While the fishing and boat-building industries in Gig Harbor are well known, the city also boasts a robust farming history, including a collection of holly farms, which boosted winter economies.
Gig Harbor is unique in that all major pioneering industries are represented within the city, according to Dawn Ancich-Stanton, a local artist, longtime Gig Harbor resident and former Historical Preservation and Special Projects representative for the City of Gig Harbor.
“All major economies are represented here,” Ancich-Stanton said. “Fishing, boat building, logging and farming.”
These holly farms represent part of the versatility that Gig Harbor farmers brought to the area, expanding beyond what was necessary for survival to create a market that thrived nationally and internationally at one point.
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“(The holly is) a good economic secret for the Harbor,” Ancich-Stanton said.
The Holly King
At one point, Gig Harbor was home to the second largest private commercial holly farm in North America: Hollycroft Gardens.
The farm — located just off Soundview Drive overlooking the water — was owned by Philip H. Peyran, a varnish salesman who moved to Gig Harbor in 1914.
(The holly is) a good economic secret for the Harbor.
Peyran was soon nicknamed the “Holly King”; he started his business with 685 holly trees and by 1928 had expanded to 10,000 trees on 20 acres of property.
He created his own strain of holly tree — named “Hollycroft Holly” — and sold tree starts to Gig Harbor residents for 50 cents.
At the height of his business, Peyran had 30,000 holly trees and — because of a “preservation dip” that helped preserve the holly — was able to ship his product across the United States — extending as far as Hawaii — and internationally.
Linda McCowen, a volunteer historian with the Harbor History Museum and former board member for the historical society, said Peyran starting a dedicated holly farm was likely due to a level of independent wealth that set him apart from other area farmers.
Peyran died in 1949 at the age of 84 and — without any children to continue his business — the holly farm ceased production.
Another Gig Harbor holly farm is located at the Wilkinson Farm, the grove remaining as part of the park, with trails cultivated by the city.
The trees are estimated to be planted around 1925, and the holly farm was run as a “you-pick” operation, with wreaths made by the Wilkinson family also for sale.
William and Maria Wilkinson moved to Gig Harbor around 1900 and started their farm off Rosedale shortly after their arrival. William died in 1926 after falling from the hayloft of his barn, leaving his wife and four children in charge of the farm.
The idea of starting the holly farm is attributed to Dorothy Wilkinson, the oldest daughter, who is thought to have worked for a time at Hollycroft Farms in the 1920s.
Dorothy was the family member responsible for the holly trees and started the holly business with her older brother, William Vivian. Dorothy nephew, Darrel Rodman, said in a historical document that his aunt helped run the farm from an early age.
“She was able to do anything,” Rodman said. “Raise crops and dairy cows, mend fences, automobiles and equipment and build structures — including the Holly Shed and the Greenhouse.”
The Wilkinson’s “you-pick” holly business helped sustain the farm through the winter, but never gained the national or international success of Hollycroft Farm.
The holly grove remains standing as part of the Wilkinson Farm Park.
In the 1930s, Gig Harbor was known for two things: the Holly King and Shaw’s Racing Roosters.
Other holly farms that sprung up in the Gig Harbor area by local farmers and entrepreneurs were often a way to provide a source of income through the winter.
Art Simpson, an area farmer, planted between 50 and 60 trees on his farm located of Hunt Drive, where the Gig Harbor branch of Tacoma Community College is now located.
Like the Wilkinson family, the holly on Simpson’s farm provided a winter crop to counterbalance his summer vegetables.
Other holly farms were located on Horsehead Bay and the Key Peninsula, in addition to smaller farms within Gig Harbor.
Small family farms were a main industry in early Gig Harbor and holly had formed a crop in the seasonal rotation of these farms, McCowen said.
“The holly was short lived because plastic holly came into being,” McCowen said. “People didn’t go buy holly for Christmas anymore.”
She notes that early Gig Harbor — before the first Narrows Bridge collapsed — earned its place on the local map in very specific ways.
“In the 1930s, Gig Harbor was known for two things,” McCowen said. “The Holly King and Shaw’s Racing Roosters.”