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Paul Ecke Sr., known as the "Poinsettia King," inspects poinsettias in a 1930s photo. Courtesy photo/Paul Ecke III
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CSUSM releases Ecke family’s poinsettia business archives

SAN MARCOS — Encinitas is the birthplace of the mass-produced poinsettia industry, a flower typically associated with the holiday season.

And now California State University-San Marcos has opened an archival trove of records to memorialize the Ecke family business which helped bring the poinsettia to national prominence.

Those records, housed with Special Collections at the CSU-San Marcos Library as The Paul Ecke Ranch, Inc. Business Records and Family Papers, feature the historical documents of their namesake, which the university obtained in 2013. 

The Ecke family’s poinsettia business operated from 1909 to 2012, with its headquarters in Encinitas.

Today, what was the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch business ceases to exist, undone by the globalization of the industry. 

But the records and memories remain intact.

“The collection is approximately 600 cubic feet and over the past two years, me and two student assistants have processed nearly two-thirds of the paper records,” said Aditi Worcester, a processing archivist at CSU-San Marcos’ Special Collections. “We’re also simultaneously working on digitization, file format migration for legacy and analog media, (as well as) cataloging and digital asset management. Prior to my joining the library team, Dr. Jeffrey Charles, professor in the history department at CSUSM, worked on the collection along with five student assistants, primarily to create an inventory of boxes and on digitizing images.”

All student researchers received funding to work with the Ecke’s nonprofit family foundation. 

“The story of the last five years has not been the growth of the collection, but rather the progress made in organizing and cataloging it, to make it accessible to researchers,” Charles wrote in a recent press release. “A team of history grad students and I did preliminary sorting early on, but the recent work done by the University Library, again with some history students, has been tremendous. And as the collection has become accessible, it has begun to reveal the impact of the Eckes on the region, on the flower business, and on the way we celebrate Christmas.”

To a nonhistorian, visualizing 600 cubic feet may not come naturally. So, Worcester put it into perspective. 

“Picture a banker’s box. Then picture 600 of them. In addition, we have three-dimensional objects, artwork, aerial pictures of North County over the years, blueprints, digital and analog media, and prints and photographs,” Worcester said. “The CSUSM Library has put a lot of thought into space planning and climate control — since archival records need to be stored in spaces with controlled temperature and humidity — to develop a dedicated storage area for our growing special collections and it all began with the Ecke collection. It’s an impressive collection, not just in terms of extent but also in diversity of record and file formats, as well as digital preservation.”

Worcester also said the archival trove offers different perspectives from throughout the course of the Ecke poinsettia empire. 

“Researchers get to understand and appreciate the impact of local, national and global events on the operations of the ranch, and also on multiple generations of a family,” Worcester said. “Events such as the Great Depression, World War II, the Bracero program, labor relations, globalization etc. In addition, the collection situates these events in the context of North County.”

Already, Worcester said, one historian has begun working on a book-length history which will tap into the Ecke archives. That out-of-state historian will use the records to tell the broader tale of the history of the poinsettia. 

“Naturally the Ecke family’s contribution is of significant interest and several trips have been made for access to these one-of-a-kind primary source records,” she said. 

Over 1,100 document sets currently exist online and available to the public.

Charles said he believes that the new special collections symbolizes the role a public university should play as it relates to its interaction with the broader community.

“The university can and should be a repository of knowledge as well as an institution that conveys knowledge to students,” Charles said in an article. “But even beyond that, I feel the university’s job is not just vocational. Of course we want to prepare students for the job market, but we also want to enrich their lives. Understanding how a local poinsettia grower has shaped their Christmas memories might not change what gifts students can afford, but it helps them appreciate the historical sources of holiday traditions and make these traditions more meaningful.”