in Somerset County),two doctors, two restaurants, three schools, canning factory, candy factory, community hall, bicycle shop, movie theater, several blacksmiths, two barber shops, post office, railroad station, and two banks. Strawberry farming poured money to buyers and farmers. Many farmers depended on this one crop for their cash income and lived through the winter on credit to be paid at the end of the next season. Land prices rose due to the demand for growing fields. Marsh areas were used; forests and pasture lands were converted to strawberry fields. Farm equipment was purchased on credit to increase production. The sales height was during WW I when berries sold at the auction block for up to 30 cents/quart. Aside from this boom, farmers never made more than a normal living; the more berries they produced was more income for brokers and buyers.
Here’s how it worked: Local Marion businesses owned the auction block and restricted the buyers to locals who could financially guarantee payment to farmers. Out-of-area buyers would buy through local brokers on a 5-10 cents per crate commission. Local brokers owned or controlled the local household, fertilizer, farming equipment, and crate supplies which were sold on credit at top prices with up to 6 per cent interest added to the total annual bill. Brokers profited – assured an income from brokerage, from profits on sales to farmers, plus income from interest rates on credit. It was easy to collect payment from the farmers – the brokers bought berries their berries and deducted for the credit before final payment.
The down-trend started in the 1920s when increased acreage, improper crop rotation, plant disease, blight, and insects doomed berry production. Growing one crop continuously over an area (monoculture) exploited the soil; berries became costly to produce. The 1929 depression ended an industry near collapse – farmers went bankrupt; farms were auctioned for unpaid taxes or lost because of unpaid interest on mortgages. As strawberry production dwindled, the auction block was discontinued. Marion’s “Strawberry Capital” title became memory. Empty farmhouses, reminders of prosperous times, are now “tombstones.”
Today, Marion Station has another distinction – its been named an official “ghost town” – the only one on the Eastern Shore by an internet site that monitors ghost towns in America.
It’s been noted that the current annual rate of berry marketing in the U.S.does not equal one day’s marketing at Marion Station over 100 years ago. How times have changed.