South Shore Cranberry Bogs Through the Ages–Part 3: The history of cranberry cultivation

Cranberries grew wild here in Southeastern Mass.–one of three native North American fruits. The other two: the cranberry’s cousin the blueberry, and the concord grape. Wampanoags used them for dye, as a wound dressing, and to preserve deer pemmican. The colonists learned these uses from them. They made cranberry sauce in the iron pots made from bog iron to serve with venison.

Then, in 1816, Henry Hall cleared some brush from a knoll on his land in North Dennis. Sand blew over some cranberry vines. He assumed they would die. Rather, they thrived. Hall experimented with transplanting vines to a peat bog and covering them with sand. They produced and other Cape Codders imitated his methods.

By the mid-19th century, the practice began off-Cape in Duxbury. Abel D. Makepeace saw money in the large swamps of Southeastern Massachusetts and he planted one in Carver.

The first pickers plucked individual berries from the vines with fingers. Next came the scoop, then the mechanical picker.

The harvest proved good, and the berries remained bitter. Many of the original local growers had served as sea captains and they transferred their ability at organizing men on yardarms to organizing cranberry picking. So, one of their first marketing ventures they targeted at the navy. If the Limeys of the British Navy would ward off scurvy with limes, the United States Navy would do the same with Vitamin C rich cranberries. They packed them in barrels of water to keep them fresh.

In 1912, the United Cranberry Company of South Hanson returned to the colonial recipe for cranberry sauce and canned 5,000 cases of it. The company marketed it as the Ocean Spray brand.

Many agricultural cooperatives organized in the early 20th century. In 1930, the United Cranberry Company, the AD Makepeace Company, the National Fruit Exchange (with its brand name Eatmor Cranberries) and the Cranberry Products Company organized a coop they called Ocean Spray Cranberries.

Brud Phillips of Kingston began picking his father’s bogs there when he was 10 in 1928. He hit a high wage of $2 a day picking for his father with a wooden scoop, but he remembers people picking with fingers before that.

“We used to have about 12 or 15 people and picked them by hand, by fingers,” Phillips said. “You’d fill a six quart bucket and get 10 cents for it.”

The Cranberry Juice Cocktail, a combination of bitter juice with water and sugar, made a new market for the berry. Post-World War II prosperity meant every Thanksgiving dinner had to have a turkey accompanied with the cranberry sauce first served in colonial times.

Phillips’ father ordered the new mechanical pickers in 1954, but died a few months before their delivery. From the time of hand pickers, growers marked lanes on the bogs with twine. Each picker moved along his or her lane on knees, all in one direction. The mechanical pickers work around each section of bog, from the ditches to the center.  They picked the berries and groomed the vines. But, they vines had not been trained to grow in the directions the pickers went. The early attempts ripped the shallow vines from the bog. It took three years for the bogs to accept the new method.

In 1959, the federal government found traces of an herbicide in the berries and the cranberry market collapsed. Ocean Spray responded by finding year-round uses for the cranberry in varied juice products, beginning with Cran-Apple. It also touted the berry’s nutritional value, the high Vitamin C content that sold it to the Navy a century before.

The cranberry is now advertised as a high anti-oxident “super fruit,” ironic given the iron history of the bogs. Wisconsin has surpassed Massachusetts has the highest producing state, with its newer, larger bogs built for mass wet picking.

About Charles Mathewson

Charles Mathewson worked in print journalism for more than two decades as a reporter and editor. He won several regional and national awards. He resides in Plymouth where he writes fiction and paints, when not producing award-winning news as a reporter for WATD.