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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.

HHS - #80 - Cranberry Pickers resized

Courtesy of the Harwich Historical Society

Among the early cultivators in other Cape Cod towns were Braley Jenkins of Sandy Neck (Sandwich), who had 50 acres of bog by 1861 and built a house for workers at his bog because of the poor roads leading to Sandy Neck; and Josiah Freeman of Orleans, originally a salt maker, who shipped his cranberries and salt to market on a packet boat. In Falmouth, Dr. Lewis Miller laid out a bog in a former marsh behind his house on the border of West Falmouth and North Falmouth in 1860 and shipped 800 barrels of berries in 1895, writes Jennifer Stone Gaines in “Cranberry Harvesting,” an article in the summer 2007 issue of Spritsail, published by the Woods Hole Historical Collection.

The Cape Cod Central Railroad reached Orleans in 1865. Many depots on the route were surrounded by bogs, and some growers built their bog houses within earshot of the stations. It is said growers and merchants conducting business on the shipping docks often delayed the trains.

The tools of the trade on display at Harwich’s Brooks Academy Museum—weed pullers, turf axes, pruning rakes, pick axes, wood irrigation pipes and hand water pumps—reveal what back-breaking work it was to establish, cultivate, protect and harvest a cranberry bog. The exhibit also includes an informative video about cranberry cultivation and history; photographs of harvests during the 1890s; a mannequin wearing the wide quilted and slatted bonnets that protected women pickers from the sun; and bold, colorful labels early growers used to distinguish their products. Visitors will also find materials relating the role of Cape Verdean immigrants in the cranberry industry as well as a diorama created by students at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School showing the evolution of cranberry harvesting from 1847 to the 1960s.

Some of the early tools on display were donated by Beverly and Raymond “Link” Thacher who owned bogs in Harwich for some 50 years before turning the land over to their son, Raymond Jr., in 2015. One of the highlights of that tenure, says Bev, was the invention of mechanical pickers in the 1950s. “We could stand up for the first time to pick cranberries,” Bev recalls. “That really revolutionized the industry. Before that you’d be crawling on your hands and knees picking with a scoop—and before that you’d be crawling on your hands and knees picking with your fingers!”

Albert Raneo, 83, of Harwich also remembers working in the bogs before mechanical pickers. Raneo says his grandparents came to Cape Cod in 1897 from the Cape Verde Islands, fleeing drought and poverty. Many Cape Verdeans were fishermen and farmers, he says, and cranberry picking was a life they understood. Raneo started working on his grandfather’s bogs when he was just 12. “I remember pushing a wheelbarrow, sanding, and digging ditches to keep water below the berries,” he says. “And I remember my grandmother picking with a hand scoop.”

barrels HHS (800x556)

Courtesy of the Harwich Historical Society

Raneo said that in those days, children in Harwich were excused from school for two weeks in September to pick cranberries, and two weeks in the spring for strawberries.

When he was a little older, Raneo secured a job wheeling boxes of berries off the bogs. “I liked that better than being on my knees all day,” he recalls. Raneo earned 10 cents for each cranberry box, which measured about 18 x 30 x 8 inches.

Raneo left the bogs for road construction work and eventually became highway surveyor for the town of Harwich, a job he held for nearly 25 years. Today, he volunteers in the Harwich schools, teaching children about local history and the Cape Verdean experience.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were prosperous times for cranberry farming. In 1888 the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association was formed, with a goal of standardizing barrel size, establishing uniform pricing, and improving marketing. In 1910 the Cranberry Experiment Station research facility was established in Wareham, under the leadership of Dr. Henry J. Franklin. In 1920 Oscar Tervo invented the first mechanical ride-on dry harvester, and a telephone frost warning system was developed. In 1930 Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. was formed as a grower-owned marketing cooperative; Lowrance writes that Ocean Spray, which is headquartered in Middleboro today, was created by the merger of the AD Makepeace Company in Wareham; New Jersey grower Elizabeth Lee’s Cranberry Products Company; and Marcus L. Urann’s Cranberry Canners, Inc. of Hanson, Mass.

Cranberries require very specific growing conditions: acid peat soil; an adequate fresh water supply; sand; and a growing season that stretches from April to November, including a dormancy period in winter that provides an extended chilling period, necessary to mature fruiting buds.

Pictures of flooded bogs have created the popular misconception that cranberries grow in water. In fact, the fruit grows on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds, commonly known as “bogs,” were originally made by glacial deposits. Normally, growers do not have to replant since an undamaged cranberry vine will survive indefinitely. Some vines in Massachusetts are more than 150 years old.

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Photography by Jennifer Dow

Over the years the cranberry business—across the Cape and the nation—has weathered economic downturns and wars with relative ease. The industry’s biggest setback occurred just before Thanksgiving in 1959, when it was reported that some cranberries from Washington and Oregon had been contaminated with the herbicide aminotriazole, known to cause cancer in animals. Despite the fact that the tainted berries were not grown in New England, the public reacted by steering clear of  cranberries and cranberry products all over the country. “Cranberry growers felt a slight decline in their business for several months after the aminotriazole ban,” John F. Henahan writes in the March 1977 issue of Atlantic Monthly, “but by the following Thanksgiving, Americans had gotten over their cranberry phobia.” Lowrance adds that the “cranberry scare of 1959” ultimately made the industry stronger as it highlighted the need for the growers association to be political and proactive.

In the early days, all cranberries were “dry picked,” that is, they were pulled dry from the vines by hand, scoop, or—after the mid-1900s—by a combustible-engine picking machine. Even today, the whole berries sold as fresh fruit are dry-picked. Berries harvested by “wet picking” are used in juice, jelly and sauce. For wet picking, the bog is first flooded to several inches above the vine. A machine spins and beats the berries off the vines. As more water is added, the berries float to the surface, where they are corralled, pulled onto a conveyor, and loaded onto a trailer. Growers receive lower prices for these berries than for dry, but the harvest process is less labor intensive and less expensive, says Andrea Cakounes, who owns a cranberry bog farm in North Harwich with her husband, Leo, and daughter, Evangeline.

In spring, summer and fall, the Cakouneses give informative tours of their farm, explaining the life cycle of cranberries and the month-by-month calendar of the hearty farmers who cultivate them. How hard is it to grow cranberries for a living? Bev Thacher says her husband, Link, calls it “a 13-month-a-year job.”



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