MOUNT VERNON — Tulips weren’t always a common sight in the Skagit Valley.
In the early 1900s, Samish Island resident Mary Brown Stewart ordered Skagit County’s first tulip bulbs from Holland, planting the first one in her yard in 1906.
Mary and her husband William Stewart settled in Skagit County in 1903. It was there on the couple’s 40 acres that Mary’s tulips began attracting attention — first from her neighbors, some who never thought to grow something they couldn’t eat — and later others in the region.
According to the Skagit County Historical Museum, Mary soon had a small mail-order bulb business and is credited with starting the county’s tulip bulb industry.
That industry still has roots in Skagit County, with the 35th annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival kicking off this weekend.
It took decades for Mary’s tiny enterprise to grow to a 250-acre operation in Mount Vernon under the direction of her son, Sam Stewart, and his wife Sarah Stewart.
Sarah and Sam met at a flower show in Tacoma in 1928. Nine months later they were married, and they made Mount Vernon their home in 1931.
But times were tough.
“We had no money in ‘29, ‘30 and ‘31,” Sarah said in recorded interview held at the historical museum.
Some customers had to save up to afford a single bulb, Sarah said in the recording.
Although funds were tight, the Stewarts opened Skagit County’s first tulip farm, Tulip Grange Bulb Farm, in the early 1930s, according to the historical museum.
In the beginning, Sam’s only help was an old man with one leg, according to the historical museum. But in time, Sam was joined by his three children: Margaret, David and Daniel.
David Stewart, now 83, remembers working on the farm at age 10, picking flowers, drying bulbs and making crates, depending on the season.
When he was old enough, he said he drove the bulbs and flowers to the train station in Mount Vernon and later to the airport in Seattle, where the bulbs made their way cross-country to places such as New York City, Chicago and Minneapolis.
In 1947, the Stewarts were able to ship their flowers directly from Skagit County by plane, cutting travel time by 10 hours.
During the summers of the 1930s and 40s, the Stewarts employed about 100 local women and high school students in the flower fields for $1 a day, according to the museum.
David said the youths would collect the bulbs after his father dug them up with his horse-drawn plow.
After collection, the bulbs were dried and sorted. The family had a grading machine from Holland that would sort the dried bulbs by size, David said.
Bulbs to be sold were packed into crates that the Stewarts and a few hired men made by the hundreds during winter.
In 1972, Sam died of a heart attack at the age of 69.
The farm was later sold to the American Bulb Company, David said.
Today, the Skagit Valley is home to about 350 acres of tulips, according to the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce.
The tulips continue to draw interest. In 2016, the tulip festival drew visitors from all 50 states and from 93 foreign countries, according to the Skagit County Tulip Festival.