US: Floriculture has deep roots in the Mid-Willamette Valley

“There are those who called him a dreamer...” No, these are not the lyrics penned by a certain English rock musician, but rather part of the 1940 eulogy of W.C. Dibble. Dibble’s dream? To make the Salem area the center of commercial bulb cultivation in the country, rivaling production in Holland. It may be hard to glean from the grainy, black-and-white images of his companies’ marketing materials, but he did gain national fame in the 1920s for operating the largest bulb farm in the country, combining both production and agritourism in his business model. This dream echoes today, in living color, as many Mid-Valley fields picturesquely fill with blooms and eager photographers.

Wilson Colby Dibble, eulogized as the “father of Holland bulb growing in the Pacific Northwest,” was born in New York State in the midst of the Civil War to a family known for their breeding of Hereford cattle. Despite this lineage and relocating to a Nebraskan farm at a young age, Upon his return to Oregon, Dibble took up farming in earnest. His farm in 1917, if you can imagine, was located on North Liberty street at about the site of today’s new police facility. Dibble was a card-carrying member of the Marion County Potato Growers Association and listed as a grower and booster of loganberries.

Where the inspiration for tulip farming came from is a bit of mystery, but in about 1915, Dibble teamed up with berry farmer William C. Franklin and began experimenting with the commercial cultivation of flower bulbs with an initial investment of $20 for 500 bulbs. After six years of efforts testing to see if the crop would be viable, they had put in six acres of beds on the property about a half a mile west of Willamette River Bridge on Wallace Road and became the largest tulip farm in the country.

In 1923, the Oregon Bulb Company purchased 18 additional acres of land 4 miles north of Salem near Chemawa for additional growing fields. This expansion, however, marked the beginning of the end for the partnership between Dibble and Franklin. Details are sparse, but Franklin severs ties with the Oregon Bulb Company in fall of 1923 maintaining his own bulb farm in West Salem, and Dibble appears to have taken over the Pacific Highway site north of Salem.

Salem may not have lived up to the prediction made in a 1923 Oregon Statesman article that it would “always be the tulip center of the United states; of North America. Nature has so decreed.” But as many flock each spring to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens or post selfies at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, it seems that Mr. Dibble’s dream lives on.

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