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A brief history of the cranberry—Cape Cod’s most important fruit

Artwork by Marissa Freeman 2016 Annual Guide

Artwork by Marissa Freeman

The Pilgrims were quick to embrace the versatile red berry Native Americans called sasumuneash, and American whalers and mariners used the fruit to prevent scurvy. But the newcomers thought the small, pink blossoms that appear in the spring resembled the head and bill of a sand hill crane, and so they named the plant the “crane berry,” which eventually became cranberry.

Cranberry farming has flourished on Cape Cod for 200 years, due in large part to the peninsula’s acidic peat soils, coarse sand, constant water supply, and moderately long and frost-free growing season, writes Christy Lowrance in Cranberry Harvest: A History of Cranberry Growing in Massachusetts. Most historical accounts credit Henry Hall of Dennis with the first successful cultivation of cranberries in 1816. Hall began by fencing in a field of wild cranberries to protect the fruit from animals. When the plants thrived, he transplanted them to what he called his cranberry yards. In 1820 Hall was able to produce 30 barrels of cranberries, which he shipped to New York for sale.

In 1846 former sea captain Albert Cahoon planted a bog in the Pleasant Lake area of Harwich, and within a year his cousin, Captain Cyrus Cahoon, also began planting bogs in Harwich. Together, they refined the methods of cultivation, and Cyrus developed the Early Black variety, still popular today.

In 1854, the state’s first census of cranberry land recorded 197 acres in Barnstable County, with the highest concentrations in the following towns: Dennis (50 acres), Barnstable (33), Falmouth (26), Provincetown (25), Brewster (21), and Harwich (17). A decade later Harwich had established itself as the industry leader, with 209 acres within the town’s boundaries. Today cranberry farming continues to flourish in Harwich, and the town’s historical society has a comprehensive permanent exhibit dedicated to the history of cranberry cultivation on Cape Cod at its museum at Brooks Academy.

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