On March 17, 1934, Puyallup Valley bulb farmers sponsor their first Daffodil Parade to promote their crop. The parade is a modest procession of automobiles and bicycles festooned with daffodils. The valley’s rich, alluvial soil had attracted settlers since the middle 1800s and supported bountiful agricultural industries, first for hops, then for berries. But hop lice destroyed the hop industry in 1891 and market economics squeezed the berry farmers. Daffodils were introduced around 1910.
Puyallup in Bloom
Daffodils thrived in the damp valley climate. By 1920, the Puyallup Valley Bulb Exchange was formed to market the bulbs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the climate was ideal, and so it was. “By 1927, the Valley was producing 23 million bulbs and by 1929 60 million” (Price-Anderson, p. 92). On April 6, 1926, bulb grower (and longtime Port of Tacoma Commissioner) Charles W. Orton and his wife invited civic leaders from around Western Washington to a garden party at their Sumner home to show off the variety of daffodils blooming around their estate.
That party is considered the genesis of the Daffodil Festival and by 1932 “Bulb Sunday” had become an institution. “The viewing of daffodils in bloom became fashionable, and, unfortunately created a massive traffic problem for Puyallup, Sumner and Orting, as up to 8,000 vehicles crowded the roads bordering the golden fields” (Daffodil Festival website).
The daffodil blossoms were discarded until the 1934 parade, when they decorated the vehicles and bicycles that wound through Puyallup and neighboring towns. The parade grew into the Spring Fair and Daffodil Festival, which has become one of Pierce County’s major events, a fixture every year except during World War II, 1943-1945.
The festival is held after the daffodil season is over, rather than in mid-season, as was the early tradition. The Daffodil Festival organization has juggled the date to work closer to Easter, and recently “to coincide with the Puyallup Spring Fair” (Kawada). “The heyday of a national advertising campaign for the Valley’s daffodil trade came in April 1957 when the Marshall Field Department Store in Chicago filled its nine floors with the flowers” (Price-Anderson, P. 155).
The Puyallup Valley flower industry, however, like all valley agricultural industries, has fallen victim to increasing suburbanization, as housing tracts, malls, and industry encroach inexorably on farms and fields. In 2007 there were fewer than 300 acres in daffodils, about 250 acres at the Roger Knutson farm, and only six acres at the historic Van Lierop farm, which once comprised 200 acres. “Everything cost more, yet we get the same prices as we did 20-30 years ago,” lamented Neil Van Lierop. “It’s not working out so good.” Van Lierop’s father, Simon, a fourth-generation bulb farmer from the Netherlands, had come to the Puyallup Valley in 1929.
Puyallup's Daffodil Festival
The Daffodil Festival is now institutionalized, a year-round production managed by a mostly volunteer, nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization. There is only one full-time employee. It oversees several events through the year, including several other parades.
The process of choosing parade princesses from 22 participating Pierce County high schools is a mini-industry itself. “The festival is not just about daffodils. There are the scholarships, $40,000 worth, that we give out to the court,” said Susan McGuire, the Festival’s vice-president for public relations. She has been active in the organization since 1999. And, as a member of the Pacific Northwest Hosting Association, the Daffodil Festival participates in other similar events around the Pacific Northwest, “spreading the word about the beautiful things in Pierce County,” McGuire said.
The Daffodil Parade actually consists of four parades in one, appearing in Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner, and Orting in one day. “I don’t think there’s another parade out there that does that,” McGuire said. Nearly 118,000 spectators viewed the 2007 parade, she said.