A Blooming Business: CSUSM Receives Ecke Family Collection
By Margaret Chantung
The Department of History at CSUSM has received a generous donation of a collection relating to the Eckes, a prominent North County family best known for their local philanthropy and for developing the poinsettia into a top-selling Christmas plant. At its peak the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas produced over 90 percent of the world’s poinsettia stock.
“We are honored to be the recipient of this important collection,” said Associate Professor of History Jeff Charles, who says the collection, once processed and archived, will tell the story of the 90-year history of the Ecke family’s poinsettia business and its impact not only on the international floral industry but on the development of Coastal North County too.
A Family Legacy of Flowers
In the early 1900s Albert Ecke emigrated with his family to Southern California from Germany. He began cultivating poinsettias at the family’s farm in 1909 and then by the 1920s his son Paul began selling cut poinsettia stems at roadside stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
In 1923 Paul Ecke Sr. relocated the business to Encinitas where it literally bloomed, contributing to Encinitas and Carlsbad’s reputation as the “Flower Capital of the World.”
Paul Ecke Jr. took the business reins in 1963 and began heavily marketing the fragile flower as a symbol of the holidays, giving poinsettias to the sets of popular television programs such as “The Johnny Carson Show” and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials.
“The Ecke Family Collection includes a whole range of marketing materials, including tapes from these TV shows that we will be digitizing,” said Charles. “From a historic perspective, the Ecke Family had a major impact on the way people think about the holidays – they really cemented the image of the poinsettia as a Christmas symbol.”
Paul Ecke III headed up the business in 1992 and will be best recognized as a pioneer in his founding of an offshore poinsettia cutting operation, Paul Ecke de Guatemala. The award-winning subsidiary, launched in 1997, represented a new era of off-shore production with 1.2 million square feet of greenhouses and packing facilities constructed to meet the demands of a growing customer base in geraniums and poinsettias.
Serving the Region
The Ecke Family is one of the best-known philanthropically-minded families in the region. Over the decades they have made contributions worth millions to organizations in and around the region.
In North County the Eckes were forward-thinking leaders. In fact, Paul Ecke Jr. sat on the first CSUSM advisory council in the 1980s, helping to advocate and create the institution that later was founded as California State University San Marcos in 1989.
CSUSM to Digitally Archive Ecke Collection
With a charitable donation of more than $60,000 by the Ecke Family Foundation, history students and faculty will soon begin the work of reviewing the contents of about 800 boxes covering a century of family records and 90 years of business documents. Thousands of photographs, multi-media, publications and correspondence represent three generations of the Ecke family’s poinsettia business and the growth of the region’s flower industry.
“When I began the cleanup, I soon realized that I could not throw these items away but I also could not keep them, so this is a win/win/win for me, CSUSM and the community...and of course the historians,” said Paul Ecke III who worked with local author Diane Y. Welch in the culling, boxing and listing of tens of thousands of documents.
“Gathering the collection is a part of the history as it represents the final chapter in the Ecke Ranch story,” said Welch, Paul Ecke III’s biographer. “Its value for researchers cannot be measured. It is a priceless collection.”
Overseeing the organizing, cataloging, digital archiving and scholarship of the Ecke Collection will be Dr. Charles, with the assistance of five Ecke Fellows, CSUSM graduate students in the history department who will be selected through a competitive process. Fellows will receive a $4,000 fellowship each. Charles is developing a class around the project for fall 2014.
“The potential for scholarship is enormous and students are going to be an important part of this project,” said Charles. “They will be working with the materials, gaining important experience in processing digital archives while also learning about the development of the floral industry, the growth of coastal North County and how business shaped the celebration of the holidays.”
As part of the project, the students will also create a website and online catalog for the Ecke Family Collection as a digital exhibit for public use.
“The Ecke Family Collection will provide us with a deeper understanding of the North County region,” said Charles, “and it will help cement Cal State San Marcos as a center for regional history.”