New exhibit spotlights Ecke family history

The Ecke family made the poinsettia into a top-selling Christmas plant and along the way put Encinitas on the map, a story that’s chronicled in a new San Dieguito Heritage Museum exhibit.

It includes rare photos, family stories and a timeline charting the evolution of the family’s business and revolutionary breeding methods. The exhibit documents up to 2012, when the Ecke Ranch company and the last of their property on Saxony Road sold in separate deals.

Cal State San Marcos history professor Jeff Charles played a major role in the exhibit, which is an extension of his project to digitize Ecke family paperwork for a website.

“Before working with the papers, I knew that the Ecke Ranch was the major source of poinsettias in the United States, but what I hadn’t realized is how extensively Ecke Ranch poinsettias were marketed worldwide,” Charles said in an email. “In fact, I don’t think it is too much to say that the Ecke business almost singlehandedly cemented the association between the poinsettia and Christmas in global culture.”

Paul Ecke III was also involved in preparing the exhibit. He worked with local historian Diane Welch to distill his family’s history into distinct themes, with one being that three generations of the family ran the business.

The Ecke family and business have been invariably linked to Encinitas since 1923, when Paul Ecke Sr. moved to the area and built a business that at its height produced more than 90 percent of the world’s poinsettia stock. Their operation also attracted smaller growers, leading many to call Encinitas “the flower capital of the world.”

When asked about the family’s legacy, Ecke said that the family had a big impact on Encinitas, since the business was one of the city’s largest employers for about 80 years. It was also philanthropic, with a land donation to Magdalena Ecke YMCA being an example.

“And of course, all the beautiful poinsettia varieties that were developed here will continue to beautify the world for decades to come,” Ecke said.

Ecke in 2012 sold the Ecke Ranch business to a Dutch agriculture company, citing global competition and industry consolidation. Around the same time, the nonprofit Leichtag Foundation bought the last of the former Ecke Ranch, where barns had boxes of Ecke family paperwork.

“I had a huge challenge of what to do with 100 years of Ecke Family history,” Ecke said. “I found things like cancelled checks from the depression stored upstairs in one of our barns. I could not throw it away, and I did (not) have room to store it anymore.”

So, Ecke in 2013 donated the documents, along with funds to digitize them, to Charles and his team. They in turn contributed to the exhibit. Charles credited Evelyn Weidner, a columnist for the Encinitas Advocate, with getting the ball rolling on the exhibit by connecting relevant people.

Charles stated that of the Ecke family history periods, he particularly enjoys the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the business quickly changed. Production moved to greenhouses, cuttings shipped via airfreight and the family popularized poinsettias by donating them to the Tonight Show and national magazines.

“Hard not to think that on these TV shows the best performers on the stage were the Ecke poinsettias in the backdrop,” Charles wrote.

He stated the website chronicling the family’s history will soon launch.

“Students and researchers around the world will then be able to get a sense of how the Eckes developed their business and contributed to the international flower industry,” he said.

Mary Fran Riggs, a volunteer at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum, showed off the exhibit last week. She said the photos bring it to life, pointing to a picture of Ecke Sr. and wife, Magdalena, sitting on their porch in Encinitas in 1925.

“I just love this picture,” Riggs said.

The exhibit can be viewed during museum hours, noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

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