This charming description of the history of Lilypons is an excerpt from Garden Pools, Waterlilies, and Goldfish by Dr. G.L. Thomas, Jr., D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1958. Dr. Thomas' son, Charles Thomas, founded the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society in 1984 and is Honorary Life Member of the IWGS Board of Directors.

Visit to Lilypons 

by Dr. G. L. Thomas, Jr.

Click images to enlarge

All images provided by and © 2004 Charles B. Thomas

Here at Lilypons, ten miles south of Frederick in Maryland, we look out upon a vast area spotted with shallow ponds, most of them staggered at hillside levels like Chinese rice paddies. Crews of men with steam shovels and bulldozers are forever pushing earth around among the ponds and every man works with a loaded shotgun close at hand. Now and then, throughout the day, the sound of gunfire rolls in to us from across the water.


In the center of this strange countryside is Lilypons, a community of some thirty families living on scattered farms. Lilypons is the home of our business, the Three Springs Fisheries, which has become the largest source of ornamental fish and exotic water plants in the world.

Tourists drive out to see us, stroll among the ponds, and are delighted with the contradictions they find. They peer through coarse plantings of cat-tails to view the sunken beds of Egyptian lotus, tall, elephant-eared flowers with dewy pink blooms larger than a man's hat. They look through screens of bulrushes and come upon the breathtaking sight of hardy and tropical water-lilies -- glossy whites, brilliant yellows, pinks, blues, red-golds, crimsons, deep reds.

Sometimes visitors just follow their noses, for many water-lilies have far-reaching scents, varying from the delicate fragrance of lily-of-the-valley to the rich, ripe smell of newly picked apples. The mingled scents of a galaxy of water-lilies, particularly after an early shower, offer a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

We enjoy explaining the place to visitors. The men with the earthmoving machinery are shaping dikes to form ponds. We fill the ponds with water, and in them we grow our "crops," the some 70,000,000 ornamental and bait fish, and the hundreds of thousands of water-lilies and other aquatics which we ship out to a multitude of markets every year. Everyone is impressed by our freedom from mosquitoes. With 400 of our 1,800 acres under water, the place would seem a veritable paradise for water-bred insects. The answer is: the fish eat them.

Fish hawks give us a lot of trouble, which explains the shotguns. From a high, smooth glide, a hawk spots a big, slow-moving fish, goes into a power dive to get it, and then flaps away with his meal. This may be a pretty sight for a bird-lover, but it is an expensive proposition for the Fisheries. Chances are that the fat, slow-moving fish the hawk chooses will be one of our high-priced five- or six-year-old brood fish. It piques me to see a bird get away with a two- or three-dollar meal at my expense. That's more than I usually pay for my own lunch.   

Kingfishers, sea gulls, blue cranes, white cranes, and fish ducks also take their toll of fish, and would soon deplete our ponds if not driven away by gunfire. Muskrats and crawfish present problems too. They burrow into the dikes and so drain the ponds. A bounty program, which we inaugurated years ago, keeps these pests pretty well in check.

The Hobby That Grew and Grew

The present expanse of pools, ponds, and canals which is now Lilypons is a development begun as a hobby in 1917 by my father. Father undoubtedly came by his love of water gardening from his mother, who always had a water garden of some sort. First it was a sunken tub, then some half-barrels, and then a whole series of sunken tubs, and finally a pool. I remember two water-lilies which always did especially well for her. One was white, one yellow, and both were delightfully fragrant. She never had visitors who didn't admire them. Years later, when we produced a new hardy variety, a most fragrant and beautiful pink, we named it for her -- the Mrs. C. W. Thomas water-lily -- and her pleasure was unbounded.

Father bought the Three Springs Farm, then a 360-acre spread, at the turn of the century, when he was just out of Franklin and Marshall College and teaching school. To beautify the place, he converted fifteen acres of lower ground into ponds and stocked them with brood goldfish and water-lilies. He gave away a lot of fish in the early days and then, rather reluctantly, began to sell them as the demand grew. Almost without realizing it, he became a fisheries operator on a full-time basis.

Lily Ponds, Lily Pons, and Lilypons

The business grew, particularly after the dime stores began stocking goldfish. Soon father had to look around for more convenient shipping arrangements-more convenient for him and for the U. S. Post Office Department. Postal authorities agreed to establish a branch at the Fisheries and advised him to choose a single, descriptive, easy-to-remember name. It was a postal official who suggested the name Lily Pons -- well known, and certainly descriptive. So Lilypons it was. It became official in 1932.


Miss Pons, bless her heart, was delighted. She paid her first official visit to Lilypons in 1936. Her many commitments have made frequent returns impossible, more's the pity, but she often has her Christmas cards and gifts mailed from her namesake post office, and she writes to us and also sends us albums of her latest records.

Although Miss Pons gave our address a touch of glamor, the fisheries area was already a pretty well-visited place. For one thing, our ponds, when frozen, make excellent skating rinks and draw skaters from all over Frederick county. Also, in the early days, when father processed his own goldfish food from hard-boiled egg yolks, there were gallons and gallons of raw egg whites to give away. People came for it regularly with fruit jars. Angel-food cake, the thirteen-egg kind, became something of a tradition in our part of the country. 

Results of Research

Today my sons and I operate the business along lines similar to those organized by my father. To be sure, we have installed systems of tile and piping so that we can now drain, refill, and otherwise control our vastly grown expanses under cultivation, which now number some 800 ponds. We have worked out systems, and trained employees to follow them, for keeping exact genealogical records of all our family strains of fish and plants. We experiment with new types of pools, new pool equipment, and new pool supplies. Recommendations to our customers are therefore based on practical experience.

We have a research program which has produced some interesting information. For instance, we know that eighty-five out of every hundred goldfish we breed will color up properly. Once we sold the drab, uncolored fifteen per cent for bait, and considered ourselves lucky to find such a market. Then the demand for the bait fish increased to such an extent that, through research, we developed a noncoloring strain of fish to satisfy the special market.

  Another of our research programs resulted in what we believe to be the finest conditioning method for goldfish in the country. Before we ship, we route the fish into a number of spring-fed pools of hard, cold, clear water. A few days of "hardening" in these pools gives fish robust and lasting health so that casualties during shipment have been practically eliminated. 

As we have worked out our own problems with plants and fish, we have passed on our findings to amateur fanciers. It seems that almost everyone who has ever ordered plants or fish from the 50,000 catalogs we mail out every year has written in at one time or another with some sort of problem: a woman in California wants to illuminate her pool from beneath the water; a man in Alabama needs a prolific water-lily to cover a farm pond in one season; another man wants us to recommend a substitute for cinders in this diesel age, and I expect a hundred customers have written to ask where in the world a city dweller can go to get cow manure.

This book, to a large extent, is a product of all those questions. I shall try to offer at least one good, practical solution -- and an alternative wherever possible -- for all the questions a water gardener might encounter.

I'll try to do the job impartially, free of my personal enthusiasms. I'll try. Water gardening, you see, isn't only my business. It's my hobby, too.

Three Springs Fisheries
Lilypons, Maryland

The Thomas Family Album

Charles B. Thomas, The Rock That Made The Ripples

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